The West LA VA Is Trying To Evict A Jewish Veterans Group

Members of Jewish War Veterans Post 118 and volunteers stuff gift bags for the yearly "Gift for a Yank" event at the VA. (Courtesy of Matthew Millen)

A group of Jewish military veterans is being evicted from their meeting place on the West L.A. Veterans Affairs campus.

Matthew Millen is the commander of Jewish War Veterans Post 118, a Santa Monica-based organization that meets a handful of Sundays a year in a boardroom on the sixth floor of the VA hospital in Brentwood. Millen said he was blindsided by a letter from the VA that arrived last month.

"We are writing you with respect to your organization's use of the above referenced building and room within the [West Los Angeles] campus," it began. "The Department of Veterans Affairs is seeking alternative use of the space currently occupied by your organization...to further assist Veterans specifically on-site." Signed by Lori Moore, Associate Chief of Asset Management with the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, the letter gave the Jewish War Veterans 30 days' notice that they are not longer welcome to use the room.

"It was surprising. We've been meeting there for six years. I didn't understand it," Millen said. "The meetings are on Sunday mornings. No one is utilizing this room on a Sunday morning."

The decision to evict the group comes at a time when land use at the 388-acre West L.A. VA is under a microscope.

After decades of neglect and mismanagement, the agency is facing pressure to clean up its act and heed the recommendations of a scathing watchdog report, which found nearly a dozen improper leases still operating on the land, years after a legal settlement and the passage of a new federal law dictating strict requirements that land use principally benefit veterans.

In an email exchange, the VA told Millen it was working to comply with federal law governing land use on the massive campus, as well as a Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General report released last September.

But Millen says the new rules are being enforced unevenly, and at the expense of small organizations that do in fact serve veterans.

A MISSION OF SERVICE

Post 118 has been meeting in a conference room at the VA hospital on the third Sunday of every other month since 2012. The group is a local chapter of the oldest congressionally-chartered Veterans Service Organization (VSO) in the country, founded in 1896.

According to Millen, they host speakers, discuss VA benefits, and plan group functions for the year.

The biggest event on the calendar is called "Gift for a Yank."

"On Christmas Day, because we're not celebrating Christmas, we're at the veterans hospital and all the facilities on the VA campus passing out gifts," said Millen. "Having someone visit a hospitalized veteran brings a smile to their face."

The event began in 1946, when the vaudeville entertainer Eddie Cantor joined forces with the Jewish War Veterans to bring some cheer to returning WWII veterans recovering at the VA in Los Angeles.

There are about a hundred members in Post 118, from the WWII generation up to current servicemembers, Millen said. A couple dozen usually show up to meetings.

Or, they did — until the VA's letter arrived last month.

ILLEGAL LEASES

The September 28 OIG report blasted 11 leases for not providing sufficient services to veterans as required by the West L.A. Leasing Act passed by Congress in 2016. The leases are large — including a Breitburn oil drilling operation, CalTrans efforts to widen the 405, and a city park with softball fields and a dog run — and they represent dozens of acres of prime real estate between pricey Westwood and Brentwood.

The watchdog agency said these leases were improperly using dozens of acres of federal land without "principally benefit veterans and their families."

The biggest chunk of VA land called out by the OIG? 22 acres of the north side of campus carved out for the athletic facilities at the private Brentwood School. Under the current agreement, the VA charges the school $850,000 per year along with $918,000 in "non-monetary, in-kind consideration" — including landscaping and special events for veterans.

But the sports complex and in-kind consideration are not focused enough on serving veterans, according to the OIG. A Brentwood School spokesperson hasn't returned multiple KPCC/LAist requests for comment.

