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Federal government joins whistle-blower suit against L.A. over housing for the disabled

Federal government joins whistle-blower suit against L.A. over housing for the disabled
Mei Ling speaks outside the federal courthouse in Los Angeles. The U.S. is joining a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by Ling and a housing nonprofit that alleges L.A. improperly received federal funds by falsely claiming it was following laws that require accessible housing. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

The United States is joining a whistle-blower lawsuit that alleges the city of Los Angeles illegally reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding by falsely claiming it was providing sufficient housing for people with disabilities, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

Under the law, certain federally funded housing projects must provide a percentage of units that are accessible to people with disabilities. The city had to declare that it was following the law in order to get the grants, but it failed to actually comply with the rules, according to the lawsuit.

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"While people with disabilities struggled to find accessible housing, the city and its agents denied them equal access to housing while falsely certifying the availability of such housing to keep the dollars flowing," acting U.S. Atty. Sandra R. Brown said in a statement Wednesday.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, speaks about a lawsuit alleging the city of L.A. improperly received hundreds of millions in federal funds by falsely claiming it was following laws requiring accessible housing for people with disabilities.

Federal officials would not say how much in damages they might seek from the city.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for L.A. City Atty. Mike Feuer, promised to vigorously fight the lawsuit, saying it was an "abuse of power" that would "deprive the city of crucial funds needed to address our housing crisis."

The whistle-blower lawsuit was filed six years ago by the nonprofit Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley and wheelchair user Mei Ling, who lives in North Hollywood.

Ling and the housing nonprofit sued on behalf of the United States, arguing that the city had improperly received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds. They called for the federal government to be awarded three times the financial damages it had suffered because of false claims by the city and the Community Redevelopment Agency, which is also a defendant. Ling and the nonprofit are seeking a share of any recovered money.

The federal government is jumping into the lawsuit nearly a year after the city reached a sweeping settlement with disability rights advocates that focused on many of the same concerns.

Under the settlement with three nonprofit groups, the city promised to spend at least $200 million over a decade to address complaints that publicly funded housing did not include enough apartments accessible for people who use wheelchairs, have hearing impairments or live with other disabilities. L.A. agreed to ensure that 4,000 units met those requirements.

The Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley also was involved in that lawsuit and agreed to the settlement of the case, which revolved around apartments in more than 700 affordable housing projects, according to city officials. At the time, a lawyer for the disability rights groups that sued Los Angeles called it the "largest accessibility settlement ever reached involving affordable housing."

In addition to the $200 million for accessible housing, L.A. agreed to pay $4.5 million to the nonprofits that sued the city, plus other fees. Wilcox, in his statement Wednesday, said the agreement showed that Los Angeles had "demonstrated its commitment to create affordable housing that is accessible to all."

"Yet, the [Trump] administration's lawsuit seeks to divert tens of millions more from L.A. taxpayers to the federal treasury — without housing a single person," he said in an emailed statement. "This abuse of power cannot stand."

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said prosecutors have been investigating the matter for five years. The Wednesday announcement, he said, "has nothing to do with any pressure from Washington to pursue a case."

In the whistle-blower suit, Ling and the housing nonprofit allege that L.A. improperly received at least $933 million in federal funds over six years.

The federal government has not yet indicated how much money it believes was inappropriately obtained. It has until the end of July to file its own complaint in the case.

The suit was filed under a federal law that allows private parties to sue on behalf of the United States when they believe someone had turned in false claims for government funds. The federal government can step into such lawsuits, as it decided to do in this case, and plaintiffs can receive a share of any recovered money.

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Federal prosecutors said that the law requires that 5% of units in certain federally funded apartment projects be accessible to people with mobility impairments. An additional 2% must be accessible to people with vision and hearing impairments.

In addition, cities that receive the funds must have monitoring programs to make sure that people with disabilities are not excluded from federally funded housing programs or otherwise subjected to discrimination because of their disabilities.

Under the $200-million settlement announced last year, Los Angeles did not admit any wrongdoing. The City Council allocated $35.9 million to comply with the settlement during the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Advocates for people with disabilities said many apartment buildings financed with public funds did not have features needed by disabled tenants, such as doorways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Sharon Kinlaw, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley, said that because of the lack of accessible units, some Los Angeles wheelchair users have had to rely on makeshift plywood ramps or be carried up stairs.

"I have people who have crawled down the stairs on their bellies in order to get out of their apartments because they didn't have elevators," Kinlaw said.

Odion Leslie Okojie, an attorney for the housing council, drew a contrast between the case his client settled last year and the one involving the federal government.

The first, he said, focused on civil rights violations by the city. "This case today is a fraud case," he said.

Twitter: @LATimesEmily

Twitter: @DavidZahniser

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UPDATES:

5:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details.

2:55 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from prosecutors and disability advocates.

This article was originally published at 10:55 a.m.

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