A jury on Friday convicted a former Spokane County Sheriff’s deputy of lying to fraudulently obtain assistance from two federal programs designed to provide funds for those who can’t work for themselves.
Former Spokane County Sheriff’s jailer Donald B. Henderson was found guilty of stealing money for more than a decade from the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The jury acquitted Henderson on a charge of committing Social Security fraud but found him guilty of theft of money from Social Security, making false statements to the VA and theft of money from the VA.
“The jury did a good job on a difficult case and returned a just verdict,” said acting U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington.
Defense attorneys declined to comment after the verdict. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 12.
The jury found Henderson guilty of lying to obtain more than $650,000 in benefits from both the Veterans Benefits and Social Security administrations, which had been paying him since he signed off on eye exams in 2002 that claimed to show he was legally blind and could not work.
In the course of some of those eye exams, Henderson said he could not read any letters on the eye chart and could only make out fingers at some 6 feet.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Patrick Cashman and Stephanie Lister provided the jury hours of video showing Henderson driving a riding lawn mower and taking an undercover agent shooting. Henderson was able to tell the agent where his bullets were hitting a paper target more than 20 feet away.
“These programs are not for people who barbecue and play Frisbee with his dog,” Lister said in her closing statement. “He’s a liar and he’s a thief, and the government asks you to convict him on all counts.”
Federal defenders John “Jay” McIntire and Colin Prince argued that Henderson for decades has suffered from a traumatic brain injury that caused debilitating migraines. He also suffers from a thinning of the cornea that makes it impossible for him to obtain prescription glasses that can improve his vision, which varies depending on his recurring headaches.
Henderson suffered a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle crash in 1984 while he was serving in the U.S. Army. As a result of the recurring migraine headaches, his fluctuating vision and the pain made it difficult to work a steady job.
As a result of his vision problems, Henderson – who worked in the early 1990s as both a jailer and a deputy – lost his driver’s license in 2001 and lost his job as an investigator with the Washington State Gambling Commission.
“Don Henderson is being prosecuted for not self-diagnosing his problems. Very few things you will do in your life are as important as this,” Prince told the jury. “Your decision will alter the course of his life and his family’s life.”
Henderson’s wife, Tamara, was placed on administrative leave from her 15-year job at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. She originally was charged with failing to report the theft of benefits by her husband, but prosecutors dismissed that case prior to her husband’s trial.
She testified that she didn’t know that the VA had provided the funds for the family’s Ford Focus or that her husband was receiving about $5,000 a month in disability payments from the two federal agencies.
Defense attorneys said Henderson filled out the paperwork listing his vision because that’s what a caseworker told him to do.
As for the videos showing Henderson edging his yard and walking more than 2 miles home from an eye exam without aid, Prince argued that receiving federal disability payments does not mean someone should stop being active.
“It’s the fundamental flaw in the government’s case, that someone with 20/400 vision can’t do these things,” Prince said. “A person who is disabled, we don’t expect them to be bedridden in their house … and try to do nothing at all.”
“The government doesn’t know what legally blind looks like. He’s not guilty of anything as charged,” Prince said.
He pointed to an eye exam in 2003 that showed his vision was 20/70.
“If you are faking, you do not go in and say you can read the 20/70 line,” Prince said.
Lister later countered: “That’s why we catch criminals. They are not always smart.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Cashman pointed out that to qualify for Social Security benefits, Henderson would have had to have a vision problem that lasted 12 months and that changing vision problems should not have qualified him to receive money.
“This case is not about headaches. This case is not about the effects of prescription drugs on vision,” Cashman said.
“This case is about what the defendant said about his vision, nothing else.”
Prosecutors did not contest the 30 percent disability he received for his vision or the 50 percent disability Henderson received for his migraine headaches. But they said he began to make sure he got horrible eye exams as soon as he learned he could get more money if he was legally blind.
They allege that he improperly got a total of $311,000 from the VA and $376,000 from the Social Security Administration.
“The physical evidence of the defendant’s eyes did not change. But in 2002, the defendant learned he could make more money. Motivation to get more money is a huge thing,” Cashman said.
Reporter Nina Culver contributed to this report.