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American Legion Post 158 in Lebanon is in the midst of a major reorganization effort that has left the post’s canteen temporarily shuttered, but poised for a comeback once the post puts its house in order – or more precisely in this case, its home association.
American Legions operate under a complex hierarchy involving a national body, a statewide department, regional districts, and countywide organizations, but each post ultimately operates autonomously.
Post 158 commander Cedric Jordan said that the post’s membership voted on March 6 to close its home association, the post’s associated corporate entity that operates the canteen, or bar, at the post’s 1410 Lehman St. headquarters.
American Legion Department of Pennsylvania Adjutant J. Woody Hogan said that home associations have separate tax identification numbers than their associated posts, and that home associations are the entities that actually operate the canteens, a setup that creates a legal barrier protecting the American Legion from liability.
Jordan said that Post 158 still has its charter, and the post is “still the American Legion 100%.” However, both local and statewide leadership agree that a revitalization of the post needs to take place, and efforts are currently underway to get the post’s certifications in order, and audit and restructure its home association.
Jordan, who is set to become Lebanon County commander for the American Legion next year, said that he took his current leadership position with Post 158 about two years ago. Jordan said he became aware upon entering the post commander position that the post had lost its 501(c)3 nonprofit status with the IRS in 2010 due to non-filing of Form 990s for three consecutive years. The home association is not believed to have ever had its own 501(c)3 status, in addition to other possibly more serious issues that are currently being investigated.
Hogan said that the department did not know there was a problem with Post 158 until they were contacted by post members about the situation. Hogan said that the department sent Post 158’s district commander to the March 6 meeting to advise on policies and protocol, but emphasized that the department didn’t shut down the home association, the post did.
Bill Houser – himself a one-time Lebanon County commander for the American Legion – said that he was asked to come back to Post 158 by Jordan in October 2022 and help resolve the situation. Houser had formerly been a member of Post 158 from around 1990 to the mid-2000s, when he transferred to another post.
Houser said that he isn’t sure how the post operated so long without its nonprofit status and that he believed the district and department were notified some time ago about the status.
Jordan explained that with the lapsed 501(c)3 status, the post couldn’t legally give a donor a gift receipt, which would make their contribution tax-deductible.
During this interim phase, the post is able to continue offering hall rentals, and will be hosting the Lebanon Hispanic Festival on June 4 from 12 to 7 p.m., with musical groups and food offerings to be available throughout the day.
As far as reopening the canteen, though, there are a number of legal steps ahead of the post before it can contemplate that step.
Even prior to officially shutting down the home association, Post 158 had submitted new incorporation paperwork to the commonwealth, a necessary step for getting a new tax identification number from the IRS and submitting a new application for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)3 of federal tax code.
The liquor license previously held by the home association is being kept by Houser in safekeeping status with the PLCB for the time being.
During this interim period, the post is using the opportunity to clean house – both literally and metaphorically.
The operation of the home association over the past decade was described different ways by different individuals, but none of the characterizations were positive.
“That home association was rogue, and wasn’t giving monthly reports,” said Hogan.
“We ran that place like a brand new alarm clock,” said Jordan of his time on the home association board a decade ago. “That’s when everything happened, that’s when things hit fan.”
Jordan noted that the officers on file with the PLCB for the liquor license were out of date.
A LebTown search of Pennsylvania corporate records also failed to turn up incorporation records for the home association entity and it was not immediately clear who had been most recently running the home association. Jordan declined to name any individuals, saying that the post continues to look into the home association and its accounting over the past several years.
Bill Houser’s wife, Tina Houser, herself a veteran and longtime legionnaire with a professional background in accounting, said she was tasked with performing an audit into the post and home association’s books.
After the lapsed nonprofit status of the post was discovered, as well as the fact that the home association apparently never had nonprofit status, she and others began to ask questions about how the canteen had been operating – How did the canteen offer small games of chance? How was the post taking donations? Who was auditing the books? Houser said that around the new year, she had been asked to start looking into the financial issues, and brought the issues just described to the membership at its March 6 meeting.
