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Jim Kenyon: Mechanic Street Shakedown

Bone-headed schemes to pump up state coffers are nothing new in New Hampshire. How else do you explain state liquor stores at highway rest areas, Mediscam, and the never-ending push for casino gambling?

But the New Hampshire Liquor Commission has sunk to a new low. The commission, which fields a small army of 26 gun-toting agents to enforce the state’s liquor and gambling laws, has apparently decided that American Legion Post 22 in Lebanon is Public Enemy No. 1.

If the Liquor Commission is successful in bringing down Post 22, which is an organization made up largely of aging veterans, the state could walk away with as much as $200,000.

Talk about hitting the jackpot.

You might recall that back in February, I wrote that seven agents from the Liquor Commission’s enforcement bureau, acting on what they said was an anonymous tip, raided the Legion’s Mechanic Street clubhouse on the eve of Super Bowl XLVIII. The agents left with $15,320 in cash from Post 22’s safe that the Liquor Commission claims were “proceeds from illegal gambling.”

Legion officials heard nothing for nearly three months. Then, about 10 days ago, a letter arrived at the clubhouse. That’s how Post 22 learned it had been the subject of a secret Grafton County grand jury proceeding last month. The letter went on to say that a grand jury had indicted the club on two felony counts of allegedly running an illegal gambling operation in connection with its Super Bowl pool.

In New Hampshire, gambling is not allowed on the premises of establishments that are licensed to sell alcohol. Post 22 believes that it did nothing wrong. Everyone who bought a “square” before the Super Bowl had an equal chance of winning. There’s no skill involved; it’s all luck.

Under grand jury rules, Legion officials didn’t have an opportunity to present their side of the story. Post 22 Treasurer Pete St. Pierre told me the club has been holding raffles of this kind for years to support community causes, including Lebanon’s two American Legion summer baseball teams, food baskets for struggling families and college scholarships for veterans’ kids. The club “doesn’t keep a penny,” St. Pierre told me after the raid. All the money is disbursed to raffle winners and to the causes the club supports.

Post 22 officials are scheduled to appear in Grafton Superior Court in North Haverhill on May 12 to answer the charges. Club officials don’t face any penalties, but the organization could be fined up to $200,000, which would go into the state’s general fund. The club could also lose the $15,000 confiscated during the raid that was supposed to be divided up among designated worthy causes and raffle winners.

“The criminal justice system really isn’t meant for cases like this,” said Norwich lawyer George Ostler, who is representing Post 22. “These are honorable people who were doing a fundraising activity in the open. It’s hard to understand why this is a felony prosecution.”

I wondered the same thing. Why would Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo agree to prosecute a group of veterans for running the kind of Super Bowl pool that can be found in clubs and businesses in just about every community?

It could be arrogance or incompetence. Where Saffo’s office is involved, neither can be ruled out.

On Thursday, I stopped by the courthouse. Deputy County Attorney Melissa Pierce, who is in charge of prosecuting Post 22, told that me that she “can’t talk about an open case.”

This is the second time the Liquor Commission’s enforcement bureau has targeted Post 22. In 2010, agents raided the club on Super Bowl Sunday. But after hearing the club’s explanation of how it operated the games of chance to benefit worthy causes, the raffle money — a total of about $14,000 — was eventually returned.

Nothing has changed in four years, said 66-year-old Bill Wilson, the club’s financial officer in charge of charitable giving. “We thought we were going by the rules,” he said. “Everything we’re doing is for charity. We’re a dying breed, but we’re still trying to do good things for the community.”

Yet the state chooses to treat them like they’re Whitey Bulger.

Not surprisingly, James Wilson, the state’s chief liquor enforcement officer, disagreed with my assessment. “It has nothing to do with the players involved,” he said. “Our state agency is charged with enforcing all the state statues around alcohol.”

Apparently, however, Lebanon’s legionaires are in a league of their own — at least in the eyes of the Liquor Commission. The only search warrant its 26 agents executed on Super Bowl weekend was in Lebanon, which makes me wonder if Post 22 is being singled out for a particular reason.

The case has the makings of an old-fashioned government shakedown. And Post 22 is an easy mark. The club no longer has Ray Burton, who died last November, to run interference in Concord. For 35 years, Burton represented Grafton County on the state Executive Council, which approves gubernatorial appointees and all state contracts over $10,000.

The job gave Burton immense power in Concord, and he wasn’t afraid to use it on behalf of his constituents. After the 2010 raid, Post 22 officials reached out to him. “He handled it,” said St. Pierre.

But this time Post 22 is at the Liquor Commission’s mercy. It can’t afford to lose its bar license. And trials are expensive. I’m betting that before long, the commission — with Saffo’s office doing its bidding — will offer to settle out of court for a few grand or so, plus the confiscated $15,000, which could end up in the commission’s till.

Ray Burton must be turning over in his grave.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.