Five dive professionals linked to dive-schools in the US state of Georgia have pleaded guilty after collaborating on a $4 million-plus scam to defraud the office that arranges scuba-diver training for military veterans. Their sentences have yet to be decided but will include millions of dollars in restitution.
The defendants admitted to a US district court that they had submitted false claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) through scuba classes targeting veterans’ education benefits.
Their false submissions mis-stated two schools’ compliance with VA regulations, student attendance dates and hours of instruction, among other information. Some defendants also helped to create fictitious scholarship programmes, to make it seem that the required percentage of non-VA students had participated in classes.
The defendants had billed VA up to $20,000-plus for each veteran student supposedly enrolled in their classes.
Kenneth Meers, 54, was a school certifying official and course director at Scooba Shack in Savannah and Richmond Hill from about May 2018 to April 2021. He also became a consultant at Diver’s Den in St Marys around May 2020 and an instructor there from about June 2021 to February 2022.
Meers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a statutory penalty of up to 20 years in prison plus up to three years of supervised release, as well as substantial financial penalties. He prepared and submitted Scooba Shack’s application and course catalogue for VA approval, and developed Diver’s Den’s programme knowing that the applications contained false information.
He also directed other defendants to create the fake scholarships used to mask the percentage of students receiving VA education benefits. As part of his plea agreement, he acknowledged that the scheme had cost VA more than $3.5 million.
False, fictitious & fraudulent
Robert Lanoue, 63, and his wife Judith, 59, Scooba Shack’s owners, pleaded guilty to making false, fictitious and fraudulent claims, a charge that can mean up to five years in prison plus up to three years of supervised release, and significant financial penalties. As part of their plea agreement, they have already agreed to forfeit $271,000 from their bank account toward restitution of $3.2 million in VA losses.
Scooba Shack store manager, instructor and school certifying official David Anderegg, 42, pleaded guilty to the same charge as the owners.
Theresa Whitlock, 55, who operated Diver’s Den and served as a school certifying official, pleaded guilty to making a false statement, which carries a statutory penalty of up to five years in prison. She provided false information to the VA about the school’s diving programmes, and submitted claims for tuition payments exceeding $1.1 million. She will forfeit $64,260 seized from Diver’s Den’s bank accounts.
The case was investigated by the VA Office of Inspector General and prosecuted by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia.
“The scope of the fraud uncovered in this investigation is stunning, particularly when you consider the scheme siphoned funds intended for providing legitimate education assistance to former service members,” said prosecuting attorney David H Estes. “We applaud the work of the VA Office of Inspector General in identifying and halting this fraud.”
In January, Divernet reported on how Women Divers Hall of Famer Tammy Brown, who owned New Jersey school Divers Academy International, was sentenced to 27 months in prison plus a three-year supervision period for one count of defrauding the US government through wire fraud. She was also fined $50,000 and ordered to pay restitution of $1.1 million.
She too had been accused of fraudulently obtaining funding from VA, as well as the US Department of Education (DoE).