Should three local veterans be charged with the illegal sale of cigarettes?

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Veterans advocates are livid three former members of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans were criminally charged with felony crimes in connection with a cigarette smuggling organization.

We first reported Tuesday Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's office approved criminal charges against multiple veterans who formerly lived at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans for selling non-taxed cigarettes.

Court documents show Jeff Bowman, Ken Hammond and Tony Moore, all veterans who were living at the Home for Veterans are being charged with violations of the Tobacco Products Tax Act. Each is being charged with "possessing, acquiring, transporting or offering for sale 3,000 or more cigarettes" without having a license to be able to sell the cigarettes.  

"I would say they were stunned about (the charges)," veterans advocate Greg McNeil said. "It's tearing these guys apart because they thought this was said and done."

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In August, we reported the veterans were involuntarily discharged from the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans because they were selling the cigarettes.  McNeil said Bowman, Hammond and Moore have found a home elsewhere but are at a severe disadvantage to defend themselves.

"They're going to end up with public defenders," McNeil said.  "You have to understand most of these guys are living on disability payments and they have no personal transportation.  We do not have them in Kent County because they are all now scattered all over the state."

Schuette this week approved the charges after a months-long investigation by the Michigan State Police that found the cigarettes were being brought into Michigan from New York.  Schuette's been adamant during his time in office he bases his decisions strictly on the law even though the decision might not be a popular one.

"The evidence was clear and charges were filed," Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said.

One of the veterans involved, Bowman, admitted to us this summer a number of members had an operation selling hundreds packs of cigarettes to other members in the building. The veteran admitted to purchasing the cigarettes "off of a reservation, an Indian reservation in New York."  The cigarettes would be sold to members at the Home for Veterans for as little as $4 a pack.  The retail cost for a pack of cigarettes typically is nearly double that.

"We were just doing it as a favor for the veterans here at the home," Bowman said.  

In Michigan, it's illegal to sell a tobacco product to another person for resale without being licensed.

A news release issued by the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) indicated in the fall of 2016, administrators at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans became aware of the possibility that a member or members of the home may have been selling non-taxed cigarettes.

The MVAA indicates that after an internal review, a decision was made to warn those involved of what the rules of the home were and of state laws related to the sale of tobacco products.

Based on further information, in January 2017, staff at the Home for Veterans contacted law enforcement, which led to the MSP investigation.

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