MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. – Robert Levy's record in the Vietnam War was impressive: two Army tours and several honors, including a Bronze Star. It just wasn't as impressive as he claimed.
Decades of lies caught up with him when he was mayor of Atlantic City, where four of the last nine mayors have been charged over the years with taking bribes. Levy's crimes, for which he is to be sentenced Friday in a Camden federal courtroom, may have been less damaging to the city, but they felt like a smack to his fellow veterans.
"What we've got is our honor," said Rick Weidman, director of government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America. "When people don't tell the truth, it tarnishes our honor."
Levy, 61, admitted to a federal judge last year that he embellished his military record to get nearly an additional $25,000 in disability benefits from the government. He likely faces up to six months in prison under a plea deal but is hoping to receive probation.
His trouble began in 2006, a year after the Democrat was elected mayor, when The Press of Atlantic City exposed his false claim that he was a Green Beret.
Levy apologized, telling The Associated Press at the time that the Green Beret claim was "something I should have corrected 40 years ago."
The newspaper report triggered a federal investigation into whether he got any extra veterans benefits because of his lies, said Jim O'Neill, an assistant inspector general who examines fraud at the VA.
The plot thickened last fall when Levy called in sick, climbed into his city-issued Dodge Durango and seemingly vanished. The Atlantic City native was dubbed "the missing mayor" and city officials tussled over who was in charge.
Two weeks later, Levy's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs, announced that Levy was resigning and that the former mayor had spent time in a facility that treats addictions and mental illness.
The Green Beret claim that led to Levy's downfall is not on the list of falsehoods he acknowledged making to the government.
Levy, who served in the Army from 1964 until 1984, admitted fabricating stories that as a soldier in Vietnam, he had been left in the jungle for weeks along with South Vietnamese troops to fend for himself. He also claimed to have made a number of parachute jumps when he did not.
Weidman, of the veterans group, said some of Levy's claims should have raised suspicions for VA workers who processed his benefits claims.
Weidman said it would have been unusual for any soldier in that era to make 100 parachute jumps. And, he said, it's easy to find official reports of troops who were missing in action in Vietnam.
But O'Neill, the VA official, said it's feasible a soldier could separate from his unit for a relatively short period and not make the MIA list. And the number of jumps might be possible for someone with a 20-year military career — and a benefits processor might not recognize that as a high number of jumps, he said.
Jacobs, Levy's lawyer, said he does not know exactly what forms may have been faked and when. But he says the falsehoods in his client's paperwork go back many years — well before January 2003, when the false claims he admitted making were filed.
Neither prosecutors, Levy nor his lawyer have discussed the details of his deceit or how he got away with it for as long as he did.
As part of a deal negotiated with federal prosecutors, Levy will not appeal the sentence as long as it does not include more than six months of prison time. The count to which he pleaded guilty, making false statements to Veterans Affairs officials, carries a maximum sentence of five years.
Levy must also repay benefits he received because of the lies, according to his plea agreement. He is trying to keep all the disability money he received from the VA, and wants the government to resume payments for service-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jacobs said that while Levy may have misrepresented his military record, his Vietnam-related post-traumatic stress is real — even if it is not the result of being abandoned in the jungle.
Last year, the Office of the Inspector General for Veteran Affairs began tracking "stolen valor" cases that deal with improper benefits. The office says it has made 40 arrests, and another 79 cases are under investigation.
Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, says most legitimate war veterans downplay their military service.
"Most of the time the veteran would say, 'I was just in the war,"' he said. "You would start looking and they would have a Purple Heart or a Bronze (Star) medal."