In Savannah, Georgia, on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, US District Court Judge Lisa G. Wood sentenced Kenneth Meers to 54 months behind bars and ordered him to repay VA nearly $6.1 million in restitution. The 55-year-old Florida fraudster had pleaded guilty to conspiring to bilk the US Department of Veterans Affairs with bogus scuba diving classes at three shops in Georgia. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
The ringleader of a multiyear scheme to defraud the US Department of Veterans Affairs with bogus scuba diving classes is going to prison.
In Savannah, Georgia, on Thursday, Dec. 8, US District Court Judge Lisa G. Wood sentenced Kenneth Meers to 54 months behind bars and ordered him to repay the VA nearly $6.1 million in restitution.
Meers, 55, of Sumter County, Florida, had faced up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary for a charge of conspiring to commit wire fraud. Although he inked a plea deal with federal prosecutors on June 24, authorities never made any promises to cut his prison time.
“The VA administers a robust program to provides educational benefits for those who have served their country, opening access to substantial career and enrichment opportunities for veterans,” said US Attorney David H. Estes, a retired US Army colonel, in a prepared statement released in the wake of the sentencing. “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.”
Military members and veterans who served after Sept. 10, 2001, often rely on the Post-9/11 GI Bill to fund college or job training. Iowa Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. William Wiseman.
Five corrupt co-conspirators also have pleaded guilty to their roles in bilking the VA. All were owners, managers, or instructors at three shops in Georgia: Scooba Shack outlets in Savannah and Richmond Hill, and Diver’s Den in St. Marys.
Scooba Shack’s owners — Judith Lanoue, 59, and Robert Lanoue, 63, of Savannah — were sentenced to six months behind bars for filling false VA claims and ordered to pay $3.2 million in restitution to the agency. Their employee, 42-year-old David Aderegg of Richmond Hill, was sentenced to probation and must pay $20,497 in restitution.
On Oct. 20, the co-operator of Diver’s Den, John Spyker, 39, of Yulee, Florida, confessed in his plea agreement to submitting $722,399 in bogus tuition charges to the VA. On Aug. 9, the shop's co-manager, Theresa Whitlock, 55, admitted that she cheated the department out of more than $1.1 million.
Both defendants await sentencing.
US Air Force members from the Special Tactics Training Squadron, Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Florida, enter the pool during pre-scuba training Sept. 21, 2010. US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Russell E Cooley IV.
Between 2018 and 2021, Meers served as Scooba Shack’s school certifying officer and dive instructor, and from 2020 to early 2022 was either a consultant or teacher at Diver’s Den. To make the grift work, he applied to the VA to get the schools certified to instruct military veterans capitalizing on their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, but it was all a pack of lies.
VA required Scooba Shack to have taught the PADI Pro Divemaster course for at least two years, but they hadn’t. The school’s course catalog inflated the hours needed to graduate. And when the VA told the fraudster that no more than 85% of the students in any course could be veterans, Meers convinced the Lanoues to invent the fake “Rick Brooks Memorial Scholarship” fund to woo non-veteran students.
While they charged veterans up to $20,511 for each course, non-vets got to go to the school for free, thanks to the phony fund. And Meers kept the VA dollars rolling in by submitting false attendance, enrollment, and course completion records to the agency.
At Diver’s Den — where veterans paid up to $20,811 to attend a course — Meers set up a similar scheme. To hurdle the VA’s 85% rule, the shop’s managers advertised a bogus “Diver’s Den Biannual Scholarship,” according to Meers' plea agreement.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill helps military veterans pay for school or job training. It benefits those who served on active duty after Sept.10, 2001. US Army photo by Sgt. Alexander Snyder.
Neither Meers nor his criminal defense attorney, Cain Smith, returned Coffee or Die Magazine’s requests for comment. But Smith’s sentencing memorandum to the judge explains why Meers will spend less than five years inside the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp Pensacola.
Meers was the one who called the VA to rat out the other conspirators. After federal investigators raided the Scooba Shack, Meers spent two hours dishing to VA Office of Inspector General agents at his home in Florida.
Throughout the federal probe, Meers continued to offer assistance to bring down the grifting scheme in Georgia while diming out others “engaging in similar misconduct that Meers has first-hand information regarding.”
“It is my sincere belief that Meers wholeheartedly believes in the therapeutic and vocational benefits that these dive programs confer upon his fellow veterans and that fraud was not his original motivation for getting involved,” wrote Smith.
Federal Prison Camp Pensacola is a minimum-security penitentiary located in Florida. It houses 346 male inmates. Bureau of Prisons photo.
Smith called Meers “just overall a pretty good guy without even a hint of malice about him, in spite of his considerable size and stature. He’s intelligent and easy to talk with, especially regarding our mutual passion for diving.”
But VA and Department of Defense officials won’t go that far.
They see Meers’ prosecution as a warning sign to others contemplating how they can cheat programs that help military members transition back into society.
“This sentencing sends a strong message to those who defraud programs that benefit our veterans,” said Darrin K. Jones, the special agent in charge of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service overseeing the southeastern states, in a prepared statement. “DCIS will continue to work closely with our investigative partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to ensure individuals who selfishly enrich themselves at the expense of our veterans and military personnel are brought to justice.”
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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