‘I did not steal any money’: Phenix City American Legion rocked by theft, racism charges

First black commander at local American Legion post claims racism

Leroy Davis, 62, a retired chief petty officer who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, was the first black commander of the Fletcher McCollister American Legion Post 135, a position he held for three years. Now he's alleging he's the victim of racism.
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Leroy Davis, 62, a retired chief petty officer who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, was the first black commander of the Fletcher McCollister American Legion Post 135, a position he held for three years. Now he's alleging he's the victim of racism.

A Phenix City American Legion commander accused of misappropriating $10,000 says the charges are false and he’s the victim of racism by some of his fellow legionnaires.

Leroy Davis, 62, a retired chief petty officer who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, was the first black commander of the Fletcher McCollister American Legion Post 135, a position he held for three years. In 2016, he was featured in American Legion Magazine for some of his accomplishments in the position.

In June, Davis was elected senior vice commander for the State of Alabama American Legion, and hoped to become state commander for the veteran organization this coming June. But he’s been suspended from the state position since Feb. 19 on charges of “dishonesty, disloyalty and unbecoming of a legionnaire,” as described in a complaint signed by James. E. Hutchinson, the local post’s finance officer.

The charges are outlined in a complaint submitted to the American Legion Department of Alabama, claiming that Davis removed $10,000 from the post’s bank account on Sept. 15, 2017, without the knowledge or authorization of the post’s executive committee or members.

The money was transferred to Chattahoochee Valley Veterans Organization, where Davis serves as executive director, according to the document. That organization is made up of about nine different veterans organizations in the area, which includes American Legion Post 135.

Davis said the Russell County Commission had provided the $10,000 for a proposed veterans park in Phenix City. He pushed the project for three and a half years, but progress was slow. So he met with Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe, state senators from Georgia and Alabama, and two retired military leaders to determine what to do with the funds.

“The outcome of the meeting was that there was too much politics in trying to build the park, and all of them said they didn’t think the park would be built in our lifetime,” Davis said.

The group suggested that he work with the Russell County Commission to use the money for other veteran- related projects. So, Davis said, he went back to the executive committee and told them of his plans to reallocate the money.

On Sept. 13, 2017, Davis went before Russell County commissioners with the request, and they unanimously approved plans to reallocate the funding.

“Once the Russell County Commissioners voted to reallocate the money to me, to the Chattahoochee Valley Veterans Organization, I waited until I received a letter from the County Commissioners that I could move the money,” Davis said. He received a letter from County Administrator LeAnn Horne, dated Sept. 15, 2017.

The letter, obtained by the Ledger-Enquirer, stated:

“Commander Leroy Davis informed the Commission that the Veterans Park Project is taking longer than they had planned and requested to reallocate $10,000 that was given by the Commission for the Veterans park. He would be able to take those funds to help veterans today with projects like the Veterans Banquet and the Boys and Girls State Programs.

“Commissioner Screws motioned to approve reallocation of the funds. Seconded by Commissioner Reed. Commissioner Corbett clarified that they are not reallocating anything; the Commission is saying they support the Veterans Organization to move the funds for use in other areas. The vote was unanimous.”

Once he received the letter, Davis said, he transferred the money from the American Legion’s bank account to the CVVO account.

“And once the post received the letter in the mail — the bank statement — they went and accused me of stealing $10,000,” he said. “That very night, they called the Chairman of the County Commission — Peggy Martin — and said Leroy stole $10,000 from us.”

Last week, Martin told the Ledger-Enquirer that commissioners provided the American Legion post with excerpts from the Sept. 13 meeting, during which Davis’ request to reallocate the funds was approved.

“Once we gave the funds to Mr. Davis, we knew that he would use it for a charitable function,” she said. “... We did what we thought was prudent and a response to constituents.”

“... It’s very unfortunate what’s happening here,” she said, “because he always came to our meetings and he would request funding from time to time. And there’s been no problem up until this point.”

Davis hired Phenix City attorney Jeremy Armstrong to represent him in the case.

In October of 2017, Davis wrote a letter to the American Legion Department of Alabama requesting an audit to clear his name, saying that he had been wrongly accused by Hutchinson and Wayne Mitchell, adjutant of the local post. Both men are past post commanders.

