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More than 60% of leases on the VA's West L.A. campus are illegal or improper, audit finds

The Veterans Affairs' West Los Angeles Medical Center.

DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

By GALE HOLLAND | Los Angeles Times | Published: October 6, 2018

LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — More than 60% of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' land-use agreements on its West Los Angeles campus are illegal or improper, a federal audit found, including leases for a Los Angeles city dog park and ballfields, Red Cross offices, a Shakespeare festival, a parrot sanctuary and the private Brentwood School.

The VA inspector general audit also found that housing construction for veterans on the sprawling property has fallen behind schedule, with the initial deadline of 490 units by March 2019 now out of reach.

Although the VA is making progress on its building plans, "it will not meet its initial milestone," the inspector general said in the report, adding that environmental review could push the goal of housing homeless veterans even further into the future. The audit also faulted the VA for failing to include veterans in oversight of the campus project.

In a groundbreaking 2016 legal settlement, the VA promised to open the agency's long-contested campus to housing as part of a broader campaign to end the county's long reign as the nation's homeless veterans capital.

A single building was renovated in 2017 and currently houses 54 veterans. No new construction has been green-lighted or funded, either by the Obama or Trump administrations, although two other building rehabs have advanced in the planning process. They will be funded with the city's voter-approved bonds from Proposition HHH, not federal funds.

"In the Iraq War, the government delivered $12 billion in cash on pallets in cargo planes," said retired law professor Gary Blasi, who was involved in the litigation, "but the VA is still prioritizing to renovate three buildings for housing for veterans."

The VA also agreed to end commercial leases on the 388-acre property that did not substantially benefit ex-service members. A handful of leases were terminated, the VA said in a September status report.

But in a review of 40 land-use agreements, the audit found that 11 other leases either violated federal law or the draft master plan for the campus. Among those tenants were the 1887 Fund, which raises money for renovation of the Wadsworth Chapel and four other historic buildings; the Barrington parking lots; Breitburn slant drilling operations; and the Westside Breakers youth soccer.

Fourteen other renters were operating under expired contracts or had no documented agreements, the audit found.

"The investigation pointed out things we've been saying for years: UCLA had a sweetheart lease, the dog park lease is absurd on its face," said former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver, who long lobbied for veteran housing on the property. "But what's important is where's the frigging housing?"

In response to the audit, the VA agreed to renegotiate or terminate land-use agreements with the city of L.A., the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, the Westside soccer club and the parrot sanctuary.

But it disputed the inspector general's condemnation of its deal with the Brentwood School, which agreed to pay $850,000 in annual rent and provide in-kind services worth $918,000. The services included access for 67 veterans to the Brentwood School's athletic facilities and summer school scholarships for veterans' children.

The inspector general said the in-kind compensation was legally dubious and found that neither the Brentwood School nor the VA provided adequate documentation of its benefits.

The audit also found that lease rates the VA renegotiated with the city of L.A.'s Barrington Park ballfields and dog park, UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium and the Brentwood School athletic complex were lower than the appraised rental values – of $2.7 million each for UCLA and the Brentwood School and $2 million for the city.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said he was working with the VA and veterans groups to make sure campus development "is collaborative and effective."

"There's an urgent need to guarantee more veterans facing homelessness have housing," Lieu said in an email.

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