Russell Smith Federal Courthouse

The Russell Smith Federal Courthouse in Missoula

A federal court jury in Missoula Friday convicted a U.S. Navy veteran in Columbia Falls of deliberately exaggerating the extent of his disabilities in order to obtain greater benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Defense attorney Nick Brooke said the jury convicted his client, John Cicero Hughes, of all 20 counts.

Assistant U.S. District Attorney Tim Racicot said during closing arguments Friday that Hughes had presented two lives since moving to Montana two years ago: one life of independence and resilience in public, and another life of complete disability in VA exam rooms. 

His defense has argued this week that Hughes hid nothing from the VA, which they took time to illustrate as a bureaucratic mess that was difficult to engage with on Hughes' part, and that his abilities were based how the pain caused by his multiple sclerosis ebbed and flowed.

Hughes was honorably discharged from the U.S. military and began receiving benefits and compensation after VA doctors rated him as 100% disabled due to Hughes' reporting he had lost the use of both hands and both feet in 2008. Between 2009 and 2018, he received more than $800,000. Federal agents began investigating Hughes in 2017 and soon gathered information from residents in Columbia Falls who said they saw him without a wheelchair and sometimes working out at the gym.

Doctors with the VA said they were shocked to learn that Hughes was able to drive a car, fetch his keys from his pockets and walk without a cane. These were some of the actions agents with the VA Office of Inspector General had caught on surveillance cameras in the months leading up to Hughes' indictment.

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In January 2018, agents also set up recording devices ahead of Hughes' VA exam. He told the nurse then that he had been unable to drive to the appointment. Video recorded that day, however, showed Hughes indeed driving to the facility, climbing aboard a motorized scooter en route to his appointment.

"His propensity to tell the truth or not matters," Racicot said. "It's what he says and does when no one is looking and he's not at the VA. And what you do and say when no one is looking can be very telling."

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Brooke countered in his closing arguments that those two worlds — Hughes' more disabled story at the VA and his story of improving conditions in public — were more similar than prosecutors had laid out. Columbia Falls residents testified this week that they had seen Hughes try to get around independently of a wheelchair or cane and falling several times over the years. Sometimes he was successful, and Hughes had chalked his intermittent improvements to "good days and bad days."

Records from the VA regarding Hughes' condition had also matched up to testimony shared this week: that Hughes can walk with a cane but sometimes needs a wheelchair. Hughes had even told one doctor that they attended the same gym, Brooke said. Hughes had always been a resilient person, and didn't want to be indisposed because of his disease, Brooke said. 

"John has been honest with the VA about a large number of his comings and goings," he said. "Was this a matter of fraud or pride?"

Jurors went into deliberations around 1 p.m. on Friday. The 20 federal charges against Hughes included health care fraud, theft of government money, false statements to the Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security Disability Insurance fraud. Montana's U.S. Chief District Court Judge Dana Christensen presided over the case.

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