Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Star Finally Reports On Stevens' Embezzlement, Gets Facts Wrong

Apparently the pressure in the newsroom on Star editor Dennis Ryerson to end his blackout on coverage of the alleged $6 million embezzlement by a former Indianapolis gay couple active in GLBT political causes was more than he could withstand. Today, two weeks after its sister newspaper in Des Moines first broke the story, the Star's John Tuohy finally has a story about how Phyllis Stevens is alleged to have embezzled $6 million over the past five years from her employer of 35 years, Aviva (formerly Indianapolis Life Insurance Co.), helping explain how she and her partner, Marla Stevens, managed to make contributions of more than $170,000 to Democratic candidates, including more than $25,000 to U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, and were able to purchase five homes, including two in Iowa, two in Indiana and another in Florida. Tuohy, however, gets his facts wrong. He claims the couple only made $11,600 in contributions to Carson. As both this blog and WIBC's Stan Lehr previously reported, the sum totalled more than $25,000, and the Carson campaign acknowledged it agreed to set aside that amount of money. Tuohy writes:

Stevens and her partner, Phyllis Stevens, have given $170,000 to the campaigns of local, state and national Democratic candidates since 2006 -- including $11,600 to U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind. -- after they moved to Des Moines.

But some of those same politicians are giving the money away as quickly as they got it and denying any personal relationship with Marla Stevens, 52, or Phyllis Stevens, 58.

That's because the FBI says the money could have been stolen . . .

Election records show they contributed to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, presidential candidate John Edwards and Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Andre Carson, all Democrats . . .

Some candidates in Colorado who received large donations from the Stevenses said they would set them aside or were considering doing so. Carson spokesman Justin Ohlemiller said Carson has set aside the Stevenses' donations in a separate fund in case the court orders their retrieval. If not, the congressman likely would contribute the money to charity.

"The congressman has met Phyllis and Marla before, but he did not know them well," Ohlemiller said. "They contributed to a number of candidates . . . and our campaign was one of those they chose to support."
Ohlemiller is not being truthful about Carson's ties to Marla Stevens. It is incredulous for him to claim that Carson barely knew the couple who contributed more to his political campaign than any other individual contributors. Marla and Phyllis were big supporters of his grandmother, having contributed at least $8,000 to her. When the first openly gay man to run for Congress in Indiana, Kris Kiser, decided to challenge Rep. Julia Carson for re-election in the 2006 Democratic primary, Stevens acted as the Carson campaign's hatchet woman. She wrote on Bil Browning's blog, Bilerico, the nastiest, defamatory blog post she could possibly write that focused on his sexual orientation. To put it bluntly, she touched on every possible negative stereotype one could conjure up about a gay man. She wrote it with complete malice towards a man she barely knew. Browning eventually removed the post from his blog under threat of a lawsuit by Kiser. Last year, another Indianapolis blogger and friend of Stevens, Steph Mineart, picked up on the negative tactic employed by Stevens. She published a blog posting falsely claiming that Carson's special election Republican opponent, Jon Elrod, was gay and Browning gladly fanned the flames from her post on his blog. Mineart fully admitted she had no first-hand knowledge of his sexual orientation. She based the claim entirely on what she described as her impeccable "gaydar." Elrod opposed the gay marriage amendment as a state lawmaker that Stevens and others opposed, even though most members of his own party supported it. Stevens and her friends have a rather strange approach to helping promote GLBT rights.

Not surprisingly, Tuohy's story completely whitewashes that aspect of Marla Stevens' political involvement in Indiana politics. Instead, he quotes positive accounts of her from Indiana Equality's Kathy Sarris and Bilerico's Bil Browning. Tuohy writes:

"We are all shocked," said Kathy Sarris, president of the gay-rights organization Indiana Equality, who has known Marla Stevens for 30 years. "No one has any inkling of how this could happen." . . .

A skilled activist, Marla Stevens helped derail a bill in 1998 that would have prevented gays from adopting children. Stevens interrupted a news conference at Anderson City Hall, barged her way next to the podium and delivered a 45-minute diatribe against the legislation, occasionally banging the rostrum with her fist. Her arrest in that incident drew wide media coverage.

"It was a brilliant tactical move that really shook things up," Sarris said. "If she hadn't done that, the opposition could never have mobilized."

Acquaintances said Stevens boasted of being a descendant of Thomas Jefferson who fought against the Ku Klux Klan in the South before moving north. A woman with an operatic singing voice, she was described as a shrewd coordinator and clever inside player in the legislature.

Bil Browning, who runs the Bilerico Project Web site in Indianapolis, to which Marla Stevens contributes articles, said Stevens organized a counter-protest outside Cummins Engine Co. in Columbus in 2000.

The company's same-sex benefits policy was being protested by conservative activists, and Stevens' counter-rally attracted hundreds of people, along with media coverage, said Browning, who described Stevens as a mentor.

