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This undercounting wasn't par for the course

Authorities say two workers at the VA's Westside hospital golf course embezzled $180,000. The men, who have been fired, have pleaded guilty to theft of government funds and await sentencing.

February 16, 2010|By Bob Pool
  • Authorities said the two men were caught after VA police placed surveillance equipment in this small World War II-era Quonset hut that serves as the nine-hole golf course's clubhouse.
Authorities said the two men were caught after VA police placed surveillance… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

On the golf course, a little undercounting is not unheard of as players shave a stroke or two from this hole or that one to make their score more bearable back at the clubhouse.


FOR THE RECORD:
Golf course thefts: A caption accompanying an article in Tuesday's LATExtra about two employees fired for taking funds from a golf course operated by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center failed to identify the man standing in front of the Quonset hut that serves as the course clubhouse. He is Bob Chebi, superintendent of the Brentwood course. —

But at the tiny clubhouse in Brentwood, two employees of a golf course operated by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center have made the biggest score of all, authorities say: by undercounting greens fees and concessionaire profits and pocketing thousands of dollars.

The two have been fired and are awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to theft of government funds from the popular links.

Course starter Christopher Spelio, 62, of Inglewood and co-worker Brian Clark, 36, of Santa Monica were caught after VA police placed surveillance equipment in the small World War II-era Quonset hut that serves as the nine-hole course's clubhouse, according to authorities.

Police were tipped off by other course employees who suspected that the pair were embezzling cash, according to VA officials.

Investigators indicated that the systematic stealing could have been going on for as long as six years, with the loss totaling $180,000. Others have suggested that as much as $200,000 in user fees might have been taken.

Although disabled military veterans play for free, other veterans pay $6 per round.

The public can play for $12 on a space-available basis.

That has made the par-three course at the back of the VA's sprawling grounds north of Wilshire Boulevard a popular destination for Westside golfers, particularly those just learning the game.

So there was widespread dismay last March 30 when officials padlocked the seven-acre course and declared it off-limits to all but the medical center's patients who use it for doctor-prescribed therapy.

At first, the VA attributed the shutdown to "scheduling" issues. Later, officials acknowledged that apparent financial improprieties were to blame.

Neither Spelio nor Clark could be reached for comment Monday.

Doug Carver, the special agent in charge of criminal investigations for the VA Office of Inspector General's western field office, said the men entered misdemeanor guilty pleas in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The case was handled by the Los Angeles city attorney's office for the federal government.

"The case agent projected the loss was in the order of $180,000 because it went on for six years," Carver said. "The problem was unless you have them on camera, they aren't going to admit to everything."

Carver said the tiny course attracted many golfers. "A lot of people used the facility, a lot more than I'd imagined."

As part of the plea agreement, Spelio agreed to make restitution to the VA.

"On the spot he paid $45,000. It was surprising he had ready cash. The money goes back to veterans in Brentwood," Carver said.

Sentencing for the pair is scheduled for August. Although Spelio could receive as much as five years' imprisonment, he is likely to be placed on probation, Carver said. Clark will probably be ordered to make restitution to the VA and also put on probation.

Although others familiar with the investigation said a hidden camera was used to catch the pair, Carver declined to discuss details of the probe other than to note that "electronic surveillance" was used in the old Quonset hut, which is designated the medical center's Building 329.

A weathered plaque on the outside of the corrugated-tin structure states that the golf course was dedicated to veterans of World War II by members of the Hillcrest Country Club. Hillcrest club members built the links to PGA standards in 1946 and equipped it with clubs, balls and tees so returning veterans could play free of charge.

VA officials say they plan to upgrade the Quonset hut and the course's tees and reopen the links to the public in about 60 days. They said they are in negotiations with a Los Angeles-based nonprofit veterans group to operate the course.

"The Quonset hut is part of the negotiation. There aren't many Quonset huts left," said Ralph Tillman, asset manager for the VA in Brentwood.

"We're not going to fundamentally change the course, but we will make improvements."

There will also be a slight upward adjustment of fees for the public -- a dollar or two per round, he said.

The group United States Veterans Initiative, which is known as U.S. Vets and works with homeless and at-risk veterans, was selected from a field of five organizations seeking to operate the course.

U.S. Vets' office was closed Monday for Presidents Day, and the organization's president, Dwight Radcliff, was unavailable for comment.

"It won't be a real moneymaker. But our share will be going to VA programs here that help veterans transition back to real life," Tillman said.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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