Montgomery, Ala. – On Wednesday, June 30, 2021, Mende Leone, also known as Shirl Lee Cook, 37, pleaded guilty to misappropriation of a federal benefit by a fiduciary, announced Acting United States Attorney Sandra J. Stewart. Leone resided in Phenix City, Alabama at the time of the crime.
This case involves the fraudulent misapplication by a fiduciary of funds provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) intended for the sole benefit of a veteran. The VA’s mission is to provide and care for United States military veterans. Among its many programs, the VA administers a fiduciary program designed to protect certain VA beneficiaries who, as a result of injury, disease, or infirmities of advanced age, or by reason of being less than the age of majority, cannot manage their VA benefits. Under this program, the VA may appoint a relative or some other fiduciary to receive payments of benefits on behalf of the beneficiary for the use and benefit of the veteran.
According to court records, Mende Leone was the niece of a veteran living in Phenix City who was receiving benefits from the VA and was eventually appointed to serve as his fiduciary. In late 2014, the VA notified Leone that a large retroactive payment of benefits would be made on behalf of her uncle. A short time after these payments, the VA received a tip that large transfers had been made from the veteran’s bank account where his funds were being held. When looking into the matter, the VA discovered that from March-May of 2015, Leone wrote several checks from the veteran’s fiduciary account made payable to her mother, Shirley Ann Moreman, who is also the veteran’s sister. Moreman either cashed or deposited the checks into her personal account and then almost immediately withdrew most of the money. Moreman and Leone then used the money for their personal use and not for the benefit of the veteran. The investigation revealed that Leone and Moreman misappropriated at least $151,000.00 of VA benefits intended for the veteran.
Both Leone and Moreman were indicted by a federal grand jury in March 2020 for their roles in the scheme. However, Moreman passed away in February 2021 before her case could be adjudicated. At some date in the coming months, Leone will be scheduled for a sentencing hearing where she faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, as well as monetary penalties and restitution.
“Stealing benefits from a veteran is a despicable crime,” stated Acting U.S. Attorney Stewart. “Our country owes a debt to all service members for their sacrifice and we must ensure that they are protected from those that would take advantage of them for personal gain. I am grateful that the Department of Veterans Affairs quickly discovered this illegal activity and my office stands ready to use every tool available to investigate and prosecute those that target our most vulnerable citizens.”
“VA OIG’s oversight of VA’s fiduciary program continues to be one of the agency’s highest priorities due to the program’s critical role in protecting at-risk veterans who are incapable of managing their own finances,” stated David Spilker, Special Agent in Charge at the VA Office of Inspector General (VA OIG). “As detailed in the plea documents, the defendant abused her role as a VA fiduciary to enrich herself and her mother, siphoning off VA benefits payments that were intended to support a disabled veteran.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General investigated this case, with assistance from the Russell County Sheriff’s Office and the Russell County Department of Human Resources (DHR) Adult Protective Service. Assistant United States Attorney Stephanie Billingslea and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Govan are prosecuting the case.