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La Verne Bars Solicitation by Vet Group : Charities: Officials say members of American National Veterans used aggressive tactics to collect donations at shopping centers, verbally abusing shoppers.


LA VERNE — A veterans group that was soliciting donations at several local shopping centers has been barred from fund raising here amid complaints that the ex-GIs have been hostile, abusive and, in one case, drunk.

In a unanimous vote Monday, the City Council denied an appeal from American National Veterans Inc., a San Bernardino County-based organization that says it tries to help former servicemen who are homeless and suffering from drug and alcohol problems.

"They basically pick alcohol- or drug-dependent veterans off the streets, dry them out for 10 days, then put them in front of a Target or K mart," Mayor Pro Tem Thomas R. Harvey said. "That was offensive to us."

Once in front of the stores, officials said, the solicitors used aggressive tactics to collect donations, verbally abusing shoppers and sometimes berating them if they failed to give.

"They were extremely aggressive . . . putting guilt trips on people," said La Verne Police Lt. Ron Ingels. "If you say, 'No,' they'll say, 'Don't you believe in America? Aren't you patriotic?' Here in La Verne, that's caused complaints."

The group's founder and president, however, contended that La Verne officials are showing a lack of sympathy for what he says is one of the few organizations offering opportunities to down-and-out veterans.

The veterans, about 40 of whom receive bed, board and counseling at a motel the group leases in Devore, near the Cajon Pass, get to keep 35% of the money they collect.

"These are people who have served their country and been forgotten," said Mark Sporn, who incorporated American National Veterans as a nonprofit charity in May, 1990. "We're reaching out to them and giving them some responsibility. These guys are not always going to be perfect, but they deserve a chance."

The group, which has sought donations in about two dozen cities throughout Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, has run into trouble before.

During the Los Angeles County Fair last September in Pomona, five solicitors were stopped by police for not having proper permits and arrested on outstanding traffic warrants, officers said.

On Dec. 11, Los Angeles city officials revoked American National's solicitation permit, charging the group had engaged in deliberate deception of the public.

Robert Burns, general manager of the Los Angeles Social Service Department, said American National falsely claimed its solicitors were volunteers when they are paid and much of the money they collect supports a professional fund-raising operation.

Sporn, the only full-time staff member with a $200-a-week salary, characterized that as a misunderstanding and said he was in the process of getting his solicitors licensed as professional fund-raisers to comply with the Los Angeles Municipal Codes.

Problems in La Verne began shortly after American National applied for a charitable solicitation permit on Aug. 3. City officials complained that veterans were out soliciting donations before the permit was issued.

Then, in November, one of the solicitors was arrested for public drunkenness after he allegedly caused a disturbance in front of the K mart on Foothill Boulevard. The man was released without being charged.

The solicitor's actions "constituted a public nuisance and is considered to be detrimental to the public welfare of the citizens of La Verne," wrote Harrison Sanborn, the city's business license inspector, in a Nov. 16 letter revoking the group's permit.

"The problem is nobody wants to have anything to do with the people we help," said Russ Terry, a volunteer who handles calls from the group's toll-free 800 line. "Who else would pick up a veteran who you know is an alcoholic, who's in a wheelchair out on the streets, who's had one amputation and is awaiting another? Who else would do that?"

Free-lance writer Brad Haugaard contributed to this story.

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