This article was updated to include additional information about Copeland’s Air Force service.
An Air Force veteran in Portsmouth, Va., has pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in connection with various schemes to scam veterans, according to Department of Justice officials.
Rita Copeland, 59, operated an organization called “Veteran Services of the Commonwealth,” claiming to provide caregiving, contracting, and rental assistance services to veterans from 2016 through 2020, according to a court document filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. She also at times operated a contracting business.
Copeland is an Air Force veteran, according to court documents and the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, which was involved in the investigation. According to the National Guard Bureau, her last period of service was from August, 1990 to October, 1996, when she was a teletype operator in the Air National Guard. She served briefly in the Air Force Reserve from February to August, 1990. Before that, she was on active duty from 1984 to 1990, serving in a communications squadron.
She’s accused of convincing a number of veterans to apply for grants through the Department of Veterans Affairs that are supposed to be used for designated improvements to the veterans’ residences, then failing to complete some of the work and failing to return the funds. The court document states she used expired or falsified contractor’s licenses in order to entice victims to hire her for home improvements.
Copeland, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 27, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years for wire fraud; and a mandatory consecutive term of two years for aggravated identity theft, according to Justice officials.
“This defendant has been brought to justice for orchestrating numerous fraudulent schemes against veterans who honorably served their country,” said Raj Parekh, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, in a statement announcing the guilty plea. “For those who steal, misappropriate, and divert funds that belong to our country’s veterans, this case sends a strong message that you will be prosecuted and held accountable for your inexcusable conduct.”
Parekh, the FBI’s Norfolk Field Office and the VA Inspector General made the announcement after Senior U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson accepted the plea.
In one case, according to the court document: Copeland began a “purported caregiver relationship” with a veteran and moved in to a residence with the veteran. She convinced the veteran, described only as “B.E.” to apply for a Home Improvements and Structural Alterations grant from the VA, and it was approved. Copeland used some of the grant money for her own benefit, contrary to the designated purpose. She also diverted some of B.E.’s income and retirement payments to her checking account, and applied for and received a $10,000 loan in B.E.’s name, without permission.
In another case, according to the court document: A married couple paid Copeland about $95,938 in checks, and she fraudulently got other money from the couple, including payments for travel, credit card purchases and bank account transfers. The veteran applied for grant money from the VA and received $3,400, and signed a contract with Copeland to do the work. She received the money but failed to complete all the work, and didn’t return any money.
Copeland, according to court documents, offered to help veterans find housing; and veterans paid rent and deposits to Copeland, who agreed to act as intermediary with owners. However, Copeland used the money for herself, and this resulted in eviction of various tenants. In some cases, she gave landlords checks for rent or other payments, and then stopped payment on the checks.
Copeland “used or purported to use actual, perceived or fabricated programs of the Department of Veterans Affairs in order to entice victims to provide the defendant with funds,” the court document stated.
A search of Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau website found no references to Veteran Services of the Commonwealth.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.