SAVANNAH, Ga. – A 55-year-old St. Marys, Georgia, dive shop operator pleaded guilty to lying to investigators in connection with a scheme to defraud the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Justice announced last week.
Theresa Whitlock faces up to five years in prison.
Whitlock operated Diver’s Den and served as a school certifying official, federal prosecutors said.
The DOJ said Whitlock provided false information to the VA about Diver’s Den’s diving programs and submitted claims to the VA for tuition payments totaling more than $1.1 million. As part of any restitution, Whitlock agreed to forfeit $64,260.30 seized from Diver’s Den’s bank accounts.
Whitlock was one of five people affiliated with Georgia dive shops who admitted submitting false claims to the VA through scuba classes targeting military veterans education benefits.
Collectively, the five defendants are responsible for defrauding more than $4 million from VA education benefits, prosecutors said. All five entered guilty pleas in U.S. District Court.
“The scope of the fraud uncovered in this investigation is stunning, particularly when you consider the scheme siphoned funds intended for providing legitimate education assistance to former service members,” said U.S. Attorney David H. Estes. “We applaud the work of the VA Office of Inspector General in identifying and halting this fraud.”
As described in court documents, the five defendants worked in various capacities with their businesses and caused false submissions to be made to the VA. The false submissions misstated the businesses’ compliance with VA regulations, dates of students’ attendance, and hours of instructions, among other information. Some of the defendants also participated in creating fictitious scholarship programs to provide the appearance that a required percentage of non-VA students participated in those classes. The businesses billed the VA up to more than $20,000 per veteran student enrollee for the classes.
“Safeguarding Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefit funds reserved for deserving veterans remains a priority,” said Special Agent in Charge David Spilker with the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General’s Southeast Field Office. “These guilty pleas are a testament to our commitment to holding accountable those who would defraud VA’s benefit programs.”
In addition to Whitlock, the defendants include:
- Kenneth Meers, 54, of Altamonte Springs, Fla., pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud, a charge with a statutory penalty of up to 20 years in prison and substantial financial penalties, followed by up to three years of supervised release. Meers was a school certifying official and course director at Scooba Shack in Savannah from about May 2018 to April 2021, and became a consultant at Diver’s Den in St. Marys around May 2020 and an instructor from about June 2021 to February 2022. In those capacities, Meers prepared and submitted Scooba Shack’s application and course catalog for VA approval, and developed Diver’s Den’s program, knowing that those applications contained false information. He also directed other defendants to create the fake scholarships used to mask the percentage of students receiving VA education benefits. As part of his plea agreement, Meers agrees that the cost to the VA of the scheme exceeded $3.5 million.
- Robert Lanoue, 63, and his wife, Judith Lanoue, 59, both of Savannah. Each has pleaded guilty to False, Fictitious, and Fraudulent Claims, a charge that carries a statutory penalty of up to five years in prison and significant financial penalties, followed by up to three years of supervised release. Robert Lanoue and Judith Lanoue are owners of Scuba Shack. As part of their plea agreement, the two will forfeit $270,893.75 from their bank account, funds that will apply toward restitution of more than $3.2 million in losses to the VA.
- David Anderegg, 42, of Richmond Hill, Ga., pleaded guilty to False, Fictitious, and Fraudulent Claims. He is the store manager, instructor, and a school certifying official of Scooba Shack.