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VA social worker sentenced for lying about military service, collecting benefits

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(PROVIDENCE, R.I.) — A Rhode Island woman who pleaded guilty to carrying out what prosecutors said was a massive fraud — pretending to be a Purple Heart recipient and Bronze Star-decorated U.S Marine — was sentenced to nearly six years in federal prison Tuesday.

Sarah Cavanaugh told people she defrauded she was injured in Iraq, despite never serving in the military, prosecutors said.

Cavanaugh claimed she was a “cancer-stricken” Purple Heart recipient to obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent charitable donations and veterans’ benefits, they said. Cavanaugh used the stolen identities of actual veterans to get the money, according to the Justice Department.

A search of Defense Department records, officials said, indicates Cavanaugh never served in any branch of the U.S. military.

In reality, according to the DOJ, Cavanaugh was a social worker at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center and used her position “to gain access to documents, personal information, and medical records belonging to a Marine and a Navy veteran who was battling cancer.”

Prosecutors called her conduct “near-daily criminal conduct over a period of five years,” saying she defrauded “veterans, veterans’ organizations, veterans’ charities, friends, and co-workers in a “methodical and calculated manner.”

She allegedly stole more than $250,000 from those organizations in what prosecutors called a “brazen scheme.”

“Sarah Cavanagh feigned having cancer, and falsely claimed valor where there was none, to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and charitable donations. Her actions are an insult to every veteran who has served our country, and today she learned her fate for her criminal conduct,” Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division, said. “Make no mistake, the FBI and our law enforcement partners are committed to seeking justice for anyone who lies about serving our country and illegally takes money from federal programs that help veterans who rightfully deserve it.”

Cavanagh, according to prosecutors, rose to a leadership position at a VFW lodge, gave public speeches while dressed in full U.S. Marine uniform, complete with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star that she purchased on the internet; and secured a spot in an arts program at the University of Southern California, a program she described to a U.S. Army veteran she met through the Wounded Warrior Program who was later accepted into the program.

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