I
“A major catalyst for Ames”

Thursday, November 8, 2018, was another good day for the Ames Chamber of Commerce, or so it seemed at the time. In Des Moines, where the Iowa Economic Development Authority was hosting its annual ceremony for the Main Street Iowa Challenge Grants program, a downtown Ames business had again been named as a recipient of one of the awards. It was the fifth time in six years for the Chamber’s Main Street Cultural District, and the third in four under the leadership of the affiliate’s executive director, Cindy Hicks.

Previously under Hicks, in 2015, one of the $75,000 grants went to a local development partnership established for the purpose of completing an estimated $3.5 million restoration of the historic Sheldon Munn hotel building on the corner of Main and Kellogg whose structural support beams were in danger of collapse. Then, two years later, the popular downtown pub London Underground received a grant for a second-floor renovation and facade restoration project estimated at about $270,000 that’s likely to begin sometime soon.

This November, the prize went to the Olde Main Brewing Company, a well-known restaurant on the 300 block of Main Street, for an ambitious four-seasons rooftop bar project. The application was submitted in September 2018 by Hicks in her role as director of the Cultural District, which, since a rebranding campaign three months earlier, also variously refers to itself as Ames Main Street, Ames Downtown, and Downtown Ames. It boasted that the finished development would attract hundreds of people to the district every week and create more than 20 new jobs there.

“The popularity of rooftop venues has increased considerably over the past five years,” Hicks said in an official announcement. “Having such a venue in downtown Ames will create a destination location in the heart of the Ames community.” Dan Culhane, the Chamber’s president and CEO, was similarly jazzed. “Olde Main has provided an outstanding venue with tremendous products and service over the years,” he said. “This project will greatly enrich our community and ultimately be a major catalyst for Ames.”

When I read about the proposal in the Ames Tribune that weekend, my first reaction was puzzlement. Would this really come to fruition, with all the gossip around downtown of Olde Main’s financial problems? The grant application claimed he had already secured over $1 million for the rooftop bar, in the form of a private equity investment from his “personal finances.” But whatever happened with his previous lofty development proposal, a $10 million, 32,000-square-foot brewery and event center he planned to build on an optioned property at 1615 South Kellogg Avenue that was met with comparable enthusiasm by civic leaders in early 2015 before fading from the public’s memory?

Concept art for the brewery and event center Scott Griffen proposed for South Kellogg Avenue in early 2015. The project never came to be, and Griffen never paid the architecture firm, Des Moines-based Smith Metzger, $25,000 he owed for the work.

My skepticism was validated on April 29, when the Alcoholic Beverages Division of the state’s Commerce Department announced that the liquor licenses for Olde Main and the other two Main Street businesses run by Scott Griffen, the pool hall Corner Pocket and popular music venue DG’s Tap House, would be suspended for six months effective May 13. Griffen himself would be ineligible to hold any new liquor licenses for two years from the date he surrendered the ones he had then. The announcement came at the conclusion of an ABD investigation spurred by complaints from the Iowa Department of Public Safety alleging that Griffen “failed to maintain the requisite good moral character required to hold an alcohol license, in particular a lack of good financial standing.” On Friday, May 3, after a staff walk-out, Olde Main announced it was shutting its doors. DG’s hosted its final show on Saturday, May 11. Corner Pocket closed the following night after drawing a boisterous crowd with a dollar-drinks special.

Over the next three months, I contacted former employees of Griffen’s, dug through hundreds of court documents and other public records, and spoke with business owners and others who have crossed paths with him over the years.

This is the previously untold story of a downtown Ames businessman who, for well over a decade, has taken advantage of his family’s wealth and the reputation of its name to run an operation with open disregard for the law, treating bills and paychecks as mere suggestions; fostering a toxic work environment with allegations of labor violations, harassment, and rodent infestations; and suckering people into costly partnerships only to vanish for months on end without returning calls or showing up to court once the lawsuits arrive. Until recently, he’s managed to get away with it all with astonishingly few consequences.

II
“Off the face of the Earth”

Founded in 1931 by Wolverine Thilbert Dahl on Des Moines’ east side, Dahl’s Foods was once at the forefront of the Midwest’s grocery industry. It opened its first supermarket in 1948, also in Des Moines, boasting that the store was the first of its kind between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains to feature a bakery. Four years later, the company opened the largest supermarket in the region, and one of the first to include a pharmacy. But more recently, Dahl’s fell on hard times in the face of increasing competition from Hy-Vee and other local competitors, as well as big box stores like Walmart that were expanding their reach into the grocery business. Eventually, it racked up debts totalling $41.1 million, mostly tied to leases on its stores. On November 10, 2014, the company announced it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and one of its suppliers, Kansas City-based Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc., would purchase its operating assets. The Dahl’s Foods building in north Ames was eventually demolished and replaced by a Walmart Supercenter.

