ASHEVILLE - An Army veteran who claimed to be blind and was collecting nearly $4,000 a month in federal disability payments — all while driving multiple cars and serving as an archery instructor in the Boy Scouts — was sentenced July 18 to 10 months in prison and ordered to pay $930,762 in restitution.
U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn Jr. sentenced Marshall resident John Paul Cook, 58, to 10 months of prison time, although five of those months will be spent in home confinement, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office. Cook will also serve three years of supervised release.
Reached via phone on July 18 and asked about his case, Cook said, "No comment."
Cook's crime carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to a news release about his guilty plea issued in 2021.
The Citizen Times could not reach for comment Cook's attorney, Emily Jones, or Joshua Christ, executive director of the Daniel Boone Boy Scouts of America, in Asheville.
The indictment in the case, as well as court records and the press release, show Cook collected Veterans Affairs disability payments over three decades, garnering multiple increases over the years as his allegedly poor vision continued to worsen. Initially, his monthly disability payments totaled $1,411, but by 2016, with increases for the severity of his "disability," he was pulling in $3,990 a month.
From 1987-2017, Cook took in $978,138 in VA disability payments and perks such as money for a home remodel. His alleged "blindness" was confirmed over the years by four different optometrists either working for or contracting with the VA.
Vision tests are subjective, and doctors apparently relied on Cook's description of his vision and what he told them he could see in making their determinations, the Citizen Times previously reported.
In July 2021, Joe Williams, a public affairs specialist with the VA's Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, told the Citizen Times, "Under federal law, veterans will not be subjected to reexamination of their service-connected disabilities once VA determines that the disabilities become static, without material improvement over five years. Mr. Cook presented a disability picture to VA, beginning in 1989 that established the static nature of his alleged disability."
Cook, who wore glasses and had a lazy eye when he joined the Army in 1985, claimed in 1986 he fell from a ladder and hit his head, causing his vision to drastically worsen, according to the indictment. In 1987, an Army ophthalmology evaluation concluded Cook had 20/200 vision in the right eye and 20/100 in the left eye and was “unfit for retention."
The Army discharged Cook in 1987, and following a medical evaluation, he began receiving VA disability-based compensation at a rate of 60%, according to the press release.
"Over the next 30 years, Cook’s disability-based compensation increased, following Cook’s repeated false claims of increased visual impairment and unemployability due to 'severe visual deficit,'" the release states.
The VA declared Cook legally blind in 2005, and he began receiving disability-based compensation at the maximum rate, the release states.
Despite his claims of vision impairment, investigators found Cook "repeatedly passed DMV vision screening tests to renew or obtain a driver’s license in North and South Carolina," the news release notes.
"Furthermore, during the relevant time period, court documents show that Cook purchased and registered over 30 different motor vehicles which Cook routinely drove, including on long-distance trips and to perform errands," the news release states.
Court records showed Cook, from 2010-2016, served as a den leader and cubmaster with the Boy Scouts of America, qualifying as a range officer for BB guns and for archery. "He was also certified for land navigation, which involves reading maps and using a compass," according to the press release.
Ultimately, alerted by an anonymous tipster in 2017, Veterans Affairs investigators caught on to Cook's scheme.
Cook pleaded guilty in July 2021 to theft of public money. He will be ordered to report to the federal Bureau of Prisons upon designation of a federal facility, the press release states.
U.S. Attorney Dena King thanked the VA-Office of Inspector General for their investigation of the case and noted the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville prosecuted the case.
Email reporter John Boyle at JBoyle@CitizenTimes.com.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Asheville-area veteran faking blindness sentenced, must repay benefits