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VA official who exploited veterans in fraud scam gets 11 years

A disabled infantryman who served three tours in Iraq and was exploited by a Department of Veterans Affairs official looked across a courtroom and called on the man to think hard in prison about what he had done.

"You took an oath to serve veterans. You took an oath to serve your country. But money and greed corrupted you," Chris Burke, 51, of Herndon, Virginia, a former U.S. infantry member who served three tours, told James King in federal court Friday at King's sentencing hearing.

King led a scheme to steer 88 disabled veterans and more than $2 million in taxpayer-funded benefits to sham job-retraining schools in exchange for bribes and kickbacks.

He was sentenced to 11 years in prison in Washington after former U.S. service members told a judge how King, 61, of Baltimore, wasted years of their lives and left them with nothing but debt and stolen dreams of post-service careers.

Many times, Burke said, he and other veterans waited in their cars or stood in front of a locked storefront office of Atius Technology Institute of Beltsville, Maryland, while instructors failed to show. Burke told the court that he called and went to King's office to try to get a response, and got no answer after raising complaints to a department office in Baltimore.

Burke said he broke his left hip, four vertebrae and his collarbone in a military exercise, and hoped to receive training to work with computers through classes at either the University of Maryland, a community college or Strayer University, which offers classes to students mostly online. But when he raised that in the retraining program, Burke told the judge, King lied to him and told him Atius was his only choice.

"In prison, I want you to think about families and others you were supposed to help," Burke told King. "Think about how you can make it right."

Another veteran, who was not identified and whose letter to the court was read by Assistant U.S. Attorney Simon Cataldo of the District of Columbia, said that after two years of study, "I have nothing to show for it."

The letter posed the question: "How am I supposed to justify the knowledge I gained from a fraudulent institution," or the time out of the job market, to skeptical employers? VA will not compensate or credit her for the wasted benefits, she wrote.

VA's vocational rehabilitation and employment program provide counselors and money for education and training to help disabled veterans land civilian work.

Cataldo said King's victims included older service members who had finished their military careers, young ones just establishing themselves after deployment and immigrant veterans getting their first exposure to U.S. civilian life.

Some may have wanted to learn mortuary science or culinary skills, but King ignored requests and misled them, U.S. District Judge John Bates said. King admitted to padding invoices and student hours, and receiving $155,000 in kickbacks or bribes.

King pleaded guilty in October to one count each of honest services and wire fraud, bribery and falsifying records to obstruct the investigation, which revealed he steered $2.1 million in U.S. veterans benefits to three for-profit schools in exchange for a cut, and manipulated veterans to attend those schools despite having better options.

Three school owners and employees who admitted bribing King already have been sentenced. Atius owner Albert Poawui must serve 70 months in prison and pay back $1.5 million; Atius employee Sombo Kanneh must serve 20 months and pay back $113,000; and Michelle Stevens, the owner of Eelon Training Academy of Leesburg, Florida, which King helped set up, was sentenced to serve 30 months in prison and pay back $83,000.

In court, King admitted his crimes but asked for forgiveness, saying he had a caseload of 250 veterans and failed to check on schools.

"I can't say I am not responsible for it because I am, and I am sorry," King said.

King's lawyer, William Buie III, went further, asserting King merely followed a "custom and practice" of federal employees and contractors at VA and elsewhere exploiting insider skills for rewards before or after leaving public sector work.

King's actions were "indefensible," Buie said, but asked for a fair sentence that considered his age, lack of criminal history, his 7-year-old daughter, past military service and his lesser cut in the scheme, which he was ordered to pay back in restitution.

Bates, a Vietnam War veteran and former U.S. Army lieutenant, noted that King did not leave the military "on the best terms," adding that the judge himself was 72-years-old.

Bates sentenced King to less than the 14 to 17 1/2 years prosecutors sought, noting King's age and lesser financial benefit in the overall scheme, but said King led and orchestrated multiple schemes involving multiple bribes from several "grossly deficient" schools over more than two years, victimizing veterans, taxpayers and VA.

"This was a lengthy, broad and callous bribery scheme and financial scheme, for which you bear the primary responsibility," Bates said.

His voice rising, Bates said, "People need to know that that cannot continue at VA. We cannot allow people in public office who are being bribed to send money to companies."

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu of the District cited King's betrayal of public trust for those he was to serve as a mentor and counselor. "Instead of helping our veterans, he lined his own pockets by taking bribes to send them to three sham schools that brought them only pain and frustration," Liu said.

This article was written by Spencer S. Hsu, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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