Ask Andrew Danner about his connection to the Missouri National Guard Foundation and he demurs.
“I am just a consultant,” he says.
Public records tell a different story.
Danner is a partner in North Star Housing, a development company that specializes in projects that use federal and state tax credits to subsidize the building of low-income housing. Since 2014, Danner's company has partnered with the nonprofit Missouri National Guard Foundation four times to seek tax credits for low-income housing projects in Macon, St. Louis, Poplar Bluff and Cameron.
Two projects, in Poplar Bluff and Cameron, were approved for more than $14 million in tax credits from the Missouri Housing Development Commission. The Poplar Bluff project, a low-income housing project that includes a few units reserved for disabled veterans, has been completed. Construction of the Cameron project has been stalled by litigation.
The Missouri National Guard Foundation was started in 2010 by Maj. Gen. Stephen Danner to provide services for veterans returning from war. Stephen Danner has been the adjutant general of the Guard since 2009, when he was appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon. He's a former Democratic state senator and representative.
After the foundation's first project — building a chapel named after Stephen Danner at the Guard's Jefferson City headquarters — the foundation altered its mission. It was getting into the lucrative low-income housing business.
In his private sector career, Stephen Danner is a lawyer who specializes in real estate.
Andrew Danner is his son.
Housing commission records show that North Star has used the foundation to help it get approved for tax credits with the promise that its projects would provide benefits to veterans and help them eventually get into one of the seven retirement homes operated by the Missouri Veterans Commission.
Now, the Veterans Commission is questioning its mission and brand being misappropriated by a for-profit entity and its affiliated nonprofit. Other critics are trying to block the project in Cameron.
“What in the hell is the Missouri National Guard doing in the low-income housing business?” asks Roger Foreman, vice chairman of the Cameron Veterans Home Assistance League. “This project is not to benefit veterans. It's to benefit the Danners.”
Foreman and Gary Summers, chairman of the assistance league, have been fighting to stop the building of the low-income senior patio homes proposed by North Star and the Missouri National Guard Foundation in Cameron. Both men are veterans, and they say the Cameron City Council and others have been duped by a project that was pitched for veterans but won't necessarily benefit them.
“It's as unethical as can be,” Summers says.
Joel Denney, secretary of the board for the Missouri National Guard Foundation and the point man for the Cameron senior housing project, says the connection between the two Danners is not an issue.
“That's just someone's opinion,” Denney says. “Gen. Danner does not sit on the foundation board. He has no vote.”
While the City Council approved an additional $3.8 million in tax abatements and incentives for the proposed senior housing project, the project is tied up in litigation.
In May, Clinton County sued the city to block the project, saying Cameron's City Council erred by declaring the land blighted. The project is proposed for agricultural land adjacent to the state veterans home in the northwest Missouri city. The lawsuit argues that the council relied on “no credible evidence” to declare the land blighted in order to qualify it for tax incentives.
After the county sued, North Star Housing sought a boost in its tax credits from the state in case the city rescinded the tax abatement.
Records obtained by the Post-Dispatch in multiple Sunshine Law requests show that the Stephen Danner has sought to use his influence to benefit the foundation's attempt to obtain tax credits. In filing a form with state regulators to qualify for the tax credits, the foundation failed to disclose any connection to the general.
In that form, filed by the foundation and North Star in April, 2018, the foundation is asked to disclose: "any business or personal (including family) relationships that any of the staff members, directors or other principals involved in the formation or operation of the non-profit have, either directly or indirectly, with any persons or entities involved or to be involved in the project on a for-profit basis including, but not limited to, the owner of the project, any of its for-profit general partners, employees, limited partners or any other parties directly or indirectly related to such owner."
Public records, interviews and press accounts show that Danner has been involved with the nonprofit foundation, but the form filed by the foundation doesn't mention him nor his relationship to his son.
The nonprofit was his idea, it is based at Guard headquarters, and the original charter with the secretary of state was filed by one of his top aides, Anthony Bamvakais.
Bamvakais is no longer in the Guard and declined to comment for this column.
The first board was filled with retired Guard members who had served under Danner. The current board consists of Scott Englund, who served under Danner and was a former chairman of the Missouri Veterans Commission; Denney, who was hired by Danner to run another Guard nonprofit, the Missouri National Guard Association; Markt Meyer, who is married to Danner's mother, former congresswoman Pat Danner; Vernon Scoville, a retired judge who served in the Missouri House with Danner; and D.K. Hirner, a lawyer who is a former special assistant to Danner.
“There is no question that Gen. Danner's vision was the impetus behind the foundation,” Denney says. He says the general attends foundation meetings but didn't have any influence over choosing his son's business, North Star Housing, as the exclusive developer to work on tax credit projects.
“We needed somebody with experience,” Denney says. “We went to people that we knew.”
The Danner connection
Andrew Danner owns 49% of North Star. The other 51% is owned by Lela Gruebel, who worked for the Missouri Housing Development Corporation for 15 years.
In some documents, it's difficult to tell where the Missouri National Guard Foundation begins and North Star ends.
