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Tony's take

Messenger: Dismas House board member acknowledges mistakes at nonprofit

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People protest living conditions at Dismas House in St. Louis

Tim "Big Mo" Gordon-Bey speaks to a crowd of protesters while Donnell "Malik" Sims with the Organization for Black Struggle holds a sign next to him. Marie Franklin, left, takes a video with her grandson, Kaiden Trotter, 6, standing beside her outside of Dismas House, a halfway house for those coming from prison, in St. Louis on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Gordon-Bey lived in Dismas House for seven months. "We had no access to computers to do applications," Gordon-Bey said. "We had no job skills or resources in there." Photo by Cheyenne Boone, cboone@post-dispatch.com

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Gary Bess heard the knock at the door. There were several of them, followed by a doorbell ring. Then another. He sat in his south St. Louis County house, away from the front windows, and didn’t answer the door.

It was May 2019, and I was knocking on the door of the former longtime parks director for both the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Bess knew why I was trying to talk with him. He had avoided my phone calls, too. Bess was, and is, on the board of Dismas House of St. Louis, which is the oldest halfway house for former federal detainees in the country.

The house, situated in north St. Louis, was founded in 1959 by the Rev. Charles “Dismas” Clark, a Jesuit priest, and criminal defense attorney Morris Shenker, known for his representation of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Designed to help men transition back to society, the house is named after the Biblical “penitent thief” who died on the cross next to Jesus.

Perhaps that’s why Bess is calling me now, more than a year later, I thought, when he called last week. Penance.

“I was here,” Bess told me, recalling that day when I knocked on his door. He had recently resigned his job as county parks director, after his boss and political ally, Steve Stenger, had pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. Bess said he was enjoying being out of the political spotlight and not feeling like he had to answer anybody’s questions. “That was probably a mistake on my part,” he said.

He called after my latest column on Dismas House published, this one about a recent shooting at the facility, and a planned protest by groups urging the Bureau of Prisons to choose another group to win the bid for the contract, which is worth at least $43 million over several years. At least two other groups, as well as Dismas, have bid on the contract, which is expected to be awarded sometime next year. Dismas is the only organization to have ever held the contract in the St. Louis region, and it expects to win it again, Bess said, despite the questionable financial dealings that have been subject of my reporting over the past year.

In the past decade, the board of Dismas has transferred millions of assets from the nonprofit — which doesn’t file 990s because of a religious exemption — into a separate nonprofit run by family members of Bess. The IRS 990s of that second nonprofit, called Forward Assist Inc., show that the organization has paid massive salaries to its board members, primarily Vivienne Bess, who is Gary’s wife, and John Flatley, who is the brother of Vivienne Bess.

Flatley made as much as $650,000 a year. Vivienne Bess pulled down $358,000 one year. The salaries were nowhere near what directors of other nonprofits in the field made. All told, over several years, various members of the Bess family and other board members pulled in almost $5 million, about the same amount of money in assets, mostly real estate, transferred from Dismas to the other nonprofit.

Dismas bought a vacation house with a dock at Norfolk Lake in Arkansas for $300,000, and then transferred it to its other nonprofit, allegedly run by Flatley’s son, Patrick, for $10.

Some of that, Bess says now, was perhaps a mistake.

“Switching assets from Dismas House to another nonprofit was probably questionable,” Bess told me. The new nonprofit opened its own real estate company. It owns a mall in Columbia, and several houses in St. Louis, some of which operate as sober houses under the Oxford House banner.

Bess says Dismas has hired an accounting company to perform an audit and “make sure our financial house is in order.” And how about those massive salaries, including the ones paid to his wife and her brother?

“I didn’t vote on that,” Bess says. “I didn’t participate in any discussions, nor did I have anything to do with setting compensation for anybody.”

I asked Bess if the salaries paid to his wife and other family members, some of which were then used for various campaign donations made by the family members over the years, were inappropriate.

He said he didn’t have an opinion on that.

Penitence, it seems, only goes so far.

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