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State VFW commander apologizes to Fayette director

The state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars has issued an apology to Fayette County Veterans Affairs Director Tod Conner, saying he was "appalled and disappointed" about critical comments an officer for the VFW's Pittsburgh regional office made about Conner last month.

In a letter addressed to Fayette County veterans, state Cmdr. Larry Reece said he was apologizing on behalf of his organization for the comments of Michael Schomer, the department service officer for the Pittsburgh regional office.

During an interview for a Tribune-Review story published last month, Schomer said Conner paid "lip service" to the county's 13,200 veterans, asserting that Conner frequently filed error-riddled benefit claim applications. Schomer criticized Conner for choosing not to operate an outreach booth at the Fayette County Fair.

The letter, dated Saturday, was sent to Allen Jones, a Dunbar Township resident who is a past state commander of the VFW. County veterans organized an open forum over the weekend to discuss the complaints and show support for Conner.

"Please be assured that as commander of the Department of Pennsylvania Veterans of Foreign Wars, I am appalled and disappointed that the VFW Pittsburgh service officer would publicly criticize the Fayette County director of Veterans Affairs for whatever reason," Reece said in the letter, which named Schomer. "I personally would like to apologize to the Fayette County director of Veterans Affairs for the remarks made by the VFW Pittsburgh service officer. In my opinion, he was totally out of line, and he should never have used the name of the VFW when making remarks that were his and only his."

In a brief interview on Tuesday, Reece said the department will take disciplinary action, which he did not specify.

"We are definitely taking action, so hopefully, it never happens again," he said.

Schomer did not return messages yesterday requesting comment.

Conner had been taken aback by the criticism because he'd never met Schomer. Yet, he said he wants to have the opportunity to speak with VFW officials to resolve any outstanding issues "because I certainly have none with them."

"I feel a little vindicated," Conner said yesterday. "I think it speaks volumes. I had nothing to do with the support rallied by the community."

He added that the criticism wouldn't discourage him from continuing to serve as VA director. At roughly 15 months, he's been in the post longer than any other VA director since March 2005, when a predecessor resigned after three years on the job.

"I stand firm," Conner said. "I will continue to march forward and help every veteran -- or non-veteran -- in this county that I can."

Fayette County Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky said Reece's letter was important because Conner and his two employees are "competent and compassionate" people who perform a "quality service" for veterans.

"Tod did not deserve this," he said. "The work he does for the veterans, as well as the staff's, is the best that it's been in decades."

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