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Heartbreaking war tales sometimes mask VA fraud

TAMPA — The Marine showed up for his 2013 medical exam in a wheelchair pushed by his wife.

He whimpered when a St. Petersburg doctor for the Department of Veterans Affairs tried to flex his knees.

"On a good day," reported Joshua Stephen Bork, then 24, "I can push myself up to a sitting position and get out of bed and shuffle through the house."

Such heartbreaking tales aren't unique after America's nearly 14 years at war. Nor are they always true.

A federal agent had already witnessed Bork's good days. Away from doctors, he didn't use a wheelchair.

He taught martial arts.

Yet the government says he collected veterans disability benefits totaling $89,278.

• • •

Every war creates opportunities for military benefits fraud.

In 2007, when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a U.S. attorney, his office went after Atlantic City Mayor Bob Levy for faking a parachute injury and exaggerating his Army record from Vietnam to collect $24,683.

Levy got probation.

Navy veteran Ronnie Glenn Eddings, 43, of Fayetteville, N.C., is serving five years. He collected $893,739 feigning lower-limb paralysis from Saudi Arabia.

Army veteran Latonya Baldwin of Pensacola, who served in the Persian Gulf War, drew "unemployability" and other benefits totaling $205,402 long after she took a job as a schoolteacher. She's doing 15 months.

And, closer to home, Danny Crane of Riverview found his inspiration in Afghanistan and Iraq — not that he ever served in those countries.

Crane, 33, obtained VA-paid medical care after falsely claiming he had been shot six times, had 24 plates in his face and had lost vision in his right eye, court records state. Crane altered discharge papers to wrongly credit himself with a Distinguished Flying Cross and two Purple Hearts.

In real life, he was discharged for failure to adapt, and he never made it to the Middle East.

He did get to Hawaii, courtesy of the group Vacations for Veterans, which took pity on his false claim of prostate cancer, records show. He was released in September from a yearlong federal sentence but arrested this month on a new drug charge.

• • •

It's no crime to pose as a war hero, though it once was, before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 2005 Stolen Valor Act. The new Stolen Valor Act, passed in 2013, makes it illegal to pose as a war hero to obtain money, property or other tangible benefits.

Last year, the VA's Office of Inspector General opened 199 stolen valor cases and arrested 144 people. "There are some individuals who lie about military service to enhance the esteem in which they are held by neighbors, associates or even women they meet in a bar," said James O'Neill, assistant inspector general for investigations in Washington, D.C. "But typically, that's not what motivates our defendants, who are driven primarily by greed."

The malingering is most conspicuous in times of conflict, against a backdrop of authentic casualties.

Since 2000, more than 51,000 American service members have been wounded in action and more than 6,700 have died, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Ryan Timoney of Jacksonville lost part of a leg and suffered head trauma from a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.

He isn't naive. While Timoney was recovering at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, a veteran who worked there stole his identity for credit card fraud. But some lies are worse than others, Timoney said, when asked about stolen valor.

"It is particularly shameful to lie about your military experience," he said, "because this dishonors those who have truly put their lives on the line for your safety and the safety of your family."

• • •

Joshua Bork left the Marine Corps on Aug. 27, 2008, with an "uncharacterized discharge," given to individuals who separate from the service before 180 days, a criminal complaint states.

Two weeks later, he applied for disability benefits.

The VA granted him a disability rating of 10 percent for degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. Bork appealed and won an 80 percent rating for back and knee issues.

He has lived in several Florida cities but was renting a home in Tampa when authorities got a tip that he was doing martial arts training. He wasn't hiding it. His photos and videos were on the Internet, and he even put on a demonstration for a Tampa-based battalion of military police.

While under investigation by Special Agent Douglas Williams of the VA's Office of Inspector General, Bork asked for another increase in benefits: an automobile allowance, money to pay an attendant, and compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The agent learned that Bork was not, as he claimed, a witness to a suicide in boot camp.

Bork's father, Ted Bork of Venice, told the Tampa Bay Times that his son has a history of mental illness, and it causes him to make poor choices. He needs help, the father said, not prison.

Joshua Bork did sustain a back injury in the Marine Corps by falling off a truck in battle gear during training, his father said.

"What he did, he kept trying to increase the disability payments," Ted Bork said. "That's a flag. If you want 100 percent disability, you better not be able to get out of a wheelchair. If he had not pushed that to the limit, maybe they wouldn't have been so interested in finding out what he was up to."

The federal agent, Williams, conducted surveillance of Bork and reported seeing him train several students, including his wife, in Krav Maga, a form of Israeli self-defense.

"Bork showed no signs of pain or disability and had full range of motion," the agent wrote.

Bork got through the classes by taking pain medication, his father said.

"He's very good at it, and he's a good teacher," his father said. "He saw that as his only skill, his only ability for making a living."

Bork wasn't the government's only target when charges were brought. Ex-wife Madeleine Farhat, who filed for divorce after the federal investigation began, was charged with conspiracy.

Both have signed plea agreements and are expected to be sentenced in the coming months.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

Report fraud

To tell the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General about criminal activity, fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement of VA programs, send an email to vaoighotline@va.gov or call toll-free 1-800-488-8244.

Heartbreaking war tales sometimes mask VA fraud 04/27/14 [Last modified: Monday, April 28, 2014 12:16am]

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