About six months before Dahl’s went under, its CEO, David Sinnwell, was terminated. The split was messy. He left with a $421,000 severance agreement, angering former employees whose retirement benefits the company told them it couldn’t afford to cover. Sinnwell was supposed to receive his severance in a series of 39 payments, every other week, of $10,795. But in September, his checks stopped coming, too, and the next month he sued for unpaid wages. Dahl’s filed for bankruptcy three weeks later, putting his lawsuit in limbo, where it remains to this day.

As this played out, Sinnwell approached Rob Smith, co-founder of the Des Moines firm Architects Smith Metzger, with a business proposition.

“He’s actually the one that got us involved with Griffen,” Smith recalled. “Sinnwell calls me and tells me he’s got this deal, this guy that wants to build this brewery.” His son, Matt Sinnwell, was the general manager at Olde Main, and Smith already knew David through work his firm had done for Dahl’s, so the two of them came to a deal. In January 2015, Griffen signed a contract to make things official. He met Smith at his office and cut him a check for $10,000 as a retainer. “So that tells me the guy could pay,” said Smith, who had the impression that Sinnwell himself would also invest in the project.

Smith Metzger quickly got to work, drafting concepts for the building, meeting with city officials, and hiring a civil engineer. David Sinnwell filed a certificate of organization with the secretary of state’s office for GSS BB LLC. The paperwork, handwritten on a page of ruled notebook paper, named himself as the company’s organizer and Griffen as its registered agent. The company’s address was an Ames post office box.

A certificate of organization filed by former Dahl’s CEO David Sinnwell for an ill-fated brewery and event center proposed in 2015 by Scott Griffen.

But Griffen wouldn’t be able to open a brewery at the location without a change to the city’s zoning ordinance. He made his case in a letter to the City Council and then-Mayor Ann Campbell, writing, “The type of project I am proposing is gaining popularity across the United States.” As an example, he mentioned the $20 million brewery and taproom that the Surly Brewing Co. opened in Minneapolis the previous December. (That proposal, too, ran afoul of the law, until the governor signed the so-called Surly Bill in 2011, allowing breweries to sell pints of their own beer on site.) “I would like to provide additional options to continue to bring groups to Ames and provide a unique environment for various events and occasions,” Griffen added.

It was a smart pitch. A year earlier, Ames voters overwhelmingly rejected a bond referendum to raise property taxes in order to fund a $38 million convention center addition to the Iowa State Center, home to Hilton Coliseum, Jack Trice Stadium, and Fisher Theater. The proposal, championed by the Convention and Visitors Bureau, fell flat after a local watchdog noticed that economic projections from a study the organization commissioned had later been grossly inflated and an Iowa State University economist protested that figures he’d provided to the group had been miscalculated in campaign literature.

I was the city reporter at the Ames Tribune during the referendum campaign and when Griffen announced his plans for the event center, and was interested in the idea that a local businessman was proposing a private-sector alternative of sorts. After receiving a copy of his letter to the city, I contacted Griffen to set up an interview. I met with him in his basement office in Corner Pocket, located past a set of double doors in the back of the pool hall and nicknamed the “dungeon.” When I entered, I was greeted by a heavyset man behind a cluttered desk with a dirty ashtray sitting in front of him. A promotional beer calendar featuring images of bikini-clad models hung on the back wall. Removing a cigarette from his mouth and cracking a sly smile, he told me not to tell anyone I saw him smoking in his office — a violation of Iowa’s Smokefree Air Act.

This is the only time I recall meeting Griffen, although I’ve seen him around town since. He struck me then as an intriguing, if a bit seedy, local character. I later had a brief, light-hearted exchange with him over emails after apologizing for an embarrassing botched detail in my reporting: describing the size of his proposed development in terms of acres instead of square feet. “I wish I had that much money!” he replied.

Two weeks after my article was published, Smith Metzger sent Griffen a $25,000 invoice for its services. I left the Tribune that August (the same month the firm was acquired by Sioux City-based Cannon Moss Brygger Architects) and never followed up — until this May, shortly after news of the liquor license suspensions broke. That’s when I visited City Hall to log into its online courts database and see if there were any records relating to the project’s quiet disappearance.

There were a lot of them. In March 2016, Smith Metzger had filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit claiming that Griffen never paid his bill “despite repeated requests.” The suit demanded the original $25,000, plus interest and attorney’s fees. “He fell off the face of the Earth, he never returned calls,” Smith said. “I told him I’d meet him at Corner Pocket, like to pick up a check, like to know what’s going on. He never showed up. He’s an absolute slimeball. He’s one of those guys that figured out how to make money off of other people’s backs.”

Griffen didn’t show up in court, either, despite efforts made to serve him notice of the lawsuit on four occasions between March and June, including once by certified mail. In September, District Court Judge Michael Moon granted Smith Metzger a default judgment for the full amount requested.