The findings evoked a long history of exploitation on the VA's West Los Angeles campus. The land was originally gifted as a home for disabled and aging Civil War soldiers, but for years, private companies and organizations were allowed to use space for things that had nothing to do with veterans — like a car rental lot and television studio equipment. That situation culminated in a 2011 lawsuit by homeless and disabled veterans who argued the property should be focused on housing and services for people who have served. In 2015, the Secretary of the VA agreed to a legal settlement with the plaintiffs, and pledged to overhaul the massive campus, directing the agency to develop a Master Plan including 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans.

[READ MORE: Everything You Need To Know About The Massive, Decaying West LA VA Campus — And The Plan To Fix It]

The OIG report mentioned the Jewish War Veterans Post 118, but in a separate category of land use agreements that had expired or remained undocumented. Those 14 agreements included the Gary Sinise Foundation and a 9-hole, par-3 golf course on the campus.

Post 118 commander Millen, an Army veteran, said he used email to book the room at the VA every year, but admits he was remiss in getting updated license paperwork for the use of the conference room. He thinks the VA has an obligation to work with congressionally chartered veteran organizations, however, instead of booting groups like the Jewish War Veterans from campus.

"Basically, the VA dropped the ball," he said. "[The OIG] report recommended the VA establish new agreements compliant with the leasing act. It didn't say they had to be canceled."

DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS RESPONDS

The larger organizations that rent space on the VA don't appear to be going anywhere. Big swaths of land highlighted in by the OIG are still being used for non-VA purposes.

In response to a KPCC/LAist inquiry, the VA declined to say if there were any changes to the 11 major leases involving dozens of acres of valuable West L.A. property to ensure they complied with the OIG's findings.

On the use of the meeting space for Jewish War Veterans Post 118, the VA said it is working within the letter of the law, which reserves the use of VA buildings by VSOs "for purposes of assisting claimants in the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims for [VA] benefits."

The agency also said it is trying to maintain its hospital facilities for VA purposes, and opening, securing, and cleaning rooms outside normal business hours is a burden on staff.

"VAGLAHS regrets the inconvenience some groups may experience, but we are doing what is necessary in order to comply with federal regulations, the inspector general's recommendations, the West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016 and the framework Draft Master Plan while ensuring that VAGLAHS' limited resources are prioritized to meet Veterans' health care needs," the statement said.

At least one organization mentioned by the OIG said it is no longer operating on the campus — but that move came long before the report was published, suggesting the agency was working with outdated records.

"We've not been involved in any land use there in about six years," said Steve Peck, CEO of the veterans housing and services non-profit U.S. VETS. "That our name survived on this OIG list tells me they looked at some old information."

U.S. VETS and its partners have been selected as the principal developer working to remake a large portion of the VA campus, including building 1,200 units of housing.

"The V.A. is reacting to the letter of the law in the OIG report and trying to now do it right," Peck said. "There were things going on (on the campus) that shouldn't have been. So I think they're trying very much now to...comply with the law, do the best they can with the Master Plan and move forward and leave all that behind them."

In recent years, the City of L.A. has responded to new land use requirements for its Veterans Barrington Park by reducing the size of a popular dog run and including a veterans memorial on-site.

"Veterans' Barrington Park exists first and foremost to serve veterans, and Mayor Garcetti is committed to working with the federal government to meet the needs of men and women who have worn this nation's uniform," Anna Bahr, a spokesperson the Mayor's office, said in a statement. "The City will continue offering programming, hiring opportunities, and wellness initiatives for veterans in the park, and is in dialogue with the VA about expanding that work."

Meanwhile, Millen has brought his case to the local Veterans Community Oversight and Engagement Board tasked with advising the VA on implementation of the Master Plan to overhaul the campus. He says the loss of meeting space will hinder his group's ability to help veterans navigate the confusing bureaucracy of the VA and organize events like "Gift for a Yank" that benefit sick and disabled veterans on campus.

Millen also sent a letter to Washington D.C. asking Secretary Robert Wilkie to overturn the decision and allow the Jewish veterans to continue meeting at the VA.

"I'm kinda curious about why our group may have been singled out, and the other ones are still allowed to operate," he said. "I don't know."