Houser said that many different stories are circulating right now about why the bar is closed down, and the rumors can be upsetting. Houser emphasized it wasn’t just one person’s decision to close the doors, but it was a tough and necessary step taken by the members who showed up for the March 6 discussion.
“We didn’t want to close our doors, we want to be there to help our veterans,” said Houser.
One of the major obstacles Houser said she is overcoming right now is the lack of a comprehensive ledger to audit, so she has spent the past weeks compiling a new Excel document to compile and cross-check ledger activity for the organization over the past several years. Houser said that among the activities on her radar are the use of debit cards both inside and outside the state, ATM withdrawals, and debit card purchases at local retailers where extra cash back was included as part of the transaction.
Houser emphasized that she wasn’t saying these activities were illegitimate, but noted that the practices at minimum did not appear to adhere to best practices for financial management of a nonprofit.
Houser said that if misappropriations are identified, appropriate measures will be taken.
“We’re supposed to be here to help veterans, we’re supposed to be here to help the community, and if there is misappropriation, that’s who they’re taking from,” said Houser.
Moving forward, she said, the post must learn from the experience so as to craft policies and processes that will provide the organization with a sufficient measure of financial oversight and checks and balances to ensure the organization stays on the “straight and narrow.”
The post is using this downtime to spruce up the canteen and give it a deep cleaning. The cleaning is being performed gratis by Tricia Haldeman, owner of Wexler Diversified Cleaning Services, who offered to do it for the post as a community service gesture.
The post also plans to remove the smoke eaters from the canteen, thanks to veteran Curtis Hoke, owner of Arrowpoint Electrical Services, who is donating his services. Wengert’s Home Center is donating replacement drop ceiling tiles to Post 158, and post leadership is looking for other local businesses who might be willing to help out with the sprucing up.
“When we get our paperwork straightened out, we would like to have a nice fresh canteen for our veterans to come into,” said Houser.
Once the post has nonprofit status secured again, it can consider reopening the canteen. BIll Houser said it’s unclear how long that could take – maybe this summer, maybe later this year. It’s also not determined yet how a new home association might fit into plans.
Jordan said that at this point, the home association is not a focus, and the post itself has to be the first priority, and has to be setup correctly.
“The government doesn’t work fast,” said Hogan on the topic. “I would hope that it would happen quickly but I don’t know how long it would take to get the nonprofit status.”
All agreed that they want to see the post remain an asset for Lebanon, and more specifically for veterans in the community.
“I would just want the people in Lebanon to know that the post is an asset and that’s why we want to keep them,” said Hogan, adding that the department understood the reorganization might take some time to play out. Hogan noted that Post 158 is one of the oldest posts in the state.
Tina Houser said that toughest part of the situation was the legion’s lack of income and the state of its bank account at present.
“Part of what the legion means to me is that we’re supposed to be here to support our fellow veterans and their families,” said Houser. “When we run into situations like this, when we don’t have money in the bank account, and we have the canteen and fundraisers, we should have money in our bank account when veterans come to us.
“The fact that we don’t have money in our bank account right now, that’s what hurts.”
The importance of increased involvement from members was also stressed as a key factor in resolving the situation.
“(Veterans) should be involved, go to meetings, make sure the constitution and bylaws are being followed by the people they elect,” said Hogan.
Just under a quarter of the post’s 116 members attended the March 6 meeting where the home association was closed – an exceptional turnout, said Jordan, and a level of participation that would be ideal to sustain.
Jordan said that he wants the public to understand that the post is still there, and membership is working through the issues. “We’re going to get through our problems, but we just need active participation from our members and we’ll be able to get through it,” said Jordan. “It’s not one person, it’s everyone that has to get through it.”
“I am optimistic there are legionaries out there who want to see the legion stay and be a part of Lebanon,” said Houser.
Post 158’s next meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 6, with meetings regularly held on the first Thursday of each month.
For more information about the American Legion in Pennsylvania, visit the Department of Pennsylvania website.
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