US Army Veteran Bilked VA for Nearly $1 Million
A US Army veteran in North Carolina who defrauded the VA for nearly $1 million is going behind bars.
On Monday, July 18, in Asheville, US District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. sentenced John Paul Cook, 59, to five months in prison and another five months of home confinement.
The Marshall man’s sentencing came a year and a day after he pleaded guilty to bilking the US Department of Veterans Affairs with false disability claims.
Coffee or Die Magazine’s attempts to reach Cook were unsuccessful. Neither he nor his attorney responded to messages seeking comment.
Cook’s time in the Army was brief. On May 5, 1986 — six months after he arrived at boot camp — he fell from a ladder.
Although records showed that he had a lifelong history of amblyopia — sometimes called “lazy eye” — he complained that his fall exacerbated his condition. An Army exam appeared to agree with him. He was declared “unfit for retention” and discharged in 1987 at 60% disability.
Cook began collecting VA disability benefits — $1,411 per month — including unemployment compensation for being unable to work due to a “several visual deficit.” In early 1988, he told VA that he was unable to drive, shop, or read.
A 2005 eye exam at the VA yielded a diagnosis that he only perceived light in his right eye, and his left had deteriorated to 5/200 vision. A person with 5/200 vision can see from a chart 5 feet away what a person with normal vision can perceive from 200 feet.
VA rates veterans with 5/200 vision as blind. Cook was awarded special benefits, including larger pension payments and a program that would remodel his home.
By 2016, Cook was receiving $3,990 in monthly payments. By the time VA terminated his benefits in late 2017, investigators estimated he had pocketed $978,138.
The problem was that Cook not only passed his driver’s vision test in North Carolina three weeks after he left the Army, but he also continued to renew his license in either North Carolina or South Carolina the entire time he claimed he was blind.
In early 2016, an Asheville doctor examined Cook’s eyes and determined Cook’s glasses gave his left eye 20/25 vision and his right 20/70. He passed his driver’s exam the next day.
For the past six years, he’d also been a Boy Scouts of America leader, completing courses that made him a range safety officer for BB guns and archery.
But that’s not what he was telling the VA.
Cook continued to fail his exams at VA clinics. He also submitted five payment requests for adaptive features on his family automobiles he claimed he couldn’t drive, including air conditioning.
In early 2017, the VA informed him that he was under investigation for fraud. Office of Inspector General investigators pointed to surveillance that showed he drove himself to VA appointments, something a blind veteran should not have been able to do.
Cook continues to receive VA disability payments for a back injury, a condition that’s not considered fraudulent. But the VA has been garnishing those benefits for the past five years to reimburse taxpayers for the bogus blindness claims.
In a sentencing memorandum, Cook’s public defense attorney, Emily M. Jones, revealed that the ex-soldier is a church pastor and the married father of two teenage sons.
Although federal sentencing guidelines called for Cook to spend 24 to 30 months behind bars, she urged the judge to penalize him with only five years of probation, including eight months spent on home detention.
“He knows right from wrong, and tries to practice what he preaches,” Jones wrote. “He understands that he made tremendous errors in his conduct in this case, and wants to demonstrate that he is someone who values doing the right thing.”
The judge went with a tougher sentence.