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Army veteran said he was blind to get $1M — but passed vision tests to drive, feds say
Charlotte Observer - 7/19/2022
A U.S. Army veteran is going to prison after collecting nearly $1 million in disability payments for 30 years by claiming to be blind — all while passing DMV vision tests to renew his driver’s license in the Carolinas, federal prosecutors said.
In 1987, after his discharge from the Army, John Paul Cook told the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs he “could no longer drive” due to vision loss after he fell from a ladder while on active duty, court documents show. As a result, the VA awarded disability payments until 2017.
However, Cook went on to buy 30 cars, which he “routinely drove,” and became a qualified BB gun and archery range officer as a leader within the Boy Scouts of America after being declared legally blind, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina said in a news release.
Cook, who is 58 and lives in Marshall, North Carolina, with his family, was sentenced to 10 months in prison on July 18 and must repay $930,762 he received by defrauding the VA, according to prosecutors. Five months of his prison term will be served in home confinement.
McClatchy News contacted Cook’s attorney for comment on July 19 and was awaiting a response.
In court documents, his attorney wrote that Cook’s “offense ended in 2017, and he has been trying to make up for it ever since” and that he is “ashamed of his actions.”
Cook was described by his attorney as a married father with two teenage sons and as a pastor who is “deeply involved in his church.”
The veteran’s disability claims
Six months after Cook joined the Army in November 1985, he fell from a ladder and complained of hitting his head, causing his already existing vision issues, including amblyopia or a “lazy eye,” to worsen, according to an indictment.
As a result, Cook was discharged from the Army following an eye evaluation, and the VA gave him a 60% disability rating in 1987, court documents state. This allowed him to receive monthly payments of $1,411.
Cook told the VA he was unable to work, drive, shop or read because of his eye injury, prosecutors said. In the years that followed, his disability ratings rose due to his purported blindness, and so did his monthly VA payments.
“In actuality, however, (Cook) was able to see at a far better level than he was claiming to the VA, and he was therefore able to maintain and renew his driver’s license throughout the entire time he was receiving these blindness-related disability payments,” court documents state.
Cook often took the many cars he purchased on long-distance road trips and used them to run errands, the news release said.
The vision capabilities he displayed during DMV-mandated eye examinations, which allowed him to renew his driver’s license a number of times in North and South Carolina, would have prevented him from receiving disability checks from the VA, prosecutors said.
In 2005, Cook was declared legally blind, and the VA increased his disability rating to 100% — allowing him to receive the maximum amount of disability payments as well as extra benefits, the news release said.
By 2016, Cook was receiving monthly payments of $3,990, according to the attorney’s office.
Meanwhile, from 2010 to 2016, Cook was a den leader and cubmaster for the Boy Scouts of America and completed courses that qualified him as a BB gun and archery instructor, the release said.
“He was also certified for land navigation, which involves reading maps and using a compass,” after previously claiming to the VA his eye injury prevented him from reading, prosecutors said.
During his time as a Boy Scouts leader, he would drive others to scouting events, including on camping excursions and an overnight drive to Charleston, South Carolina, according to the indictment.
In 2017, the VA had Cook undergo an eye examination with a doctor in Asheville, and based on his responses, she concluded he was legally blind but noted his observed behavior did not correlate with this conclusion, court documents show.
The doctor said Cook’s “ability to independently move about the office, navigate around coffee tables in the waiting room unaided, and watch for his ride approaching from the windows does not correlate to the degree of vision loss that is suggests from the visual acuity measurements and visual field testing, which are highly subjective,” the indictment states.
Ultimately, a federal investigation was launched, and Cook “pleaded guilty to theft of public money” on July 19, 2021, the news release said.
Following his 10 month prison sentence, Cook must serve three years of supervised release, according to prosecutors.
Marshall is roughly 20 miles northwest of Asheville.
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