Expos? Leads To Indictment p.21

By: ROBERT BUCKMAN A NEWSPAPER EXPOS? last year of abuses in the locally administered housing program for the homeless in Baton Rouge, La., has led to the federal indictment of the official allegedly responsible.
On March 31, 1996, the Advocate of Baton Rouge ran a two-page investigative report alleging that Lil Barrow-Veal, who administered foreclosed houses under contract with the United States Department of Urban Development, had leased or purchased 51 houses from HUD and then leased or sold them at considerable profit.
Some houses intended for the homeless she literally gave to relatives and affluent friends, the article charged.
After a 14-month federal investigation, Barrow-Veal was indicted last month on 38 counts of mail fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and other charges related to the housing program. Her attorney said she would plea not guilty.
Greg Garland, the reporter who investigated the program she administered, recently received the Investigative Reporters & Editors' award for investigative reporting by a newspaper under 100,000 circulation.
"This is a classic investigative story that really nails it," read his award citation, written before Barrow-Veal's indictment. "A sensational story that documented the widespread abuse of a major HUD program. Both HUD and the local official did everything possible to block access to the information. The reporter overcame major obstacles in seeking to detail major abuse and corruption in a federal homeless program at the expense of the poor."
Garland's story was one of 13 winners out of 450 entries.
Barrow-Veal, 57, a colorful, local figure, is a political prot?g? of four-term Gov. Edwin Edwards, who appointed her Lousiana's good-will ambassador to China. In 1995, she legally changed her first name to "Ambassador."
Garland said he had stumbled onto the housing story while investigating suspected fraudulent claims by private contractors to the state's Medicaid program.
He said he was overwhelmed by the amount of material and decided to focus on individual contractors, including Barrow-Veal, with whom he was familiar from an earlier, unrelated story.
"Her name cropped up, so I went in and started digging through documents," he said.
He learned that she had been terminated as a Medicaid provider the day after the inauguration of Gov. Murphy J. "Mike" Foster in January 1996.
"Once I found out she had been kicked out, I found about all the companies she owned, including one called Safety Net," he said. "When I ran Safety Net through our newspaper database, I found all these real estate transactions in which she bought a home from HUD and sold it the same day."
Garland soon found this was "one little sliver of the picture," that she had leased or purchased 51 homes. She paid $1 a year for the leased homes, which were supposed to be provided to families with incomes below about $22,000 a year, but she was renting them to unqualified persons with incomes of more than $45,000 a year for about $300 a month, which was "purely gravy" for her, Garland said.
Other houses, he said, she apparently had given rent-free to her brother and the widow of another brother.
"You can't possibly know how difficult this was," he said.
He had to research the complex regulations of HUD's homeless program, then he found that the sales transactions had not been filed at the local courthouse. When he attempted to find out from HUD who was living in the 51 homes, he was told the information is privileged under the Privacy Act.
By good luck, he found that Barrow-Veal had filed the names with the parish tax assessor and was thus public record. He then went to the individual houses, where in most cases the residents were reluctant to talk.
"She had put the word out, and they weren't

?(Buckman is a journalism professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.) [Caption]
?E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com
?copyright: Editor & Publisher June 28, 1997


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