After a scathing audit by the Department of Veterans Affairs and a series of news articles, I've learned that investigators from the Office of Government Accountability (GAO) are investigating the entire VA process which includes the $500 million Fort Howard LLC project proposed for the Fort Howard VA Medical Center campus.
Some of you may remember a rather short notice that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on October 31, 2011, (see photo) announcing a draft available for public review and the issue of what is known as a FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) regarding the development project's impact on the community.
The uproar occurred over the announcement that the community had less than a month to voice their concerns or the project would move forward.
The simmering project boiled over when the Dundalk Eagle ran a story in which Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger was interviewed by the paper. His statements seemed to indicate the project was moving along with the blessing of the VA, despite the fact that the data used by Fort Howard LLC was submitted also by Federal Development, leader of an earlier attempt to redevelop the land, from 2003 and was ultimately terminated in June of 2009 by the VA.
The VA’s own website reveals some of the apparent violations of their own regulations. In order to meet the deadline of obtaining the Enhanced Use Lease (EUL), Fort Howard LLC relied on outdated documentation from the previous developer Federal Development LLC. After a request for a EUL from a developer is rejected, the process begins anew, according to the VA.
Federal Development was involved in a scandal when some of the veterans' deposit money for rental units was not returned (see this article published by the Baltimore Sun, which also alluded to the termination of the EUL).
Now here is where the discrepancies involving the compliance required by developer Fort Howard LLC come under careful scrutiny. In the case of Fort Howard LLC, they were required under the VA guidelines to submit an entirely new set of studies including numerous issues such as impact on the community on matters as traffic, and infrastructure reports regarding water, soil and power, among others.
The crucial question regarding this matter involves the Secretary of the VA’s authority to sign these EUL leases. That power expired 12/31/11 at midnight. Now given those timelines one only needs to look at the VA’s web site and the data submitted by Fort Howard LLC which was dated as far back as January of 2003 to see that at the very least this is a violation.
When I interviewed Mr. Ed Bradley from the VA who was overseeing the Fort Howard EUL, he confirmed that once the current developers' EUL is rejected, the new bidder must begin the process anew. I then asked several more questions concerning the VA’s website showing the current data for Fort Howard LLC was outdated and submitted by Federal Development. His reply was the VA had to update their site, but in their final report they elude to the old data which conflicts with his comment to me. As of the date of this blog the site still contains the same information.
I further inquired if Fort Howard LLC had met the requirements before the deadline and he said he had no comment and they were given a short term lease to allow them additional time to meet the requirements. When asked how this could be within the guidelines he responded he could not comment on that issue.
He also could not comment on any of the requirements Fort Howard LLC had met or what the timeline was regarding the deadline of meeting these requirements.
This brings into question Congressman Ruppersberger's remarks in the Eagle interview. In a letter to the VA both Ruppersberger and U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski stated the VA addressed many of the community concerns but there was no elaboration regarding these concerns, according to the Eagle. This is strange because out of the 9,500 residents of the Fort Howard area there are over 6,000 signatures of protest over this project. This also includes complaints from HSPH and ACHP Historical Societies along with 15 unanswered ones from the community. Under the VA’s own guidelines they must respond to these community concerns.
“I feel very good about the response I got”, Ruppersberger was quoted as saying in the Eagle interview. The congressman went on to state “I feel like Secretary Shinscki (Eric Shinsecki, Secretary of the VA) has addressed the concerns that were raised.”
If that is the case then why did Congress ask for the GAO to investigate the EUL process?
Shinsecki went on to say in the story from the Eagle, “… VA is committed to establishing a EUL at the VA Fort Howard campus to provide a full spectrum of Veteran’s preference housing that will serve multiple Veteran populations …”
There are still many issues facing this proposed development and these are just some of them.
The GOA investigation will be crucial to not only the Fort Howard LLC, but the entire VA EUL program.