The Charlotte Observer
A 57-year-old man pleaded guilty Monday to defrauding the Department of Veterans Affairs out of close to $1 million over three decades while claiming to be legally blind.
In reality, prosecutors said, John Paul Cook had his driver’s license and often drove around his hometown of Alexander in Western North Carolina. He was also a certified range officer for BB guns and archery in the Boy Scouts of America and taught land navigation, which required reading maps and using a compass.
Cook faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina said.
As part of the plea agreement, he also agreed to forfeit $978,138.60.
Cook could not be reached for comment, and a defense attorney appointed to represent him did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment on Wednesday.
A grand jury indicted Cook in December on seven counts of stealing from the VA, making false statements for obtaining disability benefits and making false statements for VA travel benefits. He was arrested and released on a $25,000 bond, court filings show.
According to court documents, Cook fell off a ladder in 1986 while on active duty in the U.S. Army. He had joined the military six months earlier with a “lifelong history” of amblyopia in his right eye, also known as a “lazy eye” — a condition he claimed worsened after the accident. Cook was subsequently discharged with disability benefits in August 1987.
For the next 30 years, Cook told the VA his vision continued to deteriorate.
In requests for increased benefits, prosecutors said Cook claimed he couldn’t find work and was unable to “drive, shop or read.” By 2005, he reportedly told the VA he was all but blind — prompting officials to classify his injury as “100% disabling.”
His monthly payments from the VA climbed from $1,411 in 1987 to $3,990 in 2017 — netting him a total of $978,138 in disability benefits, prosecutors said.
During that same time frame, Cook reportedly passed vision screening tests to renew his driver’s license in North Carolina, drove his children to school, took himself to appointments, ran errands, and went on road trips out of town.
He became active in Boy Scouts teaching BB gun shooting, archery and land navigation, court documents state.
The VA caught on in early 2017 after investigators saw Cook driving around town — including to and from his appointments at the VA clinic in nearby Asheville, McClatchy News previously reported.
His disability payments stopped in October 2017.