Fraud Busters on Rise Against Fake War Veterans

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Web, federal law help to expose military charlatans Web, federal law help to expose military charlatans 
by Russel Working

Left, Jesse MacBeth, previously an anti-war poster boy was found to have lied about his time in the Military.

When Douglas E. Robinson showed up in Yorkville saying he was a homeless Vietnam veteran who had lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, the American Legion post took pity on a former comrade in arms, giving him nearly $400 and paying for a few nights' lodging.

But Robinson and his wife's aggressive demands for money and slip-ups in his story led Kendall County sheriff's deputies to investigate. It turned out he had never served in the military, officials allege.

Robinson was lodged in Kendall County Jail last week on charges of stealing government-supported property and fraud in seeking veterans' benefits. The allegations, if true, are part of a rising flood of cases nationwide in which officials and private sleuths — aided by the Internet and a new federal law — are exposing hustlers and charlatans who claim benefits or honors that aren't theirs…

     Fraud busters, many of them infuriated veterans, could get a boost in their efforts under a bill introduced Wednesday in Congress that would create a publicly searchable database of the nation's top medals, making it easier for police, reporters and officials to verify claims.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), follows up on December's Stolen Valor Act, which expanded federal authority to prosecute those who falsely claim or display military honors.

The crimes are not victimless, say the determined sleuths who spend hours scanning the Internet and filing Freedom of Information Act requests to expose glory hogs. Phonies warp the historical record, scam taxpayers of millions of dollars and in some cases even put troops in the field at risk.

Non-profit investigators

The P.O.W. Network in Skidmore, Mo., which investigates claims to military honors or prisoner status, has seen fraud complaints grow from 22 when it first went online in 1998 to more than 9,000 so far in 2007. Chuck and Mary Schantag, who created the non-profit group, file as many as 24 requests a week for military records.

"The problem is so broad," said Mary Schantag. "They claim everything under the sun. They are from every walk of life. We have seen pastors and ministers and police officers and attorneys — all of them making the claims. There's nothing sacred anymore."

The cases have continued to mushroom even in recent weeks. In Atlantic City, Mayor Bob Levy stopped showing up at work last week amid a reported federal probe into his false claims about his Vietnam military service.

In Massachusetts, the leader of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe on Cape Cod, which is seeking to build a billion-dollar casino, stepped aside recently and apologized for lying about his military record. He falsely claimed to have received a Silver Star and five Purple Hearts.

In Seattle, U.S. officials recently announced they were pressing cases against eight men who allegedly faked their military service in conflicts stretching back to World War II. Another four cases are pending. All told, the fraud allegedly cost the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs more than $1.4 million.

In one of those cases, a Tacoma man named Jesse Macbeth was embraced by peace activists eager to discredit the Iraq war after he claimed to have joined other Army Rangers in slaughtering hundreds of unarmed civilians in Iraq. In fact, his service was limited to a few weeks in Army boot camp before he was kicked out, the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle reported.

"That guy made a 40-minute DVD that the anti-war movement was using," said B.G. Burkett, a Texas Vietnam veteran and co-author of "Stolen Valor," a 1998 book that exposed frauds even in the leadership of national veterans groups.

"And he's very graphic about how he killed people, how he tortured them, how he shot the baby, dragged the mother out and blew her brains out — on and on and on. It's been translated into Arabic and it's now being used as a recruiting tool for suicide bombers."

When he was sentenced to 5 months in federal prison Sept. 21, Macbeth apologized to troops whose reputations he trashed and to the peace groups who embraced his tales.

But even as the Internet allows lies to spread, it also has revolutionized the ability of fact-checkers to expose phonies. Doug Sterner, a Pueblo, Colo., veteran who checks out false claims, has set up a database of 140,000 recipients of the top three levels of military awards.

He has created "Google alerts" that e-mail him whenever a newspaper or Web site mentions the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross or Silver Star, among other topics. And often veterans and others e-mail him stories they find fishy. If he finds fraud, he calls the FBI; it was he who exposed the Massachusetts tribal leader.

Newspaper retracts story

Recently, Sterner helped uncover a case in which the Odon Journal, an Indiana weekly southeast of Terre Haute, reported that a local man had won two Silver Stars in combat in Iraq, only to retract the story this week under the headline "Shame." "Ten years ago, that story would only have been seen in that little local weekly newspaper," Sterner said.

An Oak Park man named John Dietz was asked to lead the 4th of July parade this year based on a Wednesday Journal newspaper account of repeatedly being wounded in combat. (He also claimed to have played linebacker at the University of Michigan). The paper later had to back down, admitting it had not checked out his claims.

Watchdogs say they have no interest in prosecuting loudmouths who blab about combat heroics over a beer at the corner tavern. But poseurs have used their fake Silver Stars and Purple Hearts to win the trust of loan officers, earn leniency in criminal sentencing and defer child-care payments, said Mary Schantag of the P.O.W. Network. People forgive a lot to vets who claim they are suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Chester Arthur Stiles, the subject of a nationwide police manhunt after he allegedly videotaped himself raping a 3-year old girl, falsely claimed to be a former Navy SEAL, the Navy Times reported Thursday. In fact, he had spent less than a year in the Navy and wasn't in the elite unit.

In Veterans Affairs, 30 benefit seekers were arrested on charges of fraudulent claims in fiscal 2007, and there are 60 open investigations of fraud, said Jim O'Neill, an assistant inspector general for the department.

Matters of trust

The Yorkville case angered Gary Bullock, commander of American Legion Post 489. In late August, Robinson and his wife allegedly talked Bullock and the post into giving him their own money, along with cash raised to send care packages to troops abroad and to aid needy veterans.

"If a veteran comes to our post and he's homeless and he tells me he doesn't have his discharge papers … that it got lost or got burnt up in Kansas City or St. Louis or whatever, I'd like to think this guy's telling me the truth," Bullock said.

Burkett, the author, said he always is suspicious when he hears someone boasting of battlefield glory. The real heroes, he said, tend to feel guilty about their medals.

"Your buddies are dead and you're second-guessing yourself: 'I should've fired sooner, I should've thrown the grenade farther,'" Burkett said. "'Why the hell am I getting something?'

"And typically his buddies say, 'Hey, you're doing it for all of us.' He takes the medal, but he takes it in custody. It's not his. It's collective. And he never talks about it."


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