While Uncle Sam was looking the other way, one of the federal government's most valuable pieces of property in Europe apparently has served as a brothel, a gambling house, a black-market money center and a bar with a reputation for drunken brawls.
While any one of those scandals alone typically would have caused a major uproar in Washington, few officials have seemed to care what happened at 49 Rue Pierre Charron in the heart of Paris.
Never mind that the 111-year-old, five-story building -- which the federal government accepted in 1936 as a memorial to World War I Gen. John J. Pershing -- is in one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. Located next to the famed Cartier jewelers in a block off the Champs Elysees, its value is estimated by some U.S. officials at anywhere from $80 million to $100 million.
Never mind that the American Legion, which was supposed to manage the property for the federal government, became so disgusted with its operations in 1982 that it walked away from the building. Since then, "it's been in limbo," said Robert Spanogle, the Legion's national adjutant.
The years of neglect may be ending. Fifty-four years after the federal government took title to the property, the House gave unanimous approval this week to legislation directing the Department of Veterans Affairs to take charge of the building, known as Pershing Hall.
If the Senate agrees to the legislation, as VA officials expect, the department will take $1 million from its hospital construction fund and refurbish the building. More importantly, the legislation will, for the first time, place a U.S. official directly in charge of building operations.
Spanogle and VA officials acknowledge there are many tales of misdeeds at Pershing Hall, which have been reported in the French press. But Spanogle is quick to distance the Legion, which grew out of a 1919 meeting of U.S. servicemen in Paris, from those accounts.
"If those allegations are true, I don't know if they happened on our watch," Spanogle said. He said the Legion, based in Indianapolis, withdrew from operating the building because of logistical problems.
"The main problem was trying to administer the building from 3,000 miles away," he said. A VA report, completed this summer, said the Legion withdrew "following reports of mismanagement and irregular activities at the Memorial."
Under prodding from Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, the department earlier this year reversed its opposition to running the building and agreed to endorse a takeover bill, similar to legislation that was first introduced in 1963.
VA officials, including Secretary Edward J. Derwinski, who visited Pershing Hall this month, have been uniform in their shock over how the building has deteriorated. "I found the building to be in a terminal state of repair. I was aghast," said Deputy Secretary Anthony J. Principi.
Many of the building's artifacts and paintings, some of them gifts of American colleges, were apparently missing. A bust of Lafayette by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon apparently was destroyed when a pipe bomb exploded in a restroom in the building. Even the American Legion's Paris Post No. 1, which had been shunted into a rear room, now faces loss of its Legion charter, according to a VA report.
This is not the first time the U.S. government has had to rescue the building. The Legion acquired it in 1928 but it had to turn to Congress during the Depression for help. It was allowed to borrow funds from an account established with the proceeds from the sale of Stars and Stripes, a newspaper published for U.S. servicemen.
Principi said that once the VA takes charge of the building, it will place a benefits officer there to offer counseling services to former U.S. troops in Europe. The officer will also serve as a building manager, arranging long-term commercial leases that are expected to repay the $1 million refurbishing loan.