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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

Gary Bess was making a change.

After three decades managing parks in the city of St. Louis under various mayors, the big man known for his colorful suits was preparing to make a move to the county, to take over the same job for new St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

But first, he had to sell his home in St. Louis Hills. So in 2014, he turned to his brother-in-law, John Flatley.

Flatley is the founding member of Forward Invest LLC, a real estate investment company. Flatley’s sister, Vivienne Bess, is married to Gary Bess.

The three of them serve together on the board of Dismas House of St. Louis, the oldest halfway house in the country. Situated in north St. Louis, Dismas serves as the last residence for federal inmates in the St. Louis region before they leave the Bureau of Prisons and end up on probation. The nonprofit has a $43 million contract to manage the re-entry of those prisoners.

On May 19, I reported that between 2011 and 2016, Dismas House paid John Flatley and Vivienne Bess nearly $5 million in salaries out of the federal contract. The Flatley-Bess family controls the Dismas House board and has done so since the death of the last priest to run the facility in 2006.

What does this have to do with Bess’ house?

The assets that were used to start the company that bought Bess’ house came from Dismas House.

Forward Invest isn’t owned by the man who founded it.

Instead, it is owned 100 percent by another nonprofit, called Forward Assist. Flatley founded it, too.

In 2011, the board of Dismas House created both Forward Assist and Forward Invest. At the same time, according to tax records, it transferred $4.9 million in assets — mostly residential buildings — from the charity to Forward Assist.

Soon, Forward Invest started making loans to board members and their families, including two of Flatley’s sons. It also bought more property, including a strip mall in Columbia, Mo.

And in 2014, it bought the home that had belonged to Gary and Vivienne Bess.

The Besses moved to the county, where Gary Bess ran the county parks until his boss, Stenger, was indicted in April on fraud, bribery and theft charges. Bess resigned just a few days after Stenger was indicted.

Now unemployed, Bess can live where he wants, no longer burdened by the residency debate that seems to be sweeping both the city — where the mayor wants to get rid of the residency requirement — and the county — where Councilman Tim Fitch wants to add one.

For many public employees, the thought of having to sell a house and move just to keep a job is daunting. Not so, for Bess.

The same is true for Michael Flatley.

He’s John Flatley’s son. The same year that Forward Invest bought Bess’s house, Flatley became a city police officer. He needed to live in the city.

He does, in Gary Bess’s old house.

It’s a nice, ranch-style, red-brick home that backs up to the River Des Peres, just a 15-minute walk from Ted Drewes on the city’s South Side.

According to city records, the house is still owned by Forward Invest, which means it is owned by Forward Assist, a nonprofit whose seed money came from another charity whose job is to help federal prisoners re-enter society when their sentences are finished.

Instead, some of the money meant for those halfway-house residents, including some who complain about the lack of programming at the facility, is going into a side real-estate business that is great if you happen to be a member of the family that operates it.

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