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Jim Kenyon: Vets Make Their Case

Good news for the aging veterans of American Legion Post 22 in Lebanon. Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo has come to her senses and dropped criminal charges against the club for what was alleged to be an illegal gambling operation.

Now it’s the New Hampshire Liquor Commission’s turn to wake up and return the $16,000 in cash that was confiscated from Post 22’s safe on the eve of this year’s Super Bowl.

If you recall, seven armed agents from the Liquor Commission’s enforcement bureau, acting on what they said was an anonymous tip, raided Post 22’s clubhouse on Mechanic Street in February. The agents cleaned out the safe, claiming the cash was “proceeds from illegal gambling.” (Al Capone was not arrested on the premises, as far as I know.)

The Legionnaires tried to explain that everyone who played their game of Super Bowl “squares” had an equal chance of winning: That’s not gambling; it’s a raffle.

Not to mention that the proceeds would be split between the raffle’s winners and worthy causes, including Lebanon’s two American Legion youth baseball teams and college scholarships for veterans’ kids. “The club doesn’t keep a penny,” Post 22 Treasurer Pete St. Pierre told me when I wrote about this earlier.

But the Liquor Commission wouldn’t listen.

Its enforcement bureau sent the case to Saffo. For reasons that boggle my mind, Saffo decided that prosecuting a group of veterans who raise thousands of dollars a year for charity was worth her time and taxpayers’ money.

She took the case to a grand jury, which in April handed up two felony gambling indictments against the club — once again proving the adage that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, if the prosecution asked it to.

I called Saffo on Tuesday, but didn’t hear back. Her office said that she was busy with a trial.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that for the Legionnaires, who have spent the last six months dealing with the threat of costly court proceedings and up to $200,000 in state fines. Their attorney, George Ostler, of Norwich, presented evidence to Saffo that showed the Liquor Commission’s enforcement bureau had it all wrong — again.

In 2010, after receiving another “anonymous tip,” armed agents descended upon Post 22’s clubhouse just hours before the Super Bowl’s kickoff. They left with $14,000 in cash. But instead of making it a criminal matter, the Liquor Commission gave the Legionnaires a chance to explain that the Super Bowl raffles were for the benefit of worthy causes. After hearing Post 22’s side of the story, the Liquor Commission returned the confiscated cash.

Eddie Edwards, the state’s chief liquor enforcement officer at the time, also sat down with the Legionnaires and agreed that the raffles could continue, providing Lebanon Police and the city’s licensing board signed off on them. In September 2010, then-Lebanon Police Chief Jim Alexander wrote to Edwards, indicating that Post 22 was in “compliance with all city regulations and we approve of their activities.”

After reading about this year’s raid, Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, who was elected in March to represent the district that includes Grafton County, got involved. Post 22 leaders told him about their 2010 meeting with Edwards, who left the enforcement bureau in 2013.

This spring, Kenney contacted Edwards, who confirmed Post 22’s version of the 2010 events. At Ostler’s request, city police took the time to dig through its files to find a copy of Alexander’s permission slip.

As soon as the evidence was presented, Saffo “discontinued the prosecution,” said Ostler. “That’s to her credit.” In an Aug. 14 court filing, Saffo wrote that evidence that Post 22 was “following the law came to light” after the indictments.

One down, one to go.

Today, the Legionnaires are scheduled to meet with Liquor Commission officials to talk about how the club can go about getting back the $16,000 that was confiscated nearly seven months ago. “We need to prove that we’re on the up and up,” said St. Pierre.

If the Liquor Commission doesn’t return the money, Post 22 will have to come up with it elsewhere. It needs to make good to the Super Bowl raffle’s participants. “We obviously have an obligation,” said St. Pierre. “Our integrity is at stake.”

Where will it get that kind of money?

I’m worried that it might mean the club has less money to give to worthy causes, such as food baskets for struggling families.

The Legionnaires “do a lot of good for the community,” said Ostler. “They are stand-up guys. Everything they said, panned out in the documents.”

When the Liquor Commission contingent comes to Lebanon today, I have just one suggestion: Bring a check.

They’re the ones who need to prove they are on the up and up.