The Wantagh founder of Suffolk County United Veterans received no jail time Thursday after pleading guilty in July to stealing nearly $90,000 from a friend and fellow Vietnam veteran who suffered from dementia and PTSD.
State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho sentenced John Lynch to five years’ probation on the condition that Lynch pay full restitution to the victim, Christopher Podgus, who was virtually penniless, living in squalor, and battling diabetes when an out-of-state relative realized he was being fleeced.
“The truth is best shown not by what we do in public, but what we do in private,” a visibly angry Camacho told Lynch during the sentencing in Central Islip. “The truth is you completely betrayed your friend and fellow veteran.”
Lynch, 76, who served with the 101st Airborne in Da Nang, founded Suffolk County United Veterans in 1989 and The group’s Veterans Place homeless shelter in Yaphank seven years later. He retired from the organization in 2011.
But in 2013, four months before he was honored by the Suffolk County Legislature for his “commitment and dedication to our returning veterans,” he began cashing checks from Podgus’ bank account that reached as high as $12,000 per month, according to a letter read aloud in court by his sister, Leslie Blanding.
Blanding, who lives 300 miles away in Bow, New Hampshire, said she visited her brotherlast year when neighbors became alarmed by his deterioration. She arrived to find his Greenlawn house in disrepair, garbage and rotting food cluttering the rooms, nonworking toilets and unopened medications laying about. He now lives in a Hempstead nursing home.
Blanding said her brother had deposited more than $100,000 he obtained from the sale of his Northport home. . She said when she contacted the bank to help her brother arrange his affairs, only $10,000 remained, and that her brother had “no idea” what had become of the balance.
Prosecutors said Lynch used the money to buy himself a Porsche and to pay credit card bills.
“It is clear now that you are the only person who realized how bad Chris’ mental condition was, and you banked on it — literally,” Blanding said in the courtroom, addressing Lynch.
A spokesman for Suffolk County United Veterans said Lynch retired two years before the theft, and that there is no indication that he did anything improper while heading the organization.
“He brought hope and dignity to the lives of countless veterans in Suffolk,” spokesman Mark Grossman said in an email. “We are saddened to hear this news. We hope for a resolution to this matter that will enable John to make any required restitution and enjoy the rest of his retirement years.”
Lynch offered an apology in the courtroom. “I’m sorry I got into this situation,” he said, before repeating a catch phrase for which he’s known: “If it’s good for the veterans, do it.”
Blanding said although she does not resent the fact that Lynch was not sentenced to jail, she is not convinced that Lynch and his sympathizers realize the extent of his betrayal.
“Day after day, he kept coming back to Chris and saying I need more money, and Chris was too confused not to trust his friend,” she said. “My only concern is to expose his dishonesty to the world.”