Tonya Largent, a bartender at American Legion Post 117, wipes down the bar while working Friday night at the Legion hall. CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth.
By Darrell Todd Maurina
Johnny Washington has a warning for veteran’s groups: Dot your “i’s,” cross your “t’s,” or face major problems with state liquor and gaming regulators.
Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting of the Joint Veterans Council of Clovis, Washington said state veterans organizations and other private clubs have been forced to reexamine their activities following stepped-up enforcement of liquor laws by state officials.
“Clubs, if you don’t watch yourself and play by the book, you’re gonna get shut down,” Washington said.
Reached at his office in Santa Fe, Agent Todd Griffin of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety’s Special Investigations Division said no veterans organizations have been shut down yet, but he agreed that there could be stiff penalties.
“Typically for the first offense, the alcohol and gaming division has assessed a $1,000 fine,” Griffin said. “For a second offense within a 12-month period, the license is subject to suspension or revocation. However, the penalty even for a first offense could be up to $10,000 and suspension or revocation of the license.”
“Typically what I’ve seen is after a first offense we’re not seeing a second or a third offense in this category,” Griffin said.
While bars, restaurants, and stores may sell alcohol to anyone who enters their doors, most private membership organizations in New Mexico do so under a special “club liquor license” that allows the organization to serve only members and guests.
The definition of “guest” has created problems in recent years, not just with alcohol sales but also use of video gaming machines. Griffin cited statistics showing that from July to December 2002, one private club was cited for sales to people who were not members or guests, and from January to June 2003, 20 citations were issued. More recent statistics weren’t immediately available.
Washington told the Joint Veterans Council that private clubs need to make sure members keep track of their guests.
“What you can’t do is sign them in, and then leave and sign them over to someone else,” Washington said. “Also, they can’t come in as stragglers; they’ve all got to come in when you come in and leave when you leave.”
Griffin said that regardless of what policies clubs use, they need to make sure non-members who visit are guests of members so the club doesn’t turn into an unlicensed bar serving the public. The discovery that some private clubs have been doing just that led to the current emphasis on enforcement.
“What we see is people not being diligent and checking for membership and allowing people who are not members to come in,” Griffin said. “This came up a couple of years ago in Santa Fe where a club was hosting events open to the public, and we started checking several clubs and we ended up citing clubs. In almost every major city of the state we found clubs were in violation.”
Washington said local veterans clubs want to comply with the law, even if some question the need for increased enforcement. Washington said alcohol sales are a major source of veterans club revenues that are used to help local communities.
“There is no way the state of New Mexico could be providing the assistance we do to the 187,000 vets in the state,” Washington said. “We have to try to raise money all the time for veterans and their families.”