“There have been accusations of illegal transfer and theft of funds,” he wrote. “I also request an investigation by the Department Internal Affairs. ... This has been ongoing and needs to be resolved by an investigation by Internal Affairs. This is impacting the credibility and causing a negative public opinion of the American Legion and Post 135.”

Davis said the audit was never conducted. On Feb. 5, 2018, Mitchell and the post sergeant of arms, Ed Thompson, signed a writ for Davis to be summoned to appear at a Feb. 19 Post 135 hearing, where he was tried and suspended.

But Davis and Henry Collins Jr., the only black person among five jurors at Davis’ trial, said the charges are false. And they believe it’s an effort to block Davis from becoming state commander.

“From my perspective — and I’ll be straight and honest — it’s racism,” said Davis in a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “I’m a black man that has accomplished too much and they did not get the credit for it. ‘So, it’s payback time. We’ve got to put him back in his place.’

“... The outcome of the trial is they suspended me for five months to keep me from going into office as state commander,” he said. “That was the ultimate reason, because I was not found guilty of stealing any money, because I did not steal any money.”

Collins — who serves as chaplain of the Phenix City post — said the four white jurors wanted Davis expelled from the American Legion for life. Collins said he knew he was outvoted and agreed to have Davis suspended for five months instead. In a letter dated, March 15, 2018, he provided details.

“During Mr. Leroy Davis’ trial, there were many inconsistencies from members that testified against Mr. Davis,” he wrote. “The evidence that was presented against Mr. Davis was inconclusive. Therefore, I being a selected juror of five, decided that from the information I received, my initial verdict was not guilty.

“While (the jury) was in the deliberation room, I noticed a great deal of animosity against Mr. Davis,” he continued. “I had already marked my ballot as not guilty. The majority of the jurors wanted to suspend Mr. Davis from the American Legion for five months. The four jurors were able to coerce me into changing my vote to guilty, which made me very uncomfortable. I believe Mr. Leroy Davis is not guilty of the offense for which he is charged.”

The Ledger-Enquirer tried reaching Hutchinson and Mitchell for comments regarding the case and charges of racism.

“... There’s no racism at our post, there never has been,” said Mitchell when contacted by a reporter. “... We have not been an all-white post in probably 40 years. So, I don’t know what to tell you about that.”

Regarding the charges of theft against Davis, Mitchell referred the Ledger-Enquirer to Thomas Worthy, the attorney representing Post 135 in the case. But Worthy refused to provide any details.

“I have no comment; I’m not going to get involved in that kind of thing,” he said. “I think it’s an internal issue within the American Legion and they’re working on a resolution.”

Hutchinson didn’t return a phone call from the Ledger-Enquirer.

Davis first caught the attention of the Phenix City post when he gave a presentation on sea power while stationed in Tuscaloosa, Ala., according to the May 16 article published by American Legion Magazine. As a three-term local post commander, he had many accomplishments.

“Thanks in part to Davis’ efforts, Post 135 has a strong presence in its community,” the article reads. “It has an active Oratorical program and has sent more than 30 participants to Boys State in recent years. The post also donates $1,000 to each of the volunteer fire departments in Russell County and sponsors boys awards for local junior ROTC programs. Beyond that, the post building doubles as an emergency shelter.”

Davis said he also helped make the Phenix City post more diverse, attracting more black veterans. He said the membership is currently about 30 percent black.

Collins, who lives in Opelika, said he joined the Phenix City post because of Davis’ reputation as an outstanding leader. He believes there are some long-time members of the the post that don’t want to give up power, which has led to the charges against Davis.

“I am the chaplain of the post and I believe in right, fair and treating everybody equally,” he said.

Davis said it’s not the first time that he experienced what he believes is racism. He joined the Navy in 1975 and was stationed in Washington, D.C. When he moved up in rank ahead of some of his white peers, they stole his tires.

Davis said the base commander bought him new tires and rims and told everyone on base that he would do so every time Davis’ tires were stolen. He said he would take the money out of people’s military, welfare and recreation money.

“So I have been through this on several occasions throughout the Navy,” he said. “And it’s just total racism in my opinion.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter