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Jim Kenyon: Going To Bat For the Lebanon Legion

When a state agency plays hardball it helps to have a heavy hitter going to bat for you in Concord. That’s why Lebanon American Legion Post 22 can feel good about having Executive Councilor Joe Kenney in its lineup.

Kenney, whose district includes Grafton County, took up Post 22’s cause after reading about the Legionnaires’ legal troubles with the state Liquor Commission in this space a couple of weeks ago.

On Monday, he met with Post 22’s lawyer, George Ostler, and visited with veterans at their clubhouse on Mechanic Street. “It bothers me that there is a cloud over them,” Kenney told me. “These guys live and breathe public service.”

Although the dispute with the Liquor Commission is still unresolved, I think Post 22 has reason to be — as lawyers are fond of saying — cautiously optimistic, thanks in no small part to Kenney’s intervention.

Kenney, a Wakefield Republican, took office only a couple of months ago, but he’s shown in the case of Post 22 that he’s not afraid to use the political clout that comes with the elected position. His predecessor, Ray Burton, was legendary for doing so.

The Executive Council is a New Hampshire hybrid. The five councilors, each representing a swath of the state, don’t make laws or establish policies. But they approve all state contracts over $10,000. In 2011, the Executive Council’s far-reaching authority became evident when it shot down a $1.8 million state contract with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

Executive Councilors also approve gubernatorial appointees, which I’m sure Liquor Commission Chairman Joe Mollica didn’t need to be reminded of when Kenney called last week about Post 22. “I let him know I wasn’t happy,” said Kenney. “There comes a time when common sense and logic need to take over.”

The Liquor Commission’s enforcement bureau seems lacking in both.

On the eve of this year’s Super Bowl, seven agents, who said they were acting on an anonymous tip, raided the Legion’s clubhouse. They left with $15,320 in cash from Post 22’s safe that the Liquor Commission claims was “proceeds from illegal gambling.”

Instead of giving Post 22 officials an opportunity to tell their side, the Liquor Commission’s enforcement bureau made a beeline to Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo. For reasons I can’t fathom, Saffo decided to pursue a criminal case against a group of mostly elderly veterans, who raise nearly $90,000 a year to benefit community causes.

Last month, Post 22 was indicted on two felony counts of running an illegal gambling operation in connection with its Super Bowl pool. Club officials don’t face any penalties, but the organization could be fined up to $200,000. The club could also lose the $15,000 confiscated during the raid, money that was supposed to be split among raffle winners and designated causes, including Lebanon’s two American Legion baseball teams and a college scholarship fund for veterans’ kids.

Filing criminal charges against Post 22 “shouldn’t have been the way to handle it,” said Kenney, who relayed those sentiments to James Wilson, the state’s chief liquor enforcement officer, in their talks last week. “From my vantage point, this case should have been handled administratively.”

The state’s attack (what else can you call it?) on Post 22 would seem to be in Kenney’s wheelhouse. He spent more than 30 years in the Marines, and he’s a Legionnaire, himself.

The timing is good, too. Kenney, a former state senator, barely beat Democrat Michael Cryans, of Hanover, in a special election to replace Burton, who died last year. Kenney is up for re-election in November. Increasing his name recognition in Lebanon, where he received only 395 of nearly 1,400 votes (29 percent) in March, probably wouldn’t hurt.

So what’s next for Post 22?

Wilson, the state’s chief liquor enforcement officer, told me Tuesday that “it’s out of our hands at this point.” Saffo, the county attorney, is in charge, he said. I left messages at Saffo’s office, but didn’t hear back.

Post 22 has pleaded not guilty. Meanwhile, Kenney has reached out to Eddie Edwards, the state’s former chief liquor enforcement officer. Edwards headed up the bureau for eight years before leaving in 2013.

In 2010, his agents, again acting on an anonymous tip, raided Post 22’s clubhouse just hours before the Super Bowl. They left with $14,000, but Legion officials — unlike this time — were later given an opportunity to explain that the raffles were for the benefit of worthy causes. Edwards met with club officials in Lebanon and the raffle money was returned.

“I didn’t think they were intentionally trying to circumvent the law,” Edwards told me Monday. The state’s rules around gambling are very complex, he said. “It can be very confusing to people. The philosophy of my administration was not about giving them a free pass, but educating them.”

Edwards, who is now the police chief in South Hampton, N.H., said he’s willing to “share what he knows about the situation” with Saffo.

The importance of Kenney’s talks with Edwards and current Liquor Commission officials in Concord wasn’t lost on Ostler, Post 22’s lawyer. “It’s good to have some political oversight,” he said. “Our whole legal system is based on discretionary use of power. Not every infraction has to end up in court.”

Legion officials are scheduled to appear at a pre-trial hearing next month. “Hopefully, we’ll have this resolved by then,” said Kenney.

I’m thinking by Memorial Day would be even better.