Veterans group loses a battle it didn’t know it was fighting
When Don Avila, a Vietnam War vet and commander of American Legion Post 299 in Chino, was asked by a food vendor recently why he spent so much time working at the legion hall for no pay, he had no trouble explaining himself.
“It’s an honor,” Avila told him, pointing toward a wall lined with photos of past commanders back to 1924. “I’m up there with World War I, World War II and Korean War vets who served their country.”
Post 299 is a social hall, pub and restaurant for several hundred Inland Empire vets. Some are shuttled in from nursing homes; some are out of work because of the recession. At the hall, members eat home-cooked meals, such as chicken pot pie with mashed potatoes and stuffing, for just $6.
And sometimes, they watch a fight with the guys. For years, the post has been calling its cable TV company when a good fight was coming on and paying a fee of roughly $50 to get it shown at the post. Sometimes it was hard to raise the money to pay for it by passing the hat at the fights, but they usually came close.
So you can imagine what a shock it was earlier this year when Post 299 got sued twice -- for $150,000 and for $160,000 -- in a dispute over two pay-per-view boxing matches shown at the legion hall in 2008.
It was accused of showing the fights without proper licenses and permits, but Post 299’s officers said they had no idea they were out of compliance. Besides, they argued, they weren’t making money showing the fights.
When the suits were first threatened last year, the post didn’t have much extra money on hand so it contacted a lawyer and ex-Marine to see if he could defend them free of charge. The Marine didn’t know this area of the law, so he had to send his comrades to another attorney. But after spending $1,600 in legal fees, the legionnaires had to go it alone.
“We couldn’t afford him,” said Richard Medina, a Vietnam vet and the post’s sergeant-at-arms.
Last month, Avila and a couple of colleagues went to the South Pasadena law office of Thomas P. Riley, who filed the lawsuits against them, to discuss a settlement.
Riley explained that Post 299 had a residential account with its cable provider rather than the required commercial account, and that it had not paid licensing fees to the owners of the broadcast rights -- KingVision Pay-Per-View and J&J; Sports Productions.
Avila and company explained they were unaware of the need to do any of that.
“We’re the American Legion,” Avila told me. “We wouldn’t want to do anything illegal.”
But he and his mates were intimidated by the lawsuits and agreed to settle them for $10,000 each, with a payment of $5,000 down and $1,250 a month after that, according to Avila. Driving back to Chino, though, the vets had a sour taste in their mouths.
OK, so now they knew the legal requirements for showing a fight. But they barely broke even on those matches, by their account. So why were they forking over $20,000, as if they’d been caught stealing?
Another thing that upset them was the allegation that they’d charged admission for those fights. They swear they never did. The tradition is to pass a hat for voluntary donations to cover the cost of the pay-per-view event.
“I’ve never seen anyone charge, and we’ve been having fights for 10 years,” said Paul Dincin, a Vietnam vet and two-time past commander of Post 299. He was at one of the two fights in question and said there was no entrance fee.
Avila, who was at both fights, said there was no cover charge at either and passing the hat didn’t raise quite $50 total. The post might have made some extra money at the bar because there were more people in the hall than usual, he said, but a lot of members nurse just one or two beers all evening, so it’s not as if the post strikes it rich on fight nights.
“A lot of times when we pass the hat, some guys will throw in 25 cents,” Avila said. “If it’s a member, we ask for $1 or $2 or sometimes $5.”
Avila and a few other members gave me a tour of Post 299 last week, showing off photos of past commanders and presidents of the Ladies Auxiliary.
In the bar area, which has the four TVs that carried the fights, there’s a wall of license plates from other Legion posts around the country.
“We’re a community,” said Eddie Falcon, who served in the Navy.
“It’s like family,” Medina said.
“Our wives and daughters come in here too,” Avila said.
The Sons of the American Legion are also active at the post. They donated the shuffleboard game that stretches along one wall, from the enshrined names of deceased Post 299 members all the way to the POW and MIA display.
When I left Post 299, I drove straight to South Pasadena to call on Thomas P. Riley. He was busy, but we talked by phone the next day.
I wondered how Riley’s boxing production clients could feel good about taking money from Post 299 when its officers said they didn’t know they were breaking any rules.
“It’s tragic that a mistake was made. However, my clients need to be compensated,” said Riley, who files countless similar claims, sometimes against other veterans’ groups.
Riley said that if a sports bar down the street played by the rules, it might have cost a few thousand dollars to show those fights, but the sports bar might have lost customers to Post 299 because it had a cheaper deal. So the lawsuits protect his clients and their customers.
He also said he had a sworn statement from a witness who was at the American Legion fights and said there was indeed a cover charge. When I went back to Avila with this, he scoffed. The closest thing to an entry fee, he insisted, was when the member who was collecting donations hit up a couple guys right after they entered the hall.
Riley said KingVision Pay-Per-View and J&J; Sports Productions were sympathetic to the cause of the vets, and he promised to check and see if they would reconsider the $20,000 settlement.
When he got back to me, he said the answer was no.
Well, I can’t say that I expected any different. A warning would have been classier, of course, but there seems to be good money in threatening veterans and then squeezing money out of them.
Avila said there will be no more pay-per-view fights at Post 299. When I asked how they’d come up with the money to pay the settlement, he said, “We’ll scratch and we’ll scrimp and we’ll save.”