A 54-month prison sentence and an order to repay almost $6.1 million have been handed down to the ringleader in a scam to defraud the US government department that arranges scuba training for military veterans.
The guilty plea by 55-year-old Florida diver Kenneth Meers was reported on Divernet in September. He was one of six divers linked to three Georgia dive-schools who had admitted submitting false claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) over several years, billing the office up to $20,800 for each imaginary student enrolled in their classes.
The dive professionals had also misled the VA about compliance with the department’s regulations, student attendance dates and hours of instruction, and had created a fictitious scholarship programme.
Appearing before US District Court Judge Lisa Wood in Savannah on 8 December, having pleaded guilty to the charge of committing wire fraud, Meers was told that after serving his term behind bars he would be subjected to a further three years of supervised release. There is no parole in the federal system.
Meers could have faced up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary but it is reported that his term was reduced after he had volunteered to co-operate with investigators prior to the six being charged.
A school certifying official and course director at the two Scooba Shack centres in Savannah and Richmond Hill from about May 2018 to April 2021, Meers 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.
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.
Scooba Shack owners Robert & Judith Lanoue have already been given six-month prison sentences and ordered to pay $3.23 million in restitution, while their employee David Anderegg was given probation and ordered to pay back $20,500.
Two other defendants, Theresa Whitlock, who operated Diver’s Den, and the centre’s director of training John Spyker still await sentencing.
“The VA administers a robust programme to provide educational benefits for those who have served their country, opening access to substantial career and enrichment opportunities for veterans,” said prosecuting US Attorney David Estes, a retired US Army colonel.
“Kenneth Meers and his co-conspirators circumvented the rules designed to protect that funding, purely for their personal enrichment, and they justly are being held accountable for their crimes.”