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    Records: Vietnam stories just that

    Chester Luney, at the center of a federal inquiry into VA grant money, spins tales of undercover work.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD and JEFF TESTERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 12, 2001


    TAMPA -- Chester M. Luney was never shy about discussing his tours of duty in Vietnam. His war experience provided a bond with many of the battle-scarred veterans he was paid to counsel for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    "He did two tours in Vietnam," said Ken Shackleford, 65, resident manager of the Veterans Village shelter for homeless vets set up by Luney. "He's a fine man, a caring man."

    Steve LaBrake, the Tampa housing boss who benefitted from favors Luney did for a controversial home LaBrake built in South Tampa, heard Luney's Vietnam tales. "He alluded to (how) he was a paratrooper ... " LaBrake said.

    Luney himself talked about it in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "I've seen the spoils of war," Luney said. "I've seen the devastation."

    He said he was a special operations officer who traveled undercover with Bob Hope. His job: arresting military personnel involved in illegal arms trading.

    There's just one problem with Luney's Vietnam memories: He was never there.

    Luney, who is now the subject of a federal investigation regarding the funneling of VA grant money to a non-profit agency he also ran, spent his active military career stateside. He did stints from 1970 to 1974 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, military records show.

    "If he had served in Vietnam, it would be reflected in his record," said William Coleman, spokesman for the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

    As for his undercover work with Bob Hope, Coleman said: "It makes a good story. It might make a good movie."

    Luney, 56, abruptly resigned his $80,279-a-year VA job last week and is now being investigated by the Inspector General's Office.

    Luney could not be reached for comment. Luney's doctorate in education was excellent training for work he did in a rehabilitation program for veterans returning home during the troop drawdown in Vietnam, said Harold Reitan, 72, a retired Air Force colonel who supervised Luney at Lackland from 1971 to 1974.

    "If you could have seen the workload here, you would understand why he didn't go" to Vietnam, Reitan said.

    The VA Inspector General's Office opened an investigation this week after learning that Luney was using his VA position to write grants that funneled $415,337 to the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, where Luney is paid $78,000 a year as executive director.

    Investigators also want to know more about VA subsidies THAP receives to house homeless vets at Veterans Village, an apartment complex THAP owns.

    Arthur Rosenblatt, Luney's former supervisor at the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, said federal grant money was supposed to provide vets a rent-free home and free meals. But veterans told the Times they are required to pay $150 a month in rent -- always in cash -- and never get meals.

    Rosenblatt also said that Luney is not a clinical psychologist, as Luney told the Times. Luney was a counseling psychologist at the VA.

    Last month, Luney acknowledged favors worth thousands of dollars to help LaBrake and his girlfriend, Lynne McCarter, build a 4,200-square-foot home. A federal grand jury and the Florida Ethics Commission are trying to determine whether LaBrake or McCarter used undue influence in building the house.

    - Times staff writer Kathryn Wexler and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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