Stolen Valor legislation wins unanimous House vote

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BOSTON — A week before Veterans Day, and with his parents looking on from the gallery high above the House floor, state Rep. John Velis (D-Westfield), a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves, delivered impassioned remarks to support his proposal to levy hefty fines and impose jail time on those who benefit financially from falsely representing themselves as a military members.

“Make no mistake about it,” Velis told his House colleagues. “This is personal for me. Nothing makes me angrier than when I hear a story about someone who claimed to be a service member or veteran who hasn’t earned that title.”

“To do that for financial gain is disgusting,” he said.

Velis, 36, who is in his first term as a state legislator, received a thunderous round of applause from fellow lawmakers following his remarks. There was no opposition to his bill, H 1641, the Stolen Valor Act, which passed 149-0 and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

If enacted, the measure would punish individuals who try to profit off of falsely identifying themselves as active-duty military, a veteran or as someone decorated by the military with fines of up to $1,000 and as much as a year in jail.

Velis, who has served in Afghanistan, said passage of his bill would put one of the most stringent laws of its kind on the books in Massachusetts. In 2013, President Barack Obama signed a federal Stolen Valor law making it illegal for individuals to falsely claim having received a military medal for financial profit. Velis’s bill goes further in that individuals can be prosecuted regardless of whether a medal or other honor was involved.

“I would argue it would be the strongest Stolen Valor law in the country,” Velis said. “The overwhelming majority of states that have passed local Stolen Valor laws, as well as the federal legislation, require that the person they falsely represent earned some sort of medal.”

“All this bill requires is that a person fraudulently represented themselves as a military member, period,” he said.

Velis’s father, Jim Velis, said his family does not have a military history but added that he can remember the ill-will that met some Vietnam War veterans when they returned home.

“They were mistreated,” he said. “What’s happening here today is so refreshing to see.”

Jim Velis noted that his son “aggressively” requested deployment to Afghanistan.

“We worried about him every minute of every day,” the lawmaker’s father said. He also talked about his son’s military honors.

“He’ll never forgive me for saying this, but he won the Bronze Star while serving in Afghanistan,” the elder Velis said. “Whenever someone mentions it to him, he says, ‘No I didn’t, all the guys I was with that day won the Bronze Star.’”

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips