AUGUSTA, Maine — People in Maine who falsely claim they’re military veterans for financial gain could be more easily prosecuted under a proposal passed by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday.
Stemming from a bill offered by state Rep. Brad Farrin , R-Norridgewock, a change to state law would make it clear that a person falsely claiming military service for financial gain could be charged with theft by deception.
Lawmakers are also hoping to change a law that would allow the state’s Bureau of Veterans Services to release information on veterans to law enforcement when there’s any doubt. A third proposal would instruct the state’s Criminal Justice Academy to enhance training for police on the problem.
Those convicted of the crime could face a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
Farrin, a retired command master sergeant with the Maine Air National Guard who has served on active duty in Iraq and Africa, said more people are falsely claiming status as military veterans or are inflating their service records. He said Wednesday that the recent news that the federal Veterans Administration Secretary Robert McDonald falsely claimed to be a former special forces operative highlights the growing trend in society of people taking credit where it isn’t due.
McDonald, who is an Army veteran, did apologize for his statements to a homeless man about being in the special forces.
“A few years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, we probably wouldn’t have needed this,” Farrin said. “Because it was just common courtesy as veterans, you wouldn’t think that somebody would falsify service for their own personal gain. It was just incomprehensible that people would do that, but unfortunately it happens more and more every day.”
Farrin said whether it’s panhandlers posing as homeless veterans or those who would benefit from the discounts offered by some retailers, there’s no lack of posers out there.
“There’s people that are making claims that are taking away from the folks that truly deserve it,” Farrin said. “Some of the most humble people you will meet are veterans and they don’t like to ask for help a lot of the times.”
Farrin’s original bill would have made it a Class E crime to falsify military service, but committee members were quick to note laws on the books already prohibit lying for monetary gain. They also noted that federal laws exist to prohibit lying about specific types of service or falsely claiming to have earned specific military honors.
Most on the committee seemed to agree with the principle behind Farrin’s original bill.
“On some levels this is very emotional,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick. “On other levels it’s a real crime, and it’s a crime that is addressed in our statutes.”
Gerzofsky said the Legislature has previously tried to stiffen Maine law to address the issue and has also asked state prosecutors to be more vigorous in pursuing those who fake veteran status. He and others also noted that identifying who is and isn’t a veteran — especially in a state like Maine where nearly one in four residents are veterans — is a challenge at times.
Gerzofsky said four laws already on the books address the matter, but there are few arrests in Maine based on those laws.
“I think we need to go one step ahead this time and make it a real priority because we can make a fifth law and put it in the books but it’s not going to create any more arrests,” Gerzofsky said. “I think we need to make an example of people who want to do this kind of behavior and think they can get away with it.”
Giving police the ability to ask those suspected of faking service for proof and giving police the ability to check service backgrounds would improve the situation, Gerzofsky said.
Peter Ogden, director of the state’s Bureau of Veterans Services, said the proposal could also be a benefit to veterans who need help or services if it makes it easier for law enforcement to identify them and connect them with available programs.
“Part of the challenge that I have is the military records I have are protected by law for 62 years,” Ogden said. “I cannot share them with anybody except as identified in the law and if a district attorney or somebody wants a copy of the record they have to subpoena the record from me.”
He said allowing law enforcement limited access to those records as means of identifying veterans would likely be a positive change to state law.
The committee voted unanimously to support the three-pronged proposal made by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, that would change the veterans records laws, enhance the existing theft by deception law and request a training change for law enforcement.
The changes, as proposed by Burns, would go into effect in 2017, so they would not affect the current budget of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
The proposal will next be reviewed by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee before going to the House of Representatives.
After Wednesday’s unanimous committee vote on the issue, Farrin, a first-term lawmaker, said he was pleased with the result.
“Being new to all of this, I truly believe compromise is part of the process,” Farrin said. “So I’m happy with the outcome. We accomplished what we set out to.”