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Veteran Collected Benefits After Lying About Purple Heart, U.S. Says

A woman in upstate New York was arrested on Wednesday and charged with fraudulently claiming to be a Purple Heart recipient, federal prosecutors said.

The woman, Sharon Toney-Finch, 43, of Newburgh, N.Y., defrauded military charities and the Department of Veterans Affairs by lying about having received the Purple Heart, a military award given to those wounded or killed in action, Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.

Ms. Toney-Finch claimed that she had survived a terrorist attack on her convoy in Iraq while serving a tour in March 2010, the statement said. She also claimed to have been wounded in a mortar attack the preceding February.

In March 2016, Ms. Toney-Finch began collecting disability benefits from the department after lying about getting injured during her military service, federal prosecutors said. Between July 2019 and September 2023, she defrauded donors to a charity she founded by claiming any money donated would go to supporting homeless veterans, when she in fact spent the funds on personal expenses, the statement said.

If convicted, Ms. Toney-Finch faces more than 30 years in prison for wire fraud, theft of government funds, stolen valor and altering military paperwork.

“Sharon Toney-Finch allegedly engaged in a series of lies in which she misappropriated donations for military charities and falsely nominated herself as a Purple Heart recipient to receive illicit disability benefits,” James Smith, the F.B.I. assistant director in charge of the investigation, said in a statement. “Acts of stolen valor are especially egregious as they distract from sacrifices of those who were truly injured defending our nation.”

Ms. Toney-Finch also lied to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in order to obtain a medallion and to have her name mentioned on the foundation’s website. She used a military discharge certificate that had been altered to falsely show Purple Heart status, prosecutors said.

In May 2023, Ms. Toney-Finch came under fire after she recruited a group of homeless men to pose as homeless veterans and claim that they had been kicked out of an upstate hotel shelter so that it could house migrants. Representative Mike Lawler, a Republican who represents the area in Congress, initially fell for Ms. Toney-Finch’s scheme before denouncing it and describing her actions as “appalling.”

“Her decision to exploit our veterans — and the genuine admiration and love our community has for them — could have turned an already tense situation into something much worse,” he said.

Gov. Kathy Hochul also called the situation “deeply troubling,” adding that the hotel in question had a “legal contract” to house migrants, “and if people want to fabricate stories to undermine the whole process, I think it’s reprehensible.”

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