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Inquiry targets THAP's tax exempt claim

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published July 11, 2005


TAMPA - In the midst of a federal housing investigation three years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs discovered an array of problems at a transitional shelter for homeless veterans operated by the nonprofit Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan.

When the VA cut off the $570-a-month per vet subsidy to the shelter, known as Veterans Village, THAP decided to end its sponsorship of the facility. The nonprofit then moved to evict the remaining veterans and raised the rent for incoming tenants.

Yet THAP is still benefiting from a 100 percent tax exemption on the $329,042 Veterans Village complex.

Records reviewed by the St. Petersburg Times show that THAP continues to enjoy the lucrative exemption, claiming the 12-unit complex at 1911 137th Ave. E. should be tax-free because the units are dedicated to veterans.

But a survey of the complex last week revealed just one veteran living in the two-bedroom units, and he said he is paying the same $500-a-month rent as other tenants.

Now, Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner and the VA's Office of the Inspector General both say they will look in to the improper tax exemption at the former shelter.

Meanwhile, veterans who once lived at Veterans Village complain the tax exemption is just the latest evidence of bad faith at the one-time haven for homeless veterans.

"That's just another rip-off," said Marcus Blackburn, 49, a U.S. Navy veteran and amputee who lived at Veterans Village for 17 months until May 2001. "They were ripping off the vets, and now they're ripping off government."

"How did THAP even end up still owning that property after all the problems?" said Joseph Allan Tuttle, 61, a U.S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War who lived at Veterans Village for more than three years. "They got the government grant but they never conformed to the grant's requirements.

"It makes me sick."

Tony A. Sewell, the property manager for Veterans Village, said the complex had been converted to use for low-income residents after the last homeless veteran left, with tenants paying a straight $500-a-month rent plus their own power bill, regardless of income level.

But renting to low-income residents does not mean THAP would qualify for some other automatic property tax exemption, said Deputy Property Appraiser Warren Weathers. The complex would have to receive a government subsidy of some sort or be part of the Housing and Urban Development Department's Section 8 program to receive such an exemption, Weathers said.

"It sounds like what they have is just cheap, rental housing," said Weathers.

If the property appraiser determines the tax exemption is improper, THAP could be liable for a tax bill of about $8,000 a year for the past three years.

When asked about the status of Veterans Village and informed of the questionable tax exemption, the VA's Office of the Inspector General assigned special agent Quentin Aucoin to investigate.

Jim Gorn, director of criminal investigations for the Inspector General, said his office still has an open investigation into THAP's operation of Veterans Village from the time Chester Luney was THAP's chief executive officer.

"I think the VA is trying to get that property back," Gorn said.

Luney was a central figure in the U.S. government's prosecution of a bribery scandal involving former city of Tampa housing boss Steve LaBrake, his wife Lynne McCarter LaBrake and city contractor Dean Ryan.

All four were indicted in November 2003 in a conspiracy to build a south Tampa mansion for the LaBrakes in return for housing contracts to THAP and to Ryan. Ryan agreed to testify for the government and received a probationary term. Luney and the LaBrakes were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from two years and nine months to five years.

It was during that investigation that the Times raised questions about Luney's role with Veterans Village, sparking the VA inquiry that continues.

As an $80,279-a-year psychologist at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Luney wrote the grant applications for the homeless shelter, which funneled tax dollars to THAP, where Luney also collected an annual paycheck of $78,000 as the nonprofit's top executive.

In 2001, amid news stories that veterans were being shortchanged at the homeless shelter, Luney abruptly resigned his VA post, then his THAP position.

THAP received more than $13,000 a month from the VA for the shelter's 23 veterans, who were supposed to live rent-free and receive meals, transportation assistance and vocational training. Instead, the veterans said they were forced to pay $150 a month rent and got no meals and little in the way of other services.

At the same time, Luney had handsome perks at THAP, including a liberal expense account, the use of a $45,000 sport utility vehicle and authorization to buy season tickets for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Tampa Bay Lightning, according to the nonprofit's records.

In early 2002, the VA voted to freeze $1.2-million in grant money approved for veterans programs administered by THAP. But no criminal charges were ever lodged against Luney or THAP for misappropriation of VA funds, and VA officials say they have not concluded an inquiry in to how much, if any, of $415,337 allocated from the VA to THAP ought to be recouped.

"To take advantage of veterans like they did is the worst thing I can think of," said Tuttle, the former Veterans Village resident. "But as far as the VA investigating THAP over it, at this point I don't have a lot of faith in them doing anything about it."

--Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or by e-mail at testerman@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 11, 2005, 01:00:09]


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