An Athens woman was sentenced Thursday to five years of probation for lying about being suicidal so she could illegally obtain more than $56,000 in veterans disability benefits.
Lisa-Marie T. Watson, 26, pleaded guilty in January to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States.
On Thursday, Watson wept as U.S. District Judge John Woodcock told her he would not sentence her to prison because she had been manipulated by her father-in-law to seek an early discharge from the Army and to obtain disability benefits.
Her father-in-law, David B. Watson Sr., 57, of Madison, is serving a 16-month sentence for his role in the conspiracy, according to court documents.
“If David Watson were not in the picture, this defendant would not be in this courtroom,” Woodcock said in sentencing Lisa-Marie Watson.
David Watson was able to help his children obtain Social Security disability benefits, but he controlled the money, the judge said. The older man had hoped to do the same with his daughter-in-law when, shortly after she completed basic training, he encouraged her to fake symptoms so that she would be discharged for mental problems and would receive benefits.
Lisa-Marie Watson began receiving $770 per month in May 2011, the judge said. When she cut off communication with her father-in-law a few years later, he called the Bureau of Veterans Affairs and told it she was receiving benefits illegally. The subsequent investigation led to the prosecution of both Watsons.
By pleading guilty, Lisa-Marie Watson admitted that she conspired with her father-in-law to obtain benefits to which she was not entitled between 2011 and late 2015.
Although she admitted the fraud to VA investigators in 2013 and asked that the payments stop, the agency kept making them until she entered her guilty plea in January because that is its policy. During that time, she used more than $7,000 for living expenses, Woodcock said.
The judge ordered Lisa Watson to pay more than $56,000 in restitution. She paid more than $8,000 toward that Thursday.
The remaining $48,400 she and her father-in-law must pay jointly because he was part of the conspiracy to obtain those funds.
Under the federal sentencing guidelines, both Watsons faced a recommended sentence of 10 to 16 months in prison.
David Watson is incarcerated in Devens, Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. His earliest possible release date is Sept. 6.
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Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the length of the probation sentence.