In a yearslong conspiracy involving bizarre and fraudulent injury claims such as holiday ladder falls and horse buckings, a former Navy chief petty officer pleaded guilty to conspiring to bilk the government out of $2 million through a program intended for severely injured service members, according to a Thursday Department of Justice press release.
Christopher Toups, an ex-sailor who lives in Georgia, personally received $400,000 in the scam, which involved more than a half dozen people, including a Navy doctor and a nurse.
The group targeted the Traumatic Servicemembers Group Life Insurance Program, a compensation program for injured troops. Toups, who appears to be a central figure in the scam, helped take advantage of that system by creating a paper trail for fake injuries, according to court records.
Toups is scheduled to be sentenced in February and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, three years of probation, and an order to repay the total $2 million back to the Pentagon, according to his Thursday guilty plea.
"Fraudulently filing claims for unearned TSGLI benefits diverts compensation from deserving service members who suffered serious and debilitating injuries while on active duty," said Rebeccalynn Staples, an agent with the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General, in the Justice Department press release. "Worse yet, this defendant actively recruited others into the scheme to feed his greed for compensation he did not deserve."
Between 2012 and 2015, Toups conspired with his then-spouse Kelene McGrath, a Navy nurse, to steal money from the government through fake or exaggerated injury claims, the Justice Department said. On top of falsifying his own TSGLI claims, Toups encouraged other sailors to fabricate or exaggerate their claims.
Those service members would then submit their claims, sometimes to McGrath, who would further falsify or doctor their medical records to reflect the exaggerated injuries. Navy Dr. Michael Villarroel would then certify those records, according to prosecutors.
Villarroel also supported the fraud by "falsely stating he interviewed the claimant," according to the Justice Department.
By encouraging other service members to participate in the scam, Toups requested that they give him part of their compensation as a "processing fee" for folding them into the scheme. McGrath and Villarroel received some of these "fees" and the group often kept their transactions between one another under $10,000 to "evade perceived financial reporting requirements," according to the Justice Department.
Some of those accused of scheming with Toups' were also part of his explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) unit in California, according to court documents and the Justice Department press release.
In one 2013 case, Toups filed a fraudulent application purporting to have suffered a "catastrophic" injury from a motorcycle accident in 2004, attaching doctored medical records, according to court records.
Other claims from Toups' co-conspirators included another motorcycle accident; McGrath saying she fell from a horse; and one instance where another EOD chief petty officer, Richard Cote, claimed he fell from a ladder while removing Christmas lights.
According to the VA's website, there are several requirements to earn benefits associated with the TSGLI program, including that the injury was incurred no later than "midnight on the day that you left the military."
There are few exceptions to the type of injury, with most restrictions tied to self-inflicted injuries or those incurred while engaging in illegal activity, according to the VA.
Altogether, the group collected almost $2 million from the Department of Defense. Toups' listed attorneys did not respond to Military.com's request for comment in time for publication.
The Justice Department said Toups' rank at the time of his crimes -- 2012 to at least December 2015 -- was chief petty officer. Toups ultimately retired from the Navy in 2017 at one rank lower: petty officer first class, according to service records provided by the Navy to Military.com. He was pushed down to the lower rank the same month the Department of Justice said his scheme ended in 2015. It's unclear whether the demotion was tied to the injury claim scheme.
Since Navy regulations typically forbid commanders from demoting chief petty officers, Toups' punishment likely came from outside of his unit.
According to the released records, Toups was a Seabee -- a member of the Navy's combat construction community -- who worked as a construction mechanic most recently assigned to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Expeditionary Support Unit out of Coronado, California.
He had two personal awards in his records: a Navy Commendation Medal and a Navy Achievement medal, in addition to his Enlisted Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist insignia.
Two co-conspirators, Ronald Olmsted and Anthony Coco, also pleaded guilty and have already been sentenced. McGrath, who is now going by the name Kelene Meyer, pleaded guilty to the conspiracy in 2019 and is awaiting sentencing. Villarroel was indicted, but pleaded not guilty in 2020, according to court dockets.
"The theft of military health care dollars directly harms service members and taxpayers," said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman in the DOJ press release. "This fraud was costly for the U.S. Navy, and now for this defendant."
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.