Veterans fume over THAP chief's reports
By JEFF TESTERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- A shelter for homeless veterans got high marks from the Department of Veterans Affairs last year, allowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money to continue flowing to the program.
The glowing report was written by Chester M. Luney, then an $80,279-a-year VA psychologist.
At the same time he was praising the shelter, Luney was helping run it as a $78,000-a-year executive with the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan.
Now, veterans housed in the program say Luney's inspection report was filled with falsehoods that disguised myriad deficiencies. The VA and the Office of the Inspector General have begun an investigation into problems at THAP's shelter.
"It's all bull," said Allan Joseph Tuttle, a U.S. Navy veteran who lived at THAP's Veterans Village from 1997 until this year.
"First of all, there was no one there qualified to give any counseling. Job training was nonexistent. And there was one guy there who was living in filth that was so bad they had to take a hose to clean out his apartment."
Yet Luney gave passing grades across the board, listing apartment units in good condition and saying veterans were getting the vocational and counseling services they needed.
In his March 18, 2000, letter to the VA, Luney certified that the program "continues to provide transitional housing and supportive services," and meets all "requirements and standards."
Luney gave the shelter consistently high marks for compliance and documentation of resident files at Veterans Village.
But Tuttle and another veteran told the St. Petersburg Times that files were in disarray or missing.
"Resident files were a joke because there was nothing in them to begin with," Tuttle said. "They lost my file. I asked for it, and they said they couldn't find it."
Was Luney's inspection report fraudulent?
"That's what we're trying to find out," said Roger Casey, who directs the VA's homeless grant programs at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.
The VA is threatening to cut funding to THAP based on a surprise inspection that turned up widespread deficiencies at Veterans Village, 1911 137th Ave. E, earlier this month.
"We want to make sure the veterans are getting the best care possible and that THAP is doing what it is supposed to be doing," Casey said.
It is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, to file a false statement with a U.S. agency.
Audley Evans, a former Tampa Housing Authority executive director, was convicted of making false statements to the the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. One charge accused Evans of certifying that all housing units met HUD standards at a time when auditors gave failing marks to most units they inspected.
Luney, 56, abruptly resigned his post at the VA in early October, the same day the Times requested federal documents related to VA grants to THAP. As a VA employee, Luney wrote the grants that funneled $415,337 in VA money to THAP during the past four years.
Luney's VA boss, Arthur Rosenblatt, said Luney said he was not associated with THAP, though he was employed by other nonprofit companies related to THAP. On a document filed in 1996, however, when THAP sought bank financing to buy the 12 duplexes that make up Veterans Village, Luney signed as THAP's representative.
Rosenblatt said THAP was not supposed to collect rent at Veterans Village and was supposed to provide meals. But vets told the Times they never got food and were forced to pay $150 in monthly rent, always in cash.
Luney also is embroiled in a federal grand jury investigation into the construction of a spacious home in South Tampa by city housing chief Steve LaBrake and his aide and fiancee, Lynne McCarter.
Luney has admitted using THAP money for a series of favors to the couple that helped them build a 4,200-square-foot home.
Luney signed a lease to help McCarter qualify for a $230,000 mortgage, agreed to have THAP buy $34,100 worth of gift baskets from McCarter, used THAP money to buy her leased auto and ordered workers to move a house from McCarter's lot and provide excavation for a pool.
The Times attempted to reach Luney, THAP vice president Lynn Knox and Warren Dawson, an attorney hired to act as spokesman for THAP. None returned calls.
VA officials noted in late 1999 and again in early 2000 that inspection reports of Veterans Village were not being forwarded to the VA's grants section as required. "We believe the inspections are taking place and for one reason or another not being forwarded to us," one VA official wrote in February 2000.
A month later, Luney filed the inspection report some veterans say contained falsehoods.
"It seems apparent to me that Luney lied," Tuttle said. "It appears he profitted by defrauding veterans."
-- Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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