How Rick Santorum Ripped Off American Veterans

A controversial land deal by the presidential candidate robbed a vets’ home of tens of millions of dollars.

Andy Kroll, Mother Jones

Like any good presidential candidate, Rick Santorum heaps praise on America’s soldiers and veterans. He’s pledged to “make veterans a high priority” if elected president, adding, “This is not a Republican issue, this is not a Democratic issue, it is an American issue.” But as a US senator, Santorum engineered a controversial land deal that robbed the military’s top veterans’ home of tens of millions of dollars and worsened the deteriorating conditions at the facility.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home, which is run by the Department of Defense, bills itself as “premier home for military retirees and veterans.” The facility sprawls across 272 acres high on a hill in northern Washington, DC, near the Petworth neighborhood. The nearly 600 veterans who now live there enjoy panoramic views of the city—the Washington monument and US Capitol to the south, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to the east. At its peak, more than 2,000 veterans of World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War lived at the Home.

But with the rise of the smaller all-volunteer military, the Home began to run into serious financial problems. It was clear that one of its primary sources of revenue—a 50-cent deduction from the paychecks of active-duty servicemembers—wasn’t enough to keep the Home operating fully. In the 1990s, the Home scrambled to find ways to avoid insolvency, trimming its staff by 24 percent and reducing its vet population by 800. Still, the money problems began to show, with its older historic facilities slipping into disrepair and decay. To grapple with its worsening shortfall, officials running the Home eyed a valuable, 49-acre piece of land worth $49 million as a potential financial lifeline.

Under one scenario, by leasing the parcel of land and letting it be developed, the Home could pocket $105 million in income over 35 years for its trust fund, David Lacy, then-chairman of the Home’s board of directors, told Congress in 1999. Lacy stressed that the Home wanted to keep the property, and not offload it to a buyer. “Once land is sold,” he said, “it is lost forever as an asset.”

Enter Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.). At the behest of the Roman Catholic Church, and unbeknownst to the Home, Santorum slipped an amendment into the 1999 National Defense Authorization Act handcuffing how the home could cash in on those 49 acres. The amendment forced the Home to sell—and not lease—the land to its next-door neighbor, the Catholic University of America. Ultimately, the Catholic Church bought 46 acres of the tract for $22 million. The Home lost the land for good, and by its own estimates, pocketed $27 million less than the land’s value and $83 million less than what it could’ve made under the lease plan. Santorum’s amendment sparked an outcry from veterans’ groups and fellow US senators, who barraged his office with complaints.

Laurence Branch, then the executive director of the Home’s board, says Santorum’s amendment was “a travesty” and the Church’s lobbying for the land a case of “coveting thy neighborhood’s goods.” To this day, Branch says he blames Santorum for the Home not receiving more money for the 49-acre parcel of land. “I’m convinced Sen. Santorum is no friend of veterans,” Branch says. (A spokesman for Catholic University did not respond to a request for comment.)

At the time, Santorum said the amendment was the product of “a consensus agreement” and “was certainly not an attempt to shortchange the veterans.” (A spokesman for the Santorum campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Santorum’s advocacy for Catholic University isn’t at all surprising. A practicing Catholic, Santorum embodies the church’s anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage positions as well as its support for charities and alleviating poverty. While in Congress, he was a fierce advocate for the Catholic Church. A former Santorum aide told New York Times Magazine in 2005 that the senator was “a Catholic missionary who happens to be in the Senate.” That same year, Time magazine named him one of America’s ”25 Most Influential Evangelicals.”

Meanwhile, the $22 million from the land sale hardly stanched the flow of red ink at Armed Forces Retirement Home. Financial records, court documents, and government reports from the 2000s show how the Home cut back on the services it provided veterans as it grappled with funding problems. The slashing of services got so bad that in 2003 veterans living at the Home filed a class-action suit against the Home and its director, Timothy Cox, alleging shoddy health care and less access to that care. As a result of cutbacks and declining quality in care, the suit claimed, the suicide rate at the Home spiked from 59 in 2000 to 131 in 2003.

In 2007, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office came to similarly troubling conclusions. The watchdog’s head, David Walker, reported that one Home resident had been admitted to the hospital with maggots in a wound. Other vets were admitted with bad pressure sores, suggesting they’d been left unattended for dangerously long stretches of time by the Home’s health care employees. In the aftermath of the GAO’s investigation, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) demanded an independent investigation into the quality of health care at the Home.

