A vast green space in one of the poshest neighborhoods in Los Angeles is slated to become a haven for homeless veterans. That's a big change for the campus of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center.
For years, parts of the property were illegally rented to a variety of commercial enterprises having nothing to do with helping veterans. This month, two men involved in those deals will be sentenced to federal prison for bribery and fraud.
The nearly 400 acres of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center were donated in the 19th century to be a home for old and disabled soldiers. But the land hasn't been used that way in decades. More recently it's been home to parking lots for school buses and rental cars, a commercial laundry for hotels, a storage facility for TV shows, among other uses having nothing to do with veterans.
So when he became secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014, Robert McDonald examined all of those rental agreements. "The money didn't add up," he says. "There was some indication of payoffs, of bribery."
He added, "if we found monkey business, we turned it over to the FBI."
There had been no public accounting of what the VA West Los Angeles took in from these rentals or where the money went. NPR obtained documents in 2012 that showed the rentals at the VA had brought in at least $28 million and maybe more than $40 million. At the same time, there was no action on plans to create housing on the campus for homeless vets.
McDonald says the parking lot deals looked particularly fishy. "If there's a sweetheart deal going on, who made that sweetheart deal and what are they getting out of it?"
A man named David Richard Scott got a lot out of those deals. He had the parking concession on the campus and lied about how much money he took in. As a result, the VA didn't get what it was owed. According to court documents, Scott shortchanged the government more than $13 million. In May, he pleaded guilty to fraud, forfeited millions in cash, cars and real estate, and agreed to serve nearly six years in prison.
Scott got away with the scam because he was bribing another man named Ralph Tillman, who oversaw all the rental deals on the VA campus. Tillman has also pleaded guilty and faces a maximum sentence of eight years in prison.
"We need to rebuild veterans' trust in what we're doing on this campus," says Meghan Flanz, who is in charge of turning the VA West Los Angeles campus into a community for at least 1,200 chronically homeless veterans. The plan was part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by homeless vets.
Despite the history of conflict and corruption at VA West Los Angeles, Flanz moved from Washington, D.C., back to her native Southern California to take what she describes as her dream job.
"This is a moral imperative," she says. "There are veterans who need housing. We've got the space to house them. The property was deeded to us to house them. So we will get this done."
The vision is huge. It encompasses not only housing with on-site services but places for residents to socialize, to get job training, to make music and art. The obstacles are also huge. They include the need to find funding to renovate some of the campus's many empty buildings or build new housing from scratch.
But the VA does not foot the bill for veteran housing. It is now trying to hire a developer who knows how to piece together funds from an assortment of local, state and federal programs.
So out of the 1,200 or more veterans who might someday live on the campus, there are now just 54 who do — all of them in Building 209. It's the only one that has been converted to housing so far. William Williamson loves it.
"I look at it this way: It was God-given to me," he says, "and I bless him and the people here at the building every day I wake up."
Williamson was a jet mechanic on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. When the Navy was no longer his home, sometimes prison was.
He says he did time for various things, "like grand theft auto," but "mostly [for] manufacturing drugs." The last time he got busted, he went away for 10 years.
He lost his permanent housing three years ago in a roommate dispute. Then it was couch surfing, a shelter and, eventually, the street. That was "eye-opening," Williamson says. It was especially scary at night, "when you try to find a place to sleep, 'cause you never know what's going to happen."
Now Williamson lives close to all his doctors at the VA Medical Center who help him with his asthma, heart problems and nerve damage in both legs. And the social services in the building help him with everything from military benefits to grief over the death of a friend. An outside organization called Step Up on Second provides those services. But Tod Lipka, the CEO, says there's one thing his organization can't provide for the residents here — community.
"Most people want to live in a neighborhood where other people are, but right now, for the first tenants, there's no other housing on the campus," which can make them feel isolated, Lipka says.
That will change. Two more empty buildings next to 209 are about to be converted to housing. But the renovations won't be done for almost two years. Even then, there will be just over 170 formerly homeless vets living on the campus. That's a small fraction of the number the VA hopes will someday live at this former home for old and disabled soldiers.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today President Trump took aim at one of his harshest critics. He revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan. Here is White House press secretary Sarah Sanders reading from the president's statement.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations, wild outbursts on the Internet and television about this administration.
KELLY: Well, here to talk about this move is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hey, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: That reference to wild outbursts on the Internet - that's a reference to John Brennan's Twitter feed.
MYRE: Indeed it is. He's only tweeted 51 times, but they've been very harsh and almost all of them directed at the president, including one just yesterday that begins, it's astounding how often you fail to live up to the minimum standards of decency, civility and probity. So you get the taste very quickly. And after the announcement today that his security clearance had been revoked, he went on MSNBC to respond. And we'll hear a little bit of that now.
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JOHN BRENNAN: I've seen this type of behavior and actions on the part of foreign tyrants and despots and autocrats for many, many years during my CIA and national security career. I never ever thought that I would see it here in the United States.
MYRE: So there are many other former intelligence officials who have criticized the president but not in such harsh, personal terms as Brennan has repeatedly done.
KELLY: Yeah. I know from interviewing John Brennan myself and asking him about this, and he says, look; I don't think President Trump is fit to be president, and I've got a moral responsibility to speak out. Let me ask you this 'cause this is something a lot of people may not know. The president does have the authority. Singlehandedly, he can revoke a security clearance. It's happened before.
MYRE: Yes, it has happened before but not under these circumstances - in fact very different circumstances. It's never been as part of a personal dispute or for criticizing the president. It's been for a cause. Perhaps the most famous example about 15 years ago was a former national security adviser, Sandy Berger - after he left office, went to the National Archives and smuggled out some documents. So in these rare cases where it's happened, it's been for abusing the security clearance, not as some sort of personal dispute or feud.
KELLY: Why do former officials keep security clearances? I mean, John Brennan isn't running the CIA anymore. Why does he need a security clearance?
MYRE: Well, he doesn't absolutely need it, but he certainly has valuable experience. I mean, when he was replaced right as Trump came into office and named a new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, someone who had no experience in the national security community, he may have wanted to talk to John Brennan and speak about classified information. And Brennan could say, hey, you should do this; this is something you need to look at.
KELLY: So he needs to be read in in order to provide counsel.
MYRE: Absolutely. And in fact, Pompeo, while he was CIA director, said he had been in touch with the former chiefs who had held that job previously. In the military, we see that all the time. People leave the military. They may work for a defense contractor, and the information they have and want to continue to share is valuable to them as a - for their own career.
KELLY: John Brennan is not the - he's the only one who President Trump has yanked the clearance from today. But President Trump says there may be others.
MYRE: Yes. In his note, he mentioned nine officials, eight former and one current. So he went out of his way to list them by name, including some people like James Comey, the former FBI director who actually lost his security clearance when he left the job.
KELLY: And just briefly, John Brennan - we said he's one of the most prominent people speaking out. He's not the only one, and former officials seem to be doing this more and more.
MYRE: Yeah, they really have. It's a trend that's been going on I think post-9/11, and it certainly accelerated under Trump. Now, a lot of the officials say, we need to have a voice in these serious ongoing matters. And they're also feeling hurt personally by what the president has attacked - done and by attacking the intelligence community.
KELLY: All right, that is national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thanks, Greg.
MYRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.