U.S. settles suit over misuse of West L.A. veterans campus

VA settles lawsuit with U.S. government, will plan West L.A. housing for homeless vets

The federal government has agreed to settle a lawsuit accusing the Department of Veterans Affairs of misusing its sprawling West Los Angeles health campus while veterans with brain injuries and mental impairment slept in the streets, people familiar with the agreement said Tuesday.

Under the settlement, the VA will develop a master land-use plan for the campus that identifies sites for housing homeless veterans. Further details were not available.

Veterans Affairs officials did not respond to requests for comment.  VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald has scheduled an announcement at the West Los Angeles Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon.

"I believe the settlement is a game changer," said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who succeeded Henry Waxman this month representing the Westside district that includes the property.

In its 2011 suit, the ACLU of Southern California argued that the VA should develop housing for veterans on the 387-acre campus. The suit accused the agency of illegally leasing land to UCLA for its baseball stadium, a television studio for set storage, a hotel laundry and a parking service. It also made a land deal with the private Brentwood School for  tennis and basketball courts.

A federal judge in 2013 struck down the leases, saying they were "totally divorced from the provision of healthcare." More recently, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero halted construction of an amphitheater on the property.

The settlement comes as officials conduct Los Angeles County's biennial homeless count. Los Angeles County has more than 4,200 homeless veterans, the most in the nation.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised to house every homeless veteran in the city by the end of the year, part of a national effort led by the Obama administration to get those who served off the streets.

The campus, wedged between Westwood and Brentwood, is the largest undeveloped property on the Westside, and part of the VA's largest health center. Its rolling greens were deeded to the government more than a century ago as a home for old soldiers.

For 80 years, the VA campus provided shelter and services for thousands of disabled veterans. In the 1960s, it stopped accepting new residents, and structures were either converted to other uses or allowed to deteriorate.

Over the years, residents called for preserving the land as a park. The VA at one point proposed developing condominums and offices to generate funding for veteran healthcare.

Bobby Shriver, a former Santa Monica mayor who lobbied for converting the underused buildings into therapeutic housing for veterans, said when the suit was filed that years of negotiations with the VA and federal officeholders had failed.

The suit was filed on behalf of Vietnam Veterans of America and 10 veterans who became homeless because of traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorders or severe mental impairments.

Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU's former chief counsel and now director of Public Counsel's  Opportunity Under Law section, who headed the legal team, did not respond to messages. A Department of Justice spokeswoman said she would not comment on pending litigation.

In September, the Government Accountability Office assailed the West L.A. VA for improperly diverting funds and underbilling lease-holders, potentially losing out on millions of dollars. In one case, a private laundry service that missed $300,000 in payments was allowed to remain on the property, the audit found.

Donna Beiter, the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System's longtime director,  stepped down  on Dec. 31. Beiter cited the death of her husband in announcing her retirement.

In May, Eric Shinseki resigned as secretary of Veterans Affairs, apologizing for a scandal involving widespread coverups of months-long wait times for veterans seeking hospital care. McDonald, the former president of Procter & Gamble Co., succeeded Shinseki in July.

After years of prodding, the veterans agency is converting one building on the West Los Angeles campus to house ailing veterans for a year, with a possible one-year extension. Advocates, however, say the veterans need permanent housing that includes drug counseling and mental health treatment.

Four years ago, the state opened a veterans home on the property, but the kitchen was too small to feed the residents and the building remains half-empty.

Protesters have urged the VA to expand permanent housing on the property. Local VA officials, however, countered  that veterans prefer to live in housing scattered through the region, rather than clustered at the West L.A. site.

Twitter: @geholland

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