PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The former VFW commander and suspended Providence VA Medical Center employee admitted in federal court that she falsified military records and used them to get benefits and services meant for combat veterans, according to the U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha.
Sarah Cavanaugh, 31, of East Greenwich, pleaded guilty Tuesday to fraud, aggravated identity theft, forgery and fraudulent use of medals.
Cavanaugh was arrested earlier this year after an investigation revealed she had lied about being a cancer-stricken U.S. Marine who served overseas and received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Prosecutors said she used her position as a licensed social worker at the Providence VA to gain access to the personal records of a Marine and a Navy veteran who actually had cancer, then used that information to create fake documents and medical records in her own name.
Using those documents, she then collected more than $250,000 worth of benefits and charitable contributions reserved for wounded veterans, according to prosecutors.
Cavanaugh went as far as to purchase Purple Heart and Bronze Star replicas online, which Cunha said she publicly displayed on the U.S. Marine uniform she wore to public events.
Department of Defense records show Cavanaugh never served in any branch of the U.S. military.
Cavanaugh resigned as the commander of VFW Post 152 in February after the allegations came to light. Soon after, she was placed on administrative leave from the Providence VA and had her access to the agency’s systems revoked. She was arrested the following month.
“Every day, thousands of American men and women honorably serve this country in uniform,” Cunha said in a statement. “They sacrifice for our safety, putting themselves in harm’s way, often without praise or public recognition, and they deserve our thanks and our respect.”
Cavanaugh, according to Cunha, “sought to trade on that respect, respect she did not earn, evoked by a uniform to which she had no claim … in order to trick generous members of the public into lining her pockets.
“Her conduct is disgraceful, and it richly warrants her conviction,” Cunha added.
Cavanaugh has agreed that the final amount of restitution owed to her victims will be determined by the court during her sentencing. However, Cunha said Cavanaugh plans to put the more than $82,000 she received from her recent sale of real estate towards that restitution.
Cunha said Cavanaugh is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 10. She faces a mandatory minimum of two years in prison, which would be served consecutively to any other punishments the court imposes.
“What Sarah Cavanaugh did is despicable and an insult to the brave men and women who have selflessly risked their lives, and made real sacrifices in service to this country,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge for FBI Boston. “Now this fraudster is a convicted felon for claiming valor where there is none, and for swindling more than a quarter of a million dollars in benefits and charitable donations from unsuspecting citizens who wanted nothing more than to help deserving veterans.”
Cavanaugh’s crimes prompted the swift introduction and passage of a stolen valor bill that makes the act punishable at the state level in addition to the federal level. Gov. Dan McKee signed the legislation into law back in June.