For instance, in the Cameron project, in order to qualify for city tax abatement, the property had to be owned by an urban redevelopment corporation. So the foundation and North Star created the Foundation Redevelopment Corporation. Its three directors, who became stockholders in the for-profit venture, according to the corporation's bylaws, are Denney, Andrew Danner and Gruebel.
Denney maintains the arrangement has no profit motive.
“None of us who work for the foundation earn a penny,” Denney says. “Nobody's getting rich off this thing.”
Denney does earn income off of the Guard, however. A former school superintendent in Columbia, Missouri, who according to news accounts abruptly resigned amid sexual harassment allegations in 1995, Denney has been the contracted executive director of the Guard's other nonprofit, the Missouri National Guard Association, since 2011. He is paid $120,000 a year. According to the organization's tax forms, that's about half of the nonprofit's yearly revenue, most of which comes from dues paid by Guard members. The association provides life insurance and lobbies for the Guard's interests.
Since 2009, the Guard's interests and Danner's have been intertwined. Too much so, says one former board member of the association, who resigned in protest.
“I resigned from the board of (the association) because I didn’t agree with the direction of the organization,” the high-ranking Guard officer told me. He requested anonymity so as not to face retribution. “I felt that its focus was on supporting the ego of (Danner) instead of the members we represented. I felt that my efforts to change the focus of the organization were stonewalled and I left out of frustration.”
Danner's tenure as the adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard will end Aug. 2. After serving under three governors, he is being replaced. Gov. Mike Parson has chosen as the new adjutant general Col. Levon Cumpton, a Missouri native who formerly worked in the National Guard Bureau.
It's been a rocky decade under Danner's leadership.
There have been multiple inspector general and National Guard Bureau investigations into conduct of officers under Danner's command, from allegations of sexual assault to financial improprieties, theft, white supremacy, and racial discrimination. A common theme is that some of those who have complained have later been retaliated against.
As Danner leaves, the Guard is embroiled in two employment lawsuits, and Danner's second in command, Brig. Gen. David Boyle, retired suddenly and was removed from headquarters amid an investigation into his use of electronic devices.
Parson, who as both governor and lieutenant governor, has served on the MHDC, did not attend the meeting nor vote on the tax credits for the Cameron project. He was not on the commission when the Poplar Bluff project was approved. But it's clear he has questions about Danner's role in influencing a process that led to his son's company obtaining state and federal tax credits:
Through a spokesman, Parson declined to specifically criticize Danner, but suggested the arrangement with the Missouri National Guard Foundation deserves more scrutiny.
“Gov. Parson believes that any private entity, whether it is a nonprofit organization or a for-profit business, has an obligation to use any public funds or tax credit financing in an ethical, efficient, accountable fashion for the public good,” said Steele Shippy, the governor's communications director. “Government agencies have an obligation to exercise diligent oversight over such funds and to root out waste, fraud and abuse.”
Commission pushes back
At least one Missouri public official provided the diligent oversight suggested by Parson. The current chairman of the Missouri Veterans Commission, Tim Noonan, refused to allow his organization to be used for the benefit of the foundation and North Star more than a year ago.
In February 2018, the Missouri National Guard Foundation had asked the veterans commission and some of its employees to write letters of support for the housing project in Cameron. In fact, in an email to Col. Grace Link, then the interim executive director of the Missouri Veterans Commission, Denney even included a copy of a letter for her to sign.
Denney wasn't the only one trying to get such a letter. Danner himself asked Link for such a letter on behalf of the foundation, according to emails obtained by the Post-Dispatch in an open records request.
“General Danner had asked me for this letter a few weeks ago,” Link wrote to Denney in an email in February. She never signed such a letter. Instead, she took the request to Noonan and the commission, which decided at a March 2018 meeting not to provide such a letter.
Denney and Andrew Danner were pitching the Cameron senior home project as a way to reduce the waiting list for spots in Missouri veterans homes. But Noonan says they were mischaracterizing the waiting list; and that the project isn't necessarily for veterans anyway.
“This thing stinks,” Noonan says. “And we're not going to do it. It was an easy decision.”
Before Noonan took over, the Missouri Veterans Commission had a close relationship with the Missouri National Guard Foundation. Scott Englund, who served under Danner, was the chairman of both organizations. The former executive director of the veterans commission, Brig. Gen. Larry Kay, was close to Danner, as well.
Kay had written a letter of support for the foundation's Poplar Bluff project.
Noonan put an end to such insider dealing.
“It's inappropriate for the executive director of the veterans commission to have this sort of relationship,” Noonan said.
The Cameron project is the fourth attempt by the foundation and North Star to work together to obtain tax credits for low-income housing projects. The first two, in Macon and St. Louis, never came to fruition. The Poplar Bluff project has been built. The Cameron project has been approved but is in limbo.
Through a Guard spokesman, Danner declined to be made available for an interview.
His son, when told public records showed him being much more than a consultant to the foundation, said: “I have no comment at this time on anything.”
Denney said he has every expectation the foundation will build the Cameron project and apply for more low-income housing tax credits in the future, despite criticisms that the father-son connection creates a conflict of interest.
“There's nothing there,” Denney says. “It doesn't bother me at all.”