[Hpn] Poverty Pimp uncovered in Tampa Bay area

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Mon, 15 Oct 2001 10:59:19 -0700


http://www.sptimes.com:80/News/101101/TampaBay/Federal_inquiry_targe.shtml

St. Petersburg Times,
published October 11, 2001

Federal inquiry targets director of nonprofit
 
Chester M. Luney is under scrutiny for directing grant money to an agency he
works for. 

By JEFF TESTERMAN and CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Chester M. Luney is under scrutiny for directing grant money to an agency he
works for.

TAMPA -- The Inspector General's Office for the Department of Veterans
Affairs is investigating Chester M. Luney after disclosures that he used his
VA position to obtain federal grant money for a homeless veterans shelter he
oversees. 

Luney, who last week abruptly quit his $80,279-a-year job as a staff
psychologist at the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, wrote applications
leading to grants of $415,337 to the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, where
Luney is paid $78,000 annually as executive director.

A 31-year employee of the VA, Luney, 56, quit the same day the St.
Petersburg Times requested records on the federal grants. The Inspector
General's Office opened its investigation after the Times disclosed Luney's
dual roles. 

"The inspector general has opened an investigation focusing on Chester
Luney," said Kerri Childress, a spokeswoman for the inspector general in
Washington, D.C. 

"They are not looking into THAP so much as at Luney," she added. "But I
can't imagine how they could look at him without looking at THAP and Luney's
relationship with the nonprofit."

Luney's VA supervisor, Arthur Rosenblatt, said last week he had no idea
Luney was involved with THAP, which runs the Veterans Village shelter for
homeless veterans with the VA grant money. When news stories reported
Luney's links with THAP and embattled city housing chief Steve LaBrake,
Rosenblatt said he questioned Luney and "he categorically denied" that he
worked for THAP. 

Luney did not have an office at the VA hospital and did not keep regular
hours. He spent his time writing grants, Rosenblatt said, but also was
supposed to counsel veterans at THAP's shelter.

Yet several vets said they rarely saw Luney and were generally unable to
reach him for counseling.

"I called Luney 20 times and never got through to him once," said Roger
Barnes, 43, a naval veteran fighting alcoholism when he lived at Veterans
Village in 1999 and 2000.

"I saw Luney one time and that was when he came over to tell us the VA
people were coming, and we were told to make everything look good."

Five separate nonprofit organizations are affiliated with THAP, providing
medical services and housing to low-income residents. THAP's 1998 tax return
describes Luney as its executive director and says he provides his services
"to any one of the entities in the THAP group."

"Now that I know he's involved with THAP, it definitely looks like a
conflict of interest," said Lynn Leftwich, 34, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives
at Veterans Village.

That and the flow of federal dollars to THAP for its homeless vets program
in the past four years are the likely subjects of the inspector general's
inquiry. 

The VA has paid THAP $19 a day for each of 23 vets housed in small
two-bedroom apartments at 1911 137th Ave. E -- a subsidy that amounts to
$570 a month per veteran. THAP also has required the vets to pay $150 a
month in rent plus all utility bills -- all paid in cash.

The VA subsidy and the rent payments to THAP total $16,560 a month. But
THAP's monthly mortgage on the complex is just $2,076.50.

Under the federal grant program, the vets are supposed to pay no rent and
get free meals, Rosenblatt said. Leftwich and other residents at Veterans
Village say they have never received any food from THAP.

Begun in 1994, the federal grant program was designed to help public and
nonprofit organizations provide transitional housing for some of the
estimated 250,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. The money paid to THAP is
part of $53-million awarded across the U.S. The grant program helps provide
shelter to homeless veterans for up to 24 months.

However, Kenneth Shackleford, a 65-year-old Korean War veteran who collects
cash rental and utility payments for THAP, said he has lived at Veterans
Village for four years.

Luney offered no reason for his sudden resignation from the VA. He departs
with an annual pension of about $46,000, VA officials said.

Luney has been under fire in recent weeks for a series of favors he provided
to LaBrake, Tampa's housing boss, and Lynne McCarter, LaBrake's aide and
girlfriend. A federal grand jury and the Florida Ethics Commission are
looking into the circumstances behind the couple's building a
4,200-square-foot home in South Tampa.

The Times revealed that Luney signed a lease to help McCarter qualify for a
$230,000 mortgage, agreed to have THAP buy $34,100 in gift baskets from her
and used THAP money to buy out her car lease and pay her for new tires.
Luney also facilitated several services for the couple's W Corona Street
lot, including paying a moving company $22,000 to remove an old home from
the property, getting a pool dug and having construction debris removed by
THAP employees. 

Luney referred a request for comment to Warren Dawson, a Tampa attorney
named by THAP's board to undertake an internal review of the nonprofit
agency following the news stories concerning Luney's favors.

Dawson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
 Copyright 2001 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved

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