April 7, 2009 in City

Prison could await fake paraplegic

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A financial scandal hatched more than 30 years ago by a man who lied about being paralyzed ended this week with a guilty plea that could send him to prison for 20 years.

James M. Sebero, 59, a former Bonner County Sheriff’s deputy, defrauded the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs of more than $1.5 million in benefits after claiming to be a paraplegic after serving in the Air Force in the 1970s, according to indictments filed last year in Idaho and Eastern Washington federal courts.

The scheme fell apart after federal agents investigating Sebero for fraudulently performing annual inspections on airplanes learned he’d been receiving VA benefits since 1976, a year after he ended a six-year stint at Fairchild Air Force Base.

In September 2007, more than a year before he was indicted on charges related to the VA fraud, investigators secretly videotaped Sebero being examined at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in northwest Spokane. He used a wheelchair then, but government surveillance cameras showed him walking in and out of the U.S. Courthouse downtown the next day, according to previously published reports.

He pleaded guilty Monday to one of three counts of making a false statement in the Eastern District of Washington and one of 55 counts of wire fraud in the District of Idaho, stopping a trial set to begin in U.S. District Court in Spokane that day. The wire fraud charges related to Sebero’s monthly payments being transferred to a bank account.

The plea agreement calls for Sebero to pay $950,000 restitution and forfeit his properties in Bonner and Spokane counties, as well as a helicopter, a 40-foot boat, and four vehicles, including a 1985 Jaguar and a 1981 Mercedes-Benz.

Sebero lives in LaClede, Idaho, about 15 miles north of Sandpoint, but also owns a home on Austin Lane in Spokane, according to court documents.

Sebero could not be reached for comment, and his lawyer, James Parkins, did not return a phone call. Sentencing is set for July 10.

“By his actions, Mr. Sebero disgraced the system that compensates all those veterans who are truly disabled and who are fairly compensated for their injuries in service to their country,” U.S. Attorney James A. McDevitt said in a news release.

Sebero was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base before telling officials he’d lost the use of his legs while unloading a snowmobile.

He began receiving monthly benefits in 1976 and was netting more than $6,000 a month when the Veterans Administration halted benefits after his September 2007 examination – his first since 1978, records show.

In the nearly three decades between those appointments, Sebero became a marine deputy for the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office, operated heavy equipment, flew a helicopter and owned a small-aircraft repairs business at Felts Field in Spokane, all while amassing nearly $1.5 million in VA disability benefits, according to court documents.

“Records indicate that on each application for various airman’s certificates, Sebero denied any sort of medical problems or disability,” according to a news release.

He opened the repairs business in 1992 after operating an excavation business for 12 years, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Ellis said in October he expected to subpoena Sebero’s two ex-wives and his current wife for the trial to testify about their sex lives with him to further debunk the paraplegic claim, according to previously published reports.

Sebero was facing federal charges for inspecting planes for which he wasn’t authorized when authorities learned he’d been drawing disability benefits.

He pleaded guilty in that case last summer and was ordered to pay $10,754 in restitution as a condition of five years probation.

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or at meghannc@spokesman.com


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