PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Sarah Jane Cavanaugh , the former commander of the North Kingstown Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152, was sentenced to over five years in prison Tuesday for using false claims of military service to get benefits intended for veterans.
Chief Justice John McConnell of the federal court for the District of Rhode Island ordered the sentence recommended by prosecution at a hearing this week, which was attended by victims of Cavanaugh’s crimes and viewed by over 130 people remotely. Cavanaugh was also ordered to pay nearly $300,000 in restitution to individuals and charities that donated to her.
“I can understand that want to bond with people who have been through their own horrible traumas but it went so much further than that, Ms. Cavanaugh, and it was so intricate,” McConnell said.
Cavanaugh was charged with one count each of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, forged military discharge certificate and fraudulent use of military medals. She accepted a plea agreement in July where the government agreed to recommend a sentence from the lower end of the range prescribed by federal law.
“All I ask is that you allow me a chance to rebuild my life in a way that is healthy and helpful and healing,” Cavanaugh said in court on Tuesday.
Court documents allege that Cavanaugh used her position as a licensed social worker employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain and doctor military and medical records from patients in her care and use them to receive charitable donations from individuals and organizations valued at over $284,000. Cavanaugh presented herself as a Marine Corps veteran awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, suffering cancer and other combat-related injuries, for over seven years, according to court documents.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Gendron emphasized that the case wasn’t about the lies Cavanaugh told about her military service, but rather the actions she took because of those lies. He mentioned the 2012 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Alvarez. The defendant in the case lied about his military service in a public address and was prosecuted under the first iteration of the federal Stolen Valor Act, which the Court struck down as overly broad, arguing that false statements which pose no imminent threat are protected under the First Amendment.
Congress rewrote the Stolen Valor Act in response to the decision, specifying that the law makes it a crime to use fraudulent claims of military service to obtain a tangible benefit, such as money or property, as was the case with Cavanaugh.
“We’re not here today because of the lies she told,” Gendron said. “We have to be very clear on that. This isn’t her simply telling a lie about her military service and being prosecuted for it. We’re here today because she stole.”
McConnell and Gendron took particular issue with two aspects of Cavanaugh’s actions, the first involving Justin Hsu, a veteran who served in the Navy for 20 years and suffers from stage four lung cancer.
Identified as J.H. in a criminal complaint, Hsu was being treated for cancer when he first met Cavanaugh in March of 2020. Cavanaugh told him she was also a cancer patient, and that she was struggling to pay insurance deductibles for her treatments at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Hsu gave her almost $600 per month for nine months to help with expenses.
“I was led to believe she was suffering the same illness I was and I thought it was an opportunity for us to support each other,” Hsu said in a victim statement in court on Tuesday. “As a veteran, I will refuse to let a fellow veteran die if I can do something about it.”
Cavanaugh also used Hsu’s medical records, which she doctored to include her name, to get money from HunterSeven, an organization that conducts research of veteran-specific issues and occasionally provides aid to veterans.
“For someone who had the heart that you had to share, to give, feelingly and unfettered, without checking your ID at the door, you just gave what you had,” McConnell said, addressing Hsu, “to know that that love was destroyed through fraud is the worst kind of fraud.”
Gendron called Cavanaugh’s actions in regard to Hsu “abhorrent” and said she “plumbed the depths of moral depravity” by accepting donations from him.
He also took particular issue with Cavanaugh using her fraudulent credentials to obtain over 700 hours of paid time off through the Department of Labor’s “Emergency Paid Leave” program and the Veteran Affairs’ “Voluntary Leave Transfer Program,” which allows employees to donate unused annual leave to another employee in need who has a medical emergency. Gendron argued this aspect of Cavanaugh’s fraud went beyond a desire to belong to the tight-knit community of veterans, as the defense argued was the motivation for her crimes.
“It was the way to live the way she wanted to live without having to earn it,” Gendron said. “It was greed. It was selfishness. It was personal enrichment at other people’s expense.”
Cavanaugh’s defense attorney, Kensley Barrett, himself an 11-year veteran, argued that Cavanaugh has taken steps to atone for her actions, including selling her house and setting aside the $82,000 she received from the sale as restitution.
“Through all this, Ms. Cavanaugh has kept her head up and demonstrated that she is the type of person that can be rehabilitated,” Barrett said. “The easy way would’ve been to stay home and try not to deal with any of this stuff, but she took it head on.”
In his sentencing memorandum, Barrett notes that Cavanaugh has no prior criminal history and alluded to sexual assault suffered at the hands of her father when she was a teenager.
“An introvert by nature, she dedicated herself to helping others and putting her past trauma behind her,” he wrote. “Now a convicted felon, she remains steadfast in trying to repurpose herself to become a better person and to pay back the restitution to the victims she defrauded.”
McConnell acknowledged Cavanaugh’s allegations of sexual assault, but told her that her experience “doesn’t answer all of what you did.”
“You could be bonding because of your past trauma, and it wouldn’t cause you to do that,” McConnell said, specifically of accepting donations from Hsu and donated time off from other VA employees. “I acknowledge the trauma that you’ve had has been a factor in this, but when I think about what an appropriate and just punishment is, it doesn’t negate the need for a severe punishment.”
The court also heard a victim statement from David Ainslie, commander of VFW Post 152 in North Kingstown. Cavanaugh used fraudulent military discharge documents to apply for membership at the VFW and was eventually elected to serve as commander in October of 2020. As VFW commander, Cavanaugh appeared in a U.S. Marine uniform at an event in August of 2021 dedicating the Purple Heart Trail in Rhode Island.
Ainslie said VFW Post 152 has lost 22 members and 50% of corporate donations since Cavanaugh’s fraud was uncovered.
“It was an embarrassment, not only to the North Kingstown VFW post, but to the VFWs everywhere,” he said. “We are an honest, hardworking group of people who are proud of our service and dedicated to helping others, sometimes — as we have seen here — to a fault.”
McConnell sentenced Cavanaugh to 70 months in prison, 46 for three of the four counts plus another 24 months for the last. In addition, she was sentenced to three years total of supervised release, ordered to pay over $280,000 in restitution and to attend substance abuse and mental health treatment. McConnell also ordered the U.S. Government to restore the hours of paid leave donated to Cavanaugh by her former colleagues at the VA.
Cavanaugh was taken directly into custody following the hearing.
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