"We had e-mailed people to get them out there," Browning said of the then-novel organizing tool. "She has a keen political mind and distinct way of looking at things."
Touhy doesn't ask Sarris or Browning whether they received any of the Stevens' largesse. It's funny that the first thing Browning posted on his blog, acknowledging that she was the first contributing blogger to Bilerico, was this: "Neither she nor her wife, Phyllis Stevens, have donated any money to Bilerico Project." Sarris may profess shock at learning about this scandal, but anyone with any common sense knew that it made no sense after all their years of political involvement that they suddenly had so much money to contribute to political causes. Browning's and Sarris' comments aside, Marla Stevens was despised by a large number of people in Indiana's GLBT community, who viewed her approach as often self-defeating, if not downright embarrassing at times. Stevens occasionally stopped by this blog to attack me. When I raised questions a couple of years ago about the source of the money she and Phyllis had to contribute to candidates, she offered this comment about how she and Phyllis totally self-financed their activities:

Gary, I can't begin to understand what possessed you to write some of this and won't try but, about certain portions of it of which I'm rather intimately aware, I must say: Horsepucky! . . .

Rep. Carson actively supports our equal access to civil marriage and goes out of her way, spending serious political capital, to support LGBT peoples' rights in general, as well as other things my wife and I hold dear. We view those in our community not supporting her as people who strangely like to do the political equivalent of pointing big loaded guns at their feet and pulling the triggers.

That said, you have no way of knowing why I wrote what I wrote about Kiser, nor have you bothered with the journalistic niceties of asking why before engaging in wild speculation about it. Shame on you!

What I wrote about Kiser was motivated by a well-informed belief that Mr. Kiser isn't fit to live among decent people in Indiana, much less represent it in any official capacity. I would've written it no matter who was his opponent. I would've written it if he'd been running unopposed. And I was most certainly not taking direction from the Carson campaign to write it.

Yes, my wife and I have been long-time major donors and strong supporters of Rep. Carson -- and have been so at least since she first ran for Congress, long before my wife was transferred to her company's Iowa home office . . .

"Anonymous wrote about me, "She has been known to accept compensation from a group of Indiana entities who lobby for gender equality and fairness issues."

Wrong again! In all the decades I lobbied at the Indiana state legislature, I never accepted a penny in compensation for my work there -- and only rarely even submitted my expenses for any of my activism for reimbursement from the organizations on behalf of which I lobbied. Instead, my wife and I made a family decision to self-fund the bulk of our activism, often at considerable personal expense.

The only "loose-knit coalition" of "Indiana entities who lobby for gender equality and fairness issues" that I remember that was a registered lobbying group at the time was the Gender Fairness Coalition. While I agree that "their cause is just" and supported their work, at no time did I serve as the registered lobbyist for that group, although I did participate in their conference committee 'death watch' task-sharing working group during many a session's end game, along with a number of others who worked in the public's interest who also had a personal interest in being able to get at least a few hours sleep every once in a while and found that sharing the conference committee watch duties was a practical means to that end.

The Gender Fairness Coalition was anything but a wealthy group and did sometimes hire entry-level lobbyists as a result but those I remember often went on to lobby for more prestigious groups and never did I remember one I would have thought incompetent. The public interest issues for which it advocates are often held in low regard by some at the statehouse but I think that speaks to the nature of public-interest work versus Gucci-gulch corporate "ka-ching" lobbying as well as to the related "best legislature money can buy" problems that have been too rampant in that body for too long than about the quality of the lobbying in the public interest that takes place there."
It looks like Stevens took on that "Gucci-gulch corporate 'ka-ching' lobbying" mantra she decried on this blog just two years ago. What a total hypocrite. Most of the rest of Tuohy's story recounts how Phyllis Stevens allegedly pulled off the $6 million heist. Most of the facts come from the previous reporting by the Des Moines Register. Incidentally, WIBC's Stan Lehr had an excellent interview this past weekend with the Des Moines Register reporter, Tom Witosky, who broke the story. The audio clip of that interview can be found on the radio station's website.

UPDATE: The Star's sister newspaper, the Des Moines Register, has another story in today's edition discussing Marla Stevens' decision to plead her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in a deposition Aviva's lawyers sought to obtain from her. "The spouse of the woman accused of embezzling $5.9 million from Aviva USA won't answer questions from lawyers who are attempting to locate assets that may have been purchased with stolen money, court records say," Tom Witosky writes. "Hook's assertion of his client's Fifth Amendment rights is the first indication that Marla Stevens may be under federal investigation for involvement in the alleged embezzlement by Phyllis Stevens," he adds.


Anonymous said...

I thought Bil Browing was on disability and was receiving SSI for it?

I ask this becuase I thought the standard for SSI was there are no jobs out there for you and your disability. However, he posts on his blog on all day, he travels all over the country, and he tries to get his name in every publication he can. He also talks about how he wants to turn his blog into a money making endevour. I wonder if SSI knows of his intentions?

Jon E. Easter said...

Where's your blog post on Steve Buyer's connections to the Frontier House? Waiting for that one. Usually right up your alley.

swan said...

I know for a fact that Marla Stevens, and those who write for Bil Browning's blog, disseminate misinformation, and even vicious lies, about candidates, even if those candidates are against discrimination of gay people, probably for the purpose of seeking financial gain for themselves or their projects. Their devious behavior should be exposed!