Sunday, October 25, 2009

Des Moines Register Has Different Take On Marla Stevens

The Indianapolis Star first waited two weeks before discussing the $6 million embezzlement case involving two former Indianapolis residents active in GLBT politics its sister newspaper, The Des Moines Register, first broke. The Star then went out of its way to bolster the image of Marla Stevens, the GLBT lobbyist/activist whose partner, Phyllis Stevens, had been accused of embezzling the money from her employer, Aviva. The Des Moines Register has another front-page story today that paints the opposite picture of Marla Stevens painted by the Star. The Register says Marla did not appear in the courtroom to support Phyllis on Friday when she pleaded not guilty to an 18-count indictment accusing her of wire fraud, money laundering, computer fraud and identity theft. Reporter Tom Witosky turns to their roots in Indianapolis to learn more about the couple in reaching a different view of the couple. He writes:

Missing from the courtroom was her longtime partner, Marla Stevens, whom Aviva named in a lawsuit, claiming that she benefited from the embezzlement.

From Indianapolis to Des Moines, the alleged criminal exploits of Phyllis Stevens and wonder over Marla's role have become hot topics of speculation among friends, foes and acquaintances.

Guinn, 81, a resident of Des Moines' Sherman Hill neighborhood and longtime progressive activist, said of Phyllis Stevens, "Obviously I didn't know her as well as I thought. She always was the kind of person that seemed thoughtful, who understood the issues. Of course, I always enjoy people who agree with me."

But others who knew the couple during their many years in Indianapolis have another view. They contend that this episode in many ways was predictable.

"I've always thought both of them to be troubled because they always struck me as individuals who seemed vulnerable in very many ways," said Sheila Kennedy, former executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and now a professor at Indiana University/Purdue University in Indianapolis.

"Phyllis was the satellite and Marla was the planet that Phyllis circled." . . .

Marla Stevens established a reputation as a gay rights advocate in Indiana with a flair for dramatics. In 1998, for instance, she disrupted a meeting in Anderson, Ind., of people supporting legislation to prohibit gay couples from adopting children.

Indiana State Rep. Woody Burton, a conservative Republican, remembers his confrontation with Marla Stevens.

"We were trying to meet, and she does all she can to disrupt it. She tried to keep the meeting from starting by lying down on the floor in front of the entrance. Then when we went into a different room, she got in and lay down on the table," Burton recalled.

The 6-foot 1-inch Marla Stevens also spent about 45 minutes shouting at her opponents, Burton said. "We had to have her arrested so we could meet."

Kathy Sarris, president of the gay rights group Indiana Equality, said that Marla Stevens' disruption mobilized opposition to the conservatives and kept the legislation from being approved.

"If she hadn't gotten the attention, I doubt the bill could have been stopped," Sarris said. "When people heard what she did, they came out from all over the state to support us."

But Sarris and Kennedy, the former Indiana ACLU director, also said they experienced another side of Marla Stevens - a person difficult to deal with when they disagreed with her.

For example, Kennedy said she terminated Marla Stevens' position as an unpaid lobbyist for the Indiana ACLU after learning that she had taken positions on bills contrary to the association's position on hate crimes legislation.

"We had a philosophical disagreement, and I made a change," Kennedy said. "When I told Marla that she wasn't going to be a part of it, she stormed out of the office as only she could."
When the Star interviewed IE's Sarris, they only attributed positive comments about Marla Stevens to Sarris unlike the more negative attributes Witosky attributes to Sarris. He also has information about former ACLU of Indiana Executive Director Sheila Kennnedy firing Stevens as a volunteer lobbyist because she took legislative views opposite the association's position on legislation. Interstingly, Kennedy regularly contributes a guest column to the Star so it's not like she isn't someone the Star would have interviewed in doing its earlier story on the couple. My only disappintment in Witosky's story is his omission of Marla's notorious defamatory post at the Bilerico blog on former 7th District congressional candidate, Kris Kiser, Indiana's first openly gay congressional candidate. It helps put context to the $25,000 the couple gave to U.S. Rep. Andre Carson and the $8,000 they gave to his grandmother, the late U.S. Rep. Julia Carson, who faced Kiser in that primary election.

Witosky learned information about Phyllis Stevens not previously reported on by the Star. She grew up in Speedway, Indiana and went by the name Phyllis DeMaas. Witosky interviews former classmates of her's from high school. Witosky attempted to interview two of Marla Stevens' siblings, but both of her sisters declined interviews. Witosky says Marla didn't move to Iowa with Phyllis when she was transferred there but instead lived in their Florida home; however, Marla stated in past blog comments that the two had moved to the Des Moines area because of Phyllis' job transfer. Witosky also explored claims the couple had made about their wealth:

Guinn, the Methodist minister, said in all the years he has known Phyllis Stevens he has talked only once with Marla Stevens and that was over the telephone after she and Phyllis bought the houses.

"Marla said that her playroom growing up was bigger than most of the rooms in the house," Guinn said. "She gave me the distinct impression that she was wealthy because of her family."

Guinn said that Marla Stevens wanted to install an elevator to run from the basement of the home to the top floor. Guinn said that he was under the impression that she needed the elevator because she uses a scooter or wheelchair because of health problems.

"She wanted to do a lot of remodeling and said that she needed to have the elevator to be able to get around," Guinn said. "I knew something like that was going to be expensive, but she said that she'd inherited a substantial amount of money from her grandfather."

Those who knew Marla Stevens always assumed she had independent wealth. Now they are not so sure.

"We all wondered just how she could support herself, and Marla always would tell us that she had inherited money from her family," Sarris said.

A review of documents, as well as a 1994 news article about Marla Stevens' lobbying, disclose that the couple divided their responsibilities to each other, but that financial support was not an issue.

Marla worked as a lobbyist for little or no money, and Phyllis supported the couple with her salary as a compensation specialist at Indiana Life and Aviva, an Indianapolis Star article said.

An e-mail written by Phyllis Stevens in October 2008 - four years into the alleged embezzlement scheme - claimed that Marla Stevens had independent wealth.

"My wife is relatively wealthy," Phyllis Stevens said in an e-mail to Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu regarding a mailing from a conservative group attempting to intimidate supporters of liberal causes. "So we are able to give in a fairly generous manner to causes we believe in and are proud to do so."

But now - given the embezzlement charges - there are questions among friends and foes about what they really knew about the couple. Sarris said she isn't sure why Phyllis Stevens would have embezzled money, but wouldn't be surprised with any outcome.

"Marla is highly intelligent, creative person who can also do some of the craziest things you've ever heard of, and Phyllis is the one person who supports her in everything," Sarris said. "I just wonder what really happened."
Once again, the Des Moines Gannett newspaper beats the pants off its sister newspaper in Indianapolis. It's a bit ironic considering that the Star's editor, Dennis Ryerson, is a former editor of the Des Moines newspaper.

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