Six veterans plead guilty to Agent Orange benefits fraud

Six military veterans from Maryland pleaded guilty to fraud charges this week in a scheme to obtain federal military benefits and state tax breaks with faked documentation claiming they were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, according to the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office.

The veterans allegedly paid thousands of dollars in cash to David Clark, the former deputy chief of veterans claims in the state Department of Veterans Affairs Office, in exchange for $1.4 million in fraudulent benefits and tax breaks, prosecutors said.

The veterans, some of whom never even served in Vietnam, are from multiple branches of the military, the indictment says.

Clark and two others have also been indicted in the scheme, which allegedly dates back to 1995.

Agent Orange, the indictment says, "refers to a blend of tactical herbicides the U.S. military sprayed in the jungles of Vietnam to remove trees and dense tropical foliage that provided enemy cover" during the 1960s and 1970s.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has for years been paying Vietnam veterans compensation and other benefits for a slew of medical problems associated with the exposure to the chemical, from Hodgkin's disease and other forms of cancer to Parkinson's disease and diabetes, according to the department.

Clark, 68, of Hydes, was in charge of submitting claims to the federal veterans department on behalf of Maryland veterans, and allegedly forged or fraudulently completed doctors' notes and federal forms alleging he and eight other veterans had developed illnesses — including Type II diabetes and neuropathy — and were forced to take medications because of Agent Orange exposure, the indictment says.

Clark allegedly fabricated documents showing he and others had been awarded service honors, the indictment says, including Purple Heart Medals and Vietnam Service Medals.

The indictment alleges the fraudulent documentation made those it was submitted for eligible for retroactive lump-sum payments and increased benefits from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Through the scheme, Clark also allegedly obtained Maryland property tax waivers for those involved through a "service connected disability" qualification.

The fraud resulted in benefits losses of more than $1.15 million and property tax losses of more than $250,000, the indictment says.

"Like all government agencies that award benefits based upon a sworn certification that the claimant deserves them, the Veterans Administration is vulnerable to abuse by dishonest people," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement. "The defendants cheated the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars by falsely representing that they were suffering from medical disabilities as a result of their military service."

Those who pleaded guilty this week are Kenneth Williams, 64, of Baltimore (Marine Corps); Raymond Sadler, 61, of Middle River (Marine Corps); Sandra Tyree, 64, of Rosedale (Air Force); Kenneth Webster, 67, of Pasadena (Marine Corps); Paul Heard, 64, of Baltimore (Navy); and John Bratcher, 54, of Conowingo (Air Force).

All face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and must pay back what they earned through the scheme, prosecutors said.

The two others named in the indictment are Richard Genco, of Baltimore, who served in the U.S. Navy, and George Kulla, of Baltimore, who served in the Army. There are also 10 other veterans identified only by their initials who allegedly played some role in or benefited from the scheme, according to the indictment.

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