SAN ANTONIO - A retired Army master sergeant captured on camera mowing his lawn after telling doctors he could no longer walk was sentenced to 27 months in prison Thursday and must pay back the federal government more than $434,000.
Mack Cole Jr., 54, must surrender to federal authorities by Dec. 6.
He was convicted this summer of federal health care fraud and making false statements about a health care benefit program.
Cole told VA doctors that a National Guard training accident in 2004 left him without "any ability to walk."
However, undercover video evidence captured by federal investigators showed Cole mowing the front yard of his Cibolo home, walking up and down the driveway, and bending over to toss away debris.
Cole's attorney told the court Thursday his client takes 25 different medications for the lower back injury and has painkilling devices permanently installed in his body.
The attorney argued that not granting Cole probation would cause a "nightmare" for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Prosecutors argued that Cole repeatedly lied about the extent of his injuries and never presented himself as someone who could walk up and down his driveway.
"There's a finite amount of money to treat injured veterans. When someone unjustifiably and unjustly reaches into that pot and scrapes out $450,000, it's a diminished pot," said Assistant United States Attorney Bud Paulissen.
Two other disabled veterans in wheelchairs attended sentencing in support of the government and its case against Cole, after seeing a Defenders story on Cole in late July, Paulissen told the court.
"When I saw him bend down to pick up, move trash away, so he could mow his lawn, I can't even scratch my own nose or blow my own nose," said retired Air Force Sergeant Lori Henson as she left court.
Cole, who at times was animated as he sat in a motorized wheelchair, told Chief United States District Court Judge Orlando Garcia the case against him was inflated.
"I didn't ask to be in this chair," he said. "I didn't want this to be my life!"
"(You) should have walked in here and apologized," said Garcia, before sentencing Cole.
While leaving court, Cole called the sentence a "miscarriage of justice."
Cole's wife told him to shut up as they made their way to the parking lot.
Cole had faced up to 50 years in prison.
VA investigators opened 111 health care cases during the first six months of this fiscal year and were able to obtain more than $125 million in court-ordered fines and restitution, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General report.
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