There are so many good things one could say about the heyday of what used to be the Mile High G.I. Forum, Mile High Chapter on Federal Boulevard. It has been a Denver institution for more than a half century and may once have been ‘the place’ for Latino veterans, spouses of veterans, families, or friends of veterans. But whatever it was, it no longer is. Today, it might more accurately be described the way Abraham Lincoln once lamentably described the Union; a house divided.
What has divided it are cash, cliques, personalities and suspicion, a fatal mixture. It is a concoction that has permeated the heart and soul of this once convivial gathering place. And because of these dark and deep fissures, what it once was---a place for celebration, camaraderie, commiseration---is gone. By almost any definition, it is Humpty Dumpty, sad and irretrievably broken.
The common and most painful chapter of this saga, say both sides of this divide, is that it didn’t have to be this way. Things could have been, should have been, worked out. They weren’t.
The fracture’s genesis is money. Everything from how it was handled, accounted for and where it went are issues that cannot be agreed upon. One side says it’s not that mysterious and, with little trouble or effort, easily documentable. The other side believes that something is askew, that funds were mishandled, books doctored, cash stolen, or semantically stated, misappropriated.
Whatever the answer, it has not only fractured the organization it has created a nearly impassable chasm between one time friends. It has also caused the termination of the more than half century relationship between the Mile High G.I. Forum and the national organization. The familiar G.I. Forum crest once proudly displayed on the front of the building has been removed. Instead, there now sits an empty outline. More sore than shrine.
Longtime club members Jerry Duran, Roberta Moreno, John Ortiz, and Ruth Sanchez say innumerable pleas to open the books were ignored or simply denied. “We were not even allowed to look at one check, one bank statement…we don’t even know where the bank was at and it (the audit) was repeatedly refused,” said Sanchez. Dissatisfied, the group took the matter to the state commander.
The group wanted a five-year audit of the club’s book along with a number of its officers to be “permanently expelled.” One officer who remains a member but asked not to be named, lamented, “I don’t know what it’s going to take to satisfy them…they could have had an audit anytime they wanted one.” The G.I. Forum’s national commander disagrees.
“Around the time the audit was due,” said San Antonio-based national commander Lawrence Guzman Romo, “the AGIF Mile High Chapter decided to break away…instead of showing that their finances in the years in question were in order and beyond reproach.”
The no-longer-affiliated club is now Mile High Veterans. It, said attorney Jerome DeHerrera, is continuing to meet its mission goals of staying connected with veterans issues, education and scholarship and community outreach. He also refuted any claims of impropriety. “I disagree wholeheartedly with any of these allegations of wrongdoing,” he said.
Former Commander Dale Nuanes also refuted allegations that anything illegal had been done to warrant the charges leveled by former members. “We have done a lot of things to make this chapter a good chapter,” he said. “These people have said that we’re doing things that we have not done. Their allegations are false.” Nuanes said those challenging the integrity of the club just want the building. “Unfortunately, they’re not going to get it.” Attorney DeHerrera agreed that another body taking control of the 17th and Federal structure is highly unlikely. That, said Commander Romo, is yet to be determined.
“Since the AGIF Mile High Chapter may no longer exist, the National Board is evaluating what action to take to uphold our constitution,” said Romo in a recent email explaining future options. The AGIF constitution states specifically “title to any reality and personally acquired by the Chapter or AGIF shall be vested in the State Organization…or AGIF Organization.”
The club’s fracture, said former Denver City Council President and founding member Ramona Martinez, is sad. “How does one pick a side? I’m not going to pick one,” she said. “I don’t understand why (this has happened). I just feel there has to be a better solution.” Martinez and her late husband, Lawrence, were instrumental in securing the financing for the building’s construction. Martinez late sister, Sarah, was also an active member of the club.
The money in question, said John Ortiz, a decades-long member and among those who initially called for the audit, includes dubious loans, inappropriate use of gift cards from places where the club bought supplies, including Sams Club, unaccounted for money from parking fees collected on Bronco Sundays and reckless use of organizational funds, including Ortiz said, money spent on a pilot’s license for one member’s relative. Ortiz was a manager and an advocate for the Latino community during and following his tenure at Coors Brewing Company in Golden for several decades. He was instrumental is securing financial resources for many nonprofits including the AGIF.
Another long-time member, Roberta Moreno, said a clique that had access to both the books and cash, “would help each other and hide little things and do little favors here and there and we just looked over it which we shouldn’t have, but we did.” The allegation is vigorously denied by club members.
But despite several years of voiced concerns, suspicions of theft and allegations of misappropriation of funds, no one ever called the authorities. They depended on state and national organizational help to address their allegations. All the while, friendships frayed or simply ended. Factions within the club grew until some were asked to leave while others simply left on their own.
Despite the acrimony that has created camps within the organization, there is still a fierce loyalty to the G.I. Forum and its mission. Founded in 1948 by Dr. Hector Garcia, its first issue was making certain a Texas Mexican-American, Felix Longoria, could have a funeral conducted by a local funeral home that initially refused to honor the family’s request. Over the years it has moved into many non-veteran areas including civil rights, voting rights, jury selection and educational opportunities. Today there are G.I. Forum chapters in nearly twenty states with more than 25,000 members.
Duran, Moreno, Ortiz, and Sanchez, who are now all members of other area G.I. Forums, say their allegations have been found to have merit by both state and national G.I. Forum leaders. But to date, no audit has been ordered. But even if an audit is performed, it appears that it will not close the fissures nor repair friendships that once were celebrated at the weekly hamburger nights, the holiday celebrations and dances and dinner theater performances that once made the club more cabaret than neighborhood watering hole.
Like many families, an institution that was once an integral part of the city for all the right reasons---a 50-plus year list of good things---may now instead become known for its open-ended family feud.
As a result longtime friendships, the reputation of a national and local organization and business practices are in question. A solution could have taken place many months ago, one that could’ve possibly been solved with a 5-year member-requested audit, because ultimately numbers don’t lie.
There were several attempts by La Voz to reach AGIF Commander Jacob Fernandez, locally, but our calls were not returned.