Yet today, despite some improvement in the Home’s financial health, its campus is pocked with boarded-up, decrepit buildings. All but one of the Home’s gatehouses is shuttered, as are some of the Home’s more elegant buildings, including the historic Grant building (named after the Civil War general) and the red-brick hospital that now sits empty, bearing a sign warning off trespassers. Some veterans believe the Home’s constant financial struggles have led to a slow-motion decline of the Home. As longtime resident and Navy vet Robert Devaney says, “I like to call it demolition by neglect.”

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Comments

  1. Chris says:

    I have a good friend at work who is liberal that said I should check out this web site. He evidently felt that this site would enlighten me. I have to say, it did not. It’s just more of the same dirt, dug up on a good man. Like him or not, at least Rick Santorum is open about what he is. We know what we would be getting.

    Rick’s comments, when read or watched by someone with out an agenda, who is knowledgeable about our true US history, human nature, and basic economics, are accurate and relevant. Reading the comments, it is completely apparent what this site is all about. It’s a liberal hack site, not really relevant or worth anyone’s time to read. I really can’t believe I even wasted my time reading through this site. I should really be getting back to work so my i can afford the taxes i will need to pay in order to support many of you.

    But since I did visit this site, I have time for just a few comments, in the hope that if anyone else reads this site they can at least read this and get some real benefit from the time they wasted in clicking on this site.

    First, I have to ask , what is wrong with having a man running our country who trusts in and fears God? After all, this person will have the power to destroy the world. This person will also have the power to make our world better or worse. I want someone in office who believes that he is responsible to a higher power. Isn’t this the ultimate check and balance?

    If this scares folks who like to live in a way that is not consistent with conservative Christain values, we get it. You don’t want to be held accountable. What you need to understand is that it won’t be Rick Santorum, or any other conservative who will hold you accountable. God is the ultimate judge. The thing is, since many of you liberals don’t seem to believe in or care what God thinks about you, what the heck are you worried about?

    Why don’t you liberals let us take our country back and make it great again. Then you can party and do what ever you want, because there will be plenty of jobs and tax dollars for all. If we keep heading down the Liberal road, we won’t be able to afford to carry all of you deadbeats.

    I don’t get why liberals punk conservatives. They seem to love to live off of our hard work and tax dollars. But then again, in nature a parasite will kill the host if not kept in check. If you don’t like the fact that we call you out from time to time, try living under Muslim Sharia Law. You win another election and you just may get to.

    • Crystal says:

      Chris,

      You are certainly a true and typical right wing conservative. You call people who don’t think like you names, you judge all liberals as being deadbeats and you believe your way of life is the only way of life. Do you not see that your comment embodies the exact opposite of what your God asks of his followers?

      I would like the leader of my country to not be a hypocrite. Period. Mr. Santorum is a man that wants to ban all abortions but allows his wife to have one and wants to force his religion and way of life upon all of us but not abide by it himself. He has showed us time and again what he stands for and he is certianly not for freedom. He wants our country to be one huge Catholic Church with molestations and all.

      Also, please read up on our American history a little better than you have. Your knowledge is lacking in several places, especially about the part where church and state should be seperate.

      Now, please go back to work so that I may live off of your hard earned dollars. Last year, you only gave me a few thousand in medicaid and food stamps. I certainly expect more this year. As do all of us filthy liberals.

      Oh, and taking time from work to write biased, uneducated and ignorant comments is considered stealing from your company because your time equals their money. I’m sure that is banned somewhere in a big book I have read. You may want to read up on that part as well…Now, chop, chop dear, I’m waiting on my next check!.

    • Rebecca says:

      You seriously need to open your eyes Chris. If Ron Paul is not elected we could seriously face WW3. I do not want to lose my son he just turned 1. Any candidate that does not oppose the wars that are happening right now and killing people every day needs to just drop out of the race. I refuse to let another World War happen. I do not want to repeat history!! However if I must I will repeat the Revolutionary War!!!

