Judge to Rule “Soon” on Suit Contending Misuse of VA Property

Army veteran and activist Robert Rosebrock stood outside the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse and pointed to a large print of an aerial image that only minutes earlier had been used as a courtroom exhibit.

"You have this state of the art facility here," said Rosebook, indicating a ballpark on the Veterans Administration West Los Angeles Healthcare Center, one of several campus facilities operated by outside entitites.

"But we have homeless veterans outside. It's not right."

In a nutshell, he had spelled out the core issue of Valenti vs. Shinseki, a suit contending it's illegal to commit Veterans Administration (VA) real estate to the use of outside groups, both public and private – even commercial enterprises.

Driving north from Wilshire Boulevard through the VA campus, one can see oil production leasehold with large above-ground storage tanks. Not far away is Jackie Robinson Stadium, the home park for the UCLA Bruins baseball team.

Marriott leases a space for a laundry that serves a number of hospitals, though -- as ACLU Mark Rosenbaum notes -- ironically not the VA hospital on the same campus.

Neighboring Brentwood School has built athletic facilities on 20 acres at the northwest corner of the 388-acre VA property. There are two theaters. A rental car company no longer uses a VA parking lot for vehicle storage, but in all there remain 15 sites operated by outside entities for their own purposes.

"Let's use the land the way it was intended--for veteran patients only," said Francisco Juarez, a USMC veteran of the Vietnam War.

When the site was originally deeded for the "National Home for Disabled Soldiers and Sailors" in the 19th century, it carried the stipulation that the land forever be reserved for veterans. More recent federal statutes specify that VA healthcare resources must benefit veterans’ healthcare, according to Amos Hartston of the Inner City Law Center, co-counsel for the veterans suing Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

In 2008, Congress forbade the VA from entering into further property sharing arrangements at the West LA campus.

But in court Friday, attorney Karen Bloom argued for the VA that the existing arrangements are legal as a use of healthcare resources because they do benefit veterans in some fashion.

In some cases, Bloom said, the VA collects rental income that remains for the use of the West LA campus. As another example, she said parks provide veterans a therapeutic environment. Opposing counsel was not persuaded.

"They might be good uses. They might be bringing in revenue. But what they are not is healthcare for veterans," Hartston said.

At issue Friday was a request for a finding that the agreements are invalid and an injunction against the VA. Federal District Judge S. James Otero declined to rule from the bench, but indicated he hoped to have a decision "soon."

Should he rule against the VA, it's not yet clear what the immediate impact would be.

Arguing for the suing veterans, ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum urged Judge Otero to strike down the agreements, which conceivably could have the impact of compelling the outside groups to quit the VA property in short order.

VA attorney Bloom took the position that a decision on the propriety of the property sharing should be handed down before the court considers any potential remedies. Some of the uses date back decades.

UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium -- home of the NCAA champions -- originally was built as an American Legion ballpark. Even some veterans critical of the VA expressed hope the ballpark could stay and remain as a tribute to the late trailblazing athlete who served in the Army.

Many in the neighboring Brentwood believe the community has benefitted from at least some of the VA's property sharing agreements, and would prefer not to see them stricken.

"It's benefitting the soldiers. It's benefitting the community," said Nancy Freedman, chair of the Brentwood Community Council.

Among the areas of campus that ultimately could be affected by a ruling against the VA are 16 prominent acres inside the northeast corner of Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards. That land is being developed as a public park under the authority of the Veterans Park Conservancy, which has an agreement with VA, but is not part of it.

Rosebrock believes that site should be used to create housing for homeless veterans. He sees the VA's commitment to a public park as evidence the VA is under the influence of community voices that he contends would prefer VA property be put to uses that benefit the community before veterans.

Freedman, who sits on the Veterans Park Conservancy Board, disagrees.

"Their whole purpose is to do good for veterans," Freedman said. "Not to take away from veterans." She noted that even as the property sharing continues for now, the VA is proceeding with additional housing units on campus. 

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