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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Planning Commission holds hearing on proposed ice rink

Gary Bess, St. Louis County Director of Parks, delivers remarks as Justin Carney, St. Louis County Director of Planning listens, during an informational hearing by the St. Louis County Planning on a four-rink ice complex proposed for a portion of Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park in Maryland Heights at County Council chambers in Clayton Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Photo by Sid Hastings

When Gary Bess needed money for a charity fundraiser, he knew where to turn.

The nonprofit was everywhere — the VIP tent at Mardi Gras, the Forest Park Balloon Glow, the Police Athletic League golf tournament. But the people at those events might never have seen a sign of the nonprofit organization’s participation.

That’s how Bess wanted it.

“We do not want Dismas House on any of the tables,” Bess wrote in an email to his assistant in the county parks department in 2015. He had asked her to reserve six tables for the Forest Park Balloon Glow event, at a cost of several hundred dollars. “Viv’s name is sufficient. Let me know how much the 6 tables cost.”

“Viv” is Bess’s wife, Vivienne. They sit on the board of the halfway house that serves thousands of federal inmates on a lucrative contract from the Board of Prisons. The board is completely controlled by the Besses and Vivienne’s brother, John Flatley. The board members have been paid millions of dollars in salaries over the years.

Two years after that Balloon Glow, Gary Bess was organizing a golf fundraiser for the county’s Police Athletic League. He told his assistant to book eight foursomes for Dismas House, then he gave the tickets to people of influence, like St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. Again, he asked that Dismas House’s name not appear on any documentation.

The Post-Dispatch obtained the emails from Bess in an open records request to St. Louis County.

Bess is no longer the county parks director. He resigned early this month, following former County Executive Steve Stenger’s indictment on corruption charges.

During Bess’s long career in public service, controversy has often followed him.

In 2017, he worked directly with Sheila Sweeney, then the head of the St. Louis County Economic Partnership, to try to locate a new practice ice arena for the St. Louis Blues in the federally protected Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park.

That deal unraveled when state and federal officials stopped it, but not until Sweeney and Bess had duped them into allowing hundreds of parkland acres to be scraped bare for a phantom stormwater project.

Sweeney pleaded guilty earlier this month to misprision of a felony for her role in covering up Stenger’s pay-to-play schemes. Bess has not been charged with a crime in that investigation.

During his time working for Stenger, he was a reliable campaign donor, giving at least $2,500 to the county executive’s campaign fund every year. In 2017, Bess upped his donation to $5,000, and last year he gave $10,000. He’s also been a reliable donor to other politicians, including the various mayors he worked for and Congressman William Lacy Clay. In 2016, the year the most recent federal contract was awarded, Bess gave Clay’s campaign committee $1,000.

In one of his final acts as director of parks, Bess helped steer a land swap with one of Stenger’s donors, exchanging 60 acres of West Tyson Park for 15 acres of private land, just days before St. Louis County voters passed a proposition that would make such exchanges illegal without a public vote.

Twice while Bess ran the city parks department, once under Freeman Bosley Jr. and once under Francis Slay, a couple of his employees were charged with theft. In both cases, Bess said he didn’t know anything about it, and he was not implicated by law enforcement.

There is no sign in the tax records that Gary Bess received any payments from Dismas House. But he was on the board the entire time his wife and her brother were each being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At least some of that money appears to have been spent on gaining influence with powerful people in the public eye. As president of the Police Athletic League, Bess started a “Chief’s Club” that cost $5,000 for insiders to join. He and his wife were members. So was John Flatley, along with business leaders like restaurateurs Bart Saracino and Kim Tucci.

“Please hold the tables Dismas House bought as follows,” Bess wrote his assistant about the Forest Park Balloon Glow in 2016: 3 for Flatley, 2 for Bess. “I’ll get you a check.”

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