    • Marian says:

      Hey There Chris —– You have covered all bases about this good man.
      There are several great men running for the Greatest Office in the Land.
      There is nothing wrong with supporting a good person to be in charge there.
      Rick would govern with what is best for the Nation in mind.
      I am so pleased to see that he is not backing down, not afraid, not ashamed to tell it like it is.
      God will NOT be mocked and he knows it.
      Thank you Senator for being unafraid to refer to God and the right thing to do.!!!!!!
      You may just set an example for some to follow / in years to come it just may be the NORM.!!!!!!!!

    • Barbbtx says:

      Thanks Chris,
      I couldn’t have said it better myself. I expect Rick will be rising in the polls soon and there will be many more hit pieces like this. I hope you find the time to continue defending or promoting him. He’s the one honest conservative we have running and he needs all the help he can get. It’s going to be a long road to the White House. The establishment wants Romney as the president and the liberals want Romney as the nominee. Rick will be getting it from both sides.

      • Santorum Exposed says:

        Leave it to a conservative to call a factually accurate account of something that Rick Santorum actually did a “hit piece.” We’re sorry that it apparently upsets you that the facts of this situation reflect negatively on Rick, but they are still facts that you cannot dispute.

  2. Ryan says:

    “But since I did visit this site, I have time for just a few comments, in the hope that if anyone else reads this site they can at least read this and get some real benefit from the time they wasted in clicking on this site.”

    Just because YOU wasted YOUR OWN time reading this website, does not mean it is a waste of time. Stop trying to seem like the good person while calling out other people because you’re butthurt by the content this site puts up. I have to say, I pity people like you, you’re the exact kind of people ruining this country. I pity you deeply. You THINK you’re living how your God wants you to, yet you aren’t. You’re representing many negative things, including a hypocrite.

    “If this scares folks who like to live in a way that is not consistent with conservative Christain values, we get it. You don’t want to be held accountable.”

    ^^^ While this might be the reason that SOME do not believe in the Christian god, it is not the case for very many. I love how Christians cannot tolerate people who do not believe what they believe to the point where they brainwash themselves. Remember, this is the land of the free. We have (or are supposed to) have personal liberties. If I do not believe what you believe, that is my choice. It is not your right to judge me, or to make assumptions, according to your very faith.

    Rick Santorum is a bigot. He will not heal this country, because he does have the power to. I see why you like him too, he’s a hypocrite just like you. The stupid ass needs to just drop.

    By the way, you should stop watching Fox news.

    • Kevinicus says:

      Talk about hypocritcal. “We have personal liberties…blah blah blah.” Then of course your proceed to make crap up about Christians not tolerating people when they are by far the most tolerant group there is, and at the same time being intolerant yourself. And then you talk about how people that disagree with you don’t have the right to think that way. No right to judge or make assumptions? He, and everyone else, have every right to do those things.

  3. M. Hilles says:

    You said the land and buildings were quite beautiful at one time. In order to help fund the hospital, would it be possible to refurbish the buildings and grounds, and use the area as a goverment park to raise money for the home? People spend lots of money to be entertained in this country. Washington gets tons of tourists. You could bring in revenue and at the same time trigger an awareness of the plight of our veterens. You might even get more people to donate money on a regular basis. Thanks for listening.

  4. JJ Holley says:

    I am neither a liberal or a conservative, I consider myself an American who studies each person separately and hopefully objectively. What I don’t understand is why people write articles that don’t contain enough of the pertinent information. In the past Veterans Homes and Hospital cared for veterans for very little money. Unfortunately that is no longer the case. Many states have had to change how they manage their Vets homes and hospitals. What I don’t see explained here is who and how much money the insurance companies are paying for the health services provided to the veterans. Are these veterans on Medicare and are they paying a co-pay? At one time in this country all health services for Veterans and their families was free, as a country with a huge deficit we can not do that anymore. The original value of the land was questionable, anyone who has sold land or a home knows that the original estimate is usually a lot more money than what the actual land sale will provide. Whenever the sale of land or buildings is done or leased that are so many zoning laws, traffic flows, accessibility, fire considerations, and other items to be considered. Many times prices are stated that are based on zoning changes and other requirements that while trying to acquire them could have tied up the land and the money for years. All sales of property are achieved by consensus and negotiation. In this economy saying the sale vs lease and the price are ripping off the American Veterans smacks of sensationalism. Can’t you write the simple facts so Americans can make decisions without all the spin and hype that envelopes politics these days? Thank you