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Jim Kenyon: A Bad Case of Deja Vu in Lebanon

On the eve of this year’s Super Bowl, seven out-of-towners dropped by American Legion Post 22 in Lebanon, but they didn’t come for a nightcap. They worked for the state agency charged with enforcing New Hampshire’s liquor laws.

The seven agents, packin’ sidearms and a search warrant, confiscated $15,320 in cash from Post 22’s safe that the state Liquor Commission claims were “proceeds from illegal gambling.”

Legion officials say the state is mistaken. For years, Post 22 has been holding Super Bowl raffles to raise money for worthy causes. A good chunk of the confiscated money was going to, among other things, buy food baskets for struggling families and into a fund that provides college scholarships for veterans’ kids. The club “doesn’t keep a penny,” said Treasurer Pete St. Pierre. All the money is dispersed to raffle winners and to the charities the club supports.

Does this story sound familiar?

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s like deja vu all over again.”

Four years ago on Super Bowl Sunday, the state liquor enforcement bureau pulled the same stunt. After the raid, Post 22 officials made several trips to Concord to explain how their Super Bowl raffles worked. It took four months for the state to grasp that the veterans (many of them senior citizens) weren’t running a gambling operation and return the confiscated money — about $12,000 in 2010 — to the club.

Just to be on the safe side, Post 22 officers met with state liquor enforcement officials in 2010 to go over the rules. “It was explained to us that what we were doing was within reason,” said St. Pierre.

Nothing has changed in four years, club officials told me. Prior to last Sunday’s game, Post 22 sold “squares” for several raffles. Rows and columns of a 10-by-10 grid were assigned a number, 0-9, at random and tied to the potential score of the game. Everyone who bought a square (prices ranged from $5 to $100, depending on the game) had an equal chance at winning. There’s no skill involved; it’s all luck. Sort of like playing the vast assortment of lottery games that the state offers and profits from.

But while it’s OK for the state to put on games of chance, apparently it’s a no-no for veterans who are raising money to improve the lives of the needy and provide opportunities for young people.

Last summer, Post 22 sponsored two American Legion baseball teams. It hopes to do the same this summer. Without the club’s $35,000 annual contribution, I think it’s fair to say many of the Upper Valley’s top high school baseball players wouldn’t be playing summer ball.

On Tuesday, I talked with James Wilson, the state’s chief liquor enforcement officer. I was curious what had changed between 2010 and now. I came away with the feeling that state gambling laws hadn’t changed — only the people in charge of interpreting and enforcing them.

Wilson became the state’s top liquor cop last April. He told me that he was working in the enforcement bureau in 2010, but played no role in the first Lebanon raid.

So, what has Post 22 allegedly done wrong?

“Squares is a form of gambling,” said Wilson. And state law — with a few specific exceptions — prohibits gambling or wagering on the premises of establishments that are licensed to sell alcohol, he said.

Wilson stressed that his bureau’s investigation into Post 22’s activities is still ongoing, but “on the surface, this instance appears to be a violation of the state’s gambling statutes.”

Although his office is investigating allegations of illegal gambling at other establishments around the state, Post 22 was the only one to receive a visit from agents bearing a search warrant on Super Bowl weekend, Wilson said.

The Post 22 investigation started with a citizen’s complaint. The bureau looked into the matter to determine whether there was “any validity in the complaint,” Wilson said. Last Thursday, a Concord judge issued a search warrant.

Along with the large amount of cash, the agents seized the paper sheets with the “squares,” which has created another problem for Post 22. Under rules posted at the club, 80 percent of each raffle’s pot is due to be paid back in winnings to participants.

As it stands now, however, Post 22 doesn’t have the winners’ names, or the money to pay them. Unless the Liquor Commission reverses field, as it did in 2010, Post 22 might have to forfeit the confiscated $15,000 to the state. “That’s thousands of dollars that’s supposed to go to charities,” said Vicki Smith, Post 22’s bar manager.

Ike McKim, a 76-year-old Army veteran who lives in Lebanon, was at home Saturday night when he got a call to come down to the club. McKim, a Post 22 committee chairman, spent more than two hours with the agents. “I don’t appreciate what they did, but the officers were very polite,” he said.

While agents conducted their search, the dozen or so customers at the club were allowed to continue socializing and buying drinks. I thought it was a little odd that agents wouldn’t shut down the bar for the night.

But then I remembered: It’s New Hampshire.

The state not only controls who can sell alcoholic beverages, but makes a tidy sum off each drink poured through its liquor monopoly. Apparently, it’s all right if the worthy causes that Post 22 supports take a hit as along as the state still gets its cut.