American Legion decides to censure, not remove, officials who wore Legion caps to pardons hearing

Members who criticized a show of support for pardoning a sex offender call it a ‘slap on wrist’

By: - January 13, 2023 3:52 pm
American Legion

Wearing of the official American Legion cap to show support at a recent session of the Nebraska Board of Pardons raised controversy. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

NORFOLK, Nebraska — Voices rose and gavels pounded Friday, but in the end, several officers with the American Legion were censured, rather than removed from office, for wearing their official Legion caps as a show of support for pardoning a convicted sex offender.

The censure was a compromise reached by an executive committee of the Legion after about 90 minutes of sometimes heated debate about the attendance of 15 to 20 Legion officers at a September meeting of the Nebraska Board of Pardons.

American Legion
State officers of the American Legion in Nebraska preside over a mid-winter meeting of its executive committee Friday in Norfolk.(Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The discipline, which includes publishing an apology in the Legion newspaper, was approved on a unanimous voice vote.

Backers of the compromise said it was an appropriate sanction for a minor misjudgment and avoided the chaos of immediately removing a dozen top Legion officials, including the current state commander, Don Suchy.

But a group that has been pushing for the removal of those who attended the Pardons Board meeting called it a “slap on the wrist.”

“This was nothing,” said Beth Linn of Scottsbluff, a former state commander of the Legion and an organizer of the “What About Us?” group.

On Friday, she described the sex assault as “ugly” and one that had caused a lifetime of trauma for the victim, who provided a letter to Legion members asking what they would do if their daughter was threatened with a hunting knife, bound and gagged, and violently assaulted?

Cap only for official functions

In September, between 15 and 20 Legion members, wearing their caps, attended a meeting of the Pardons Board to show support for a fellow Legion member, John Arias, who was seeking a pardon for a violent sex assault in 1993 of his estranged wife.

The pardon was approved on a 2-1 vote, with then-Gov. Pete Ricketts and then-Attorney General Doug Peterson voting “yes” and Secretary of State Bob Evnen voting “no.”

Linn maintained that the wearing of the official caps influenced the Pardons Board — it was mentioned by each board member — to grant the pardon. It also violated Legion guidelines, she said, that Legion caps may only be worn at official Legion or Legion-sponsored events.

Americna Legion
Several officers with the Nebraska American Legion spoke Friday at a meeting of its executive committee at Divots Conference Center in Norfolk. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

At least two officials who attended the pardons hearing apologized during Friday’s meeting, saying they now realize that a show of support in Legion uniform was a mistake.

Not supporting rapists

But they insisted they were supporting a fellow Legion member who had turned his life around, not supporting sexual violence.

Michael Helm, a Legion official from Oberlin, Kansas, said he had organized the show of support for Arias after watching Arias’ work in helping other veterans turn their lives around and deal with post-traumatic stress. Arias has worked as a mentor with a south-central Nebraska veterans treatment court that seeks to rehabilitate criminal offenders.

What Pardons Board members said

Gov. Pete Ricketts, who chairs the Pardons Board, said in a statement in October that he voted to pardon John Arias because he had accepted responsibility for a crime committed nearly 30 years ago and “has shown to be remorseful.”

“He has not had any offenses since serving his sentence and has since become an active member of the veteran community, helping others who suffer from PTSD,” Ricketts said in the statement, which noted the support by Legion members at the hearing.

Attorney General Doug Peterson, who also voted for the Arias pardon, said the case was on “the bubble.”

Secretary of State Bob Evnen voted “no,” citing the serious nature of the crime and expressing doubts that Arias had accepted responsibility for it.

“I watched John Arias continue to do good things for the American Legion and the Legion family,” Helm said.

He said he believes that people deserve a chance to overcome “missteps” in life and that the Pardons Board had reached its decision prior to seeing the Legion members at the September meeting.

Use of Legion caps

But other people among the roughly 80 who attended Friday’s meeting said the show of support sent the wrong message — that the veterans organization supported rapists or was a “sexist” organization.

Others worried about the precedent of using the Legion uniform to obtain a pardon or other action by a governmental body. One man asked, for instance, whether the Legion should support a veteran who was recently accused of murder.

“I wish you’d left your covers (caps) off,” said one former state Legion commander, Gary Wooten of Wilber.

Still others complained that Legion leaders didn’t inform them of the controversy, which was first reported by the Nebraska Examiner.

Eventually, a motion was made by Jerry Schulte of Dodge to remove about a dozen Legion officials who attended the Pardons Board hearing from their offices for two years.

That prompted a long, and sometimes confusing, debate over who exactly attended and whether removal was too harsh a penalty. Also, it was asked, what the Legion would do if its state commander, and directors of Legion events, were suddenly removed from office.

Rip organization to shreds

“Do not rip our department to shreds,” said one member.

The discussion eventually led to amending the sanction to a two-year censure, an official statement of disapproval. The compromise was then approved.

Arias, who serves as a state liaison for a Legion motorcycle group, attended Friday’s meeting but declined to comment to a reporter.

After the vote, the current state commander, Suchy, of Valparaiso, said he “should have known better” than to wear his cap to the Pardons Board hearing.

“I can honestly say I made a mistake,” Suchy said, adding. “We need to move on.”

Linn said her group would continue its work.

She said state laws concerning the Pardons Board need to be tightened so that someone, like Arias, who agreed in court to serve a lifetime on the state’s sex offender list, would remain on the list. (Because of the pardon, his name has been removed from the offender list.)

The group also wants to assure that victims of crimes are notified when an offender goes before the Pardons Board. Jody Snogren, Arias’ ex-wife, has said she was unaware that her ex-husband had a hearing in September.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.