But Griffen still wouldn’t make good on the bill, so on December 1, the firm’s attorneys asked the court to schedule a debtor’s exam, a hearing at which someone who has failed to pay a judgment from a lawsuit must provide information under oath about their financial assets. Less than a week later, Moon issued an order for Griffen to “personally appear to answer questions relative to his income” on January 9, 2017. Yet again, he was a no-show. By now, Moon had evidently lost his patience. He directed the clerk of court to issue a warrant for Griffen’s arrest, setting bond at $25,000. The next day, Griffen was taken into custody at the Story County jail in Nevada. The day after that, with the help of an agent representing the American Surety Company, he posted a bail bond and was released.

At long last, Griffen appeared in court on January 23 with Jonathon Schroeder, an attorney with the Ames branch of the prominent Davis Brown Law Firm. According to the official record, Griffen “explained to the court that he was unaware of the requirements of the order and indeed had not seen the order to appear.” It was out of willful ignorance: A notary public had filed an affidavit of service with the court on December 21, 2016, after visiting Griffen’s home in north Ames, reporting, “Person served was inside residence but would not answer.” Even so, the bond was canceled. Another debtor’s exam was scheduled, but to this day, Smith Metzger has yet to be paid.

“I’ve learned that if you’re working for an asshole, you just give up at some point and say, you know, I don’t want to even be involved with this guy,” said Smith, whose website profile describes him as “a dedicated yogi” and player of the didgeridoo, an indigenous Australian wind instrument. “In the grand picture, $25,000 sounds like a lot of money in the business world — it is a lot of money — but dealing with a hairball like that, it’s not worth any of your time. It’s absolutely not worth any effort. He is a hairball, and you just deal with the great people of the world and you gotta let these kinds of people go.”

III
“A lack of justice”

Scott Griffen “considered paying his employees ‘paying a bill,’” said Allison Montenegró, who worked as a pastry chef at Olde Main from late February until the restaurant closed in early May. “And he hated paying bills!”

I contacted over a dozen former employees of Griffen’s Main Street businesses for this article and formally interviewed nine of them. Some agreed to talk on the condition that their names not be published, either because they did not wish to reintroduce the unpleasant drama of their past employment into their lives now, they said, or were concerned about potential retaliation. Their stories, which each told me separately in conversations ranging in time from a few minutes to more than two hours, were personal to them but collectively also painted a strikingly consistent picture of what it could be like to work for Griffen and his business associates.

Montenegró was recruited to work at Olde Main by its final head chef, Matt Ziegenfuss. The two knew each other from a previous kitchen they worked at together in Omaha, where Montenegró was still living when Ziegenfuss contacted her about his need for a catering chef good in Ames with a flair for making desserts. “I decided, what the hell, it seemed like a good opportunity for my career,” she said. “So I broke a lease in Omaha, I moved all of my stuff into storage, and I moved out here for that job.”

She came to Iowa with an informal understanding that she would become a salaried employee, once the details were ironed out, because of her supervisory position. Instead, Montenegró said, she started at $12 an hour. Griffen promised to make her salaried once he figured out the year’s budget, she claimed, and agreed to raise her wages to $14 in the interim. Neither happened.

Montenegró described the work environment as a “shitshow.” There was a mouse problem in the kitchen, and it wasn’t uncommon to find dead mice in traps near her station (this was not a new problem, according to another former cook I interviewed who recalled also seeing rats caught in the traps a few years ago). Food in the walk-in wasn’t properly labeled. In early March, Montenegró came into work, was told there had just been a health inspection — it was initiated by an unspecified illness complaint, according to a state record — and thought, “Oh, shit.” But the only violations noted were that there was no hand-washing sign posted by a sink in the prep area and no paper towels, either. “I don’t know how we passed,” she said. “I really don’t.”

A time-stamped smartphone photo from this April of an avocado chewed on by a mouse in Olde Main’s walk-in. The photo was provided by Allison Montenegró, a pastry chef at the brewpub at the time.

It wasn’t always quite this bad at Olde Main. Another former employee, who started working there as a server about six years ago before becoming a bartender and shift manager, said she initially enjoyed the job. But about a year or two after she started, Matt Sinnwell took over as the front house manager and things changed. Eventually, she confronted him for being an “asshole” to her for what she said was no apparent reason. She was fired.

Sinnwell had a reputation for his vindictive management style, and it was an open secret that he had a thing for younger female employees in positions under him. He slept with at least two of them, and probably more, according to stories from five former employees who questioned the appropriateness of this given the power imbalance. Such behavior made other women uncomfortable about working there, I was told, as did the security cameras inside the building that didn’t work. Sinnwell and Griffen enjoyed sharing tasteless jokes, including ones about women, other former employees of Griffen’s said. Two former bartenders said Sinnwell made unwanted advances toward them. Shortly after one of the encounters, one added, he accused her of stealing cash from the drawer. This story was independently corroborated by a male bartender who worked there at the time of the alleged incident and said he believed the woman when she denied taking the money.

Money wasn’t the only thing that went missing at Olde Main. The back door of the building didn’t lock properly, and one day a safe disappeared. Griffen called Ames Lock & Security to order a replacement. “He needed it in a hurry, and we got it in a hurry,” said Reid Kruger, one of the owners of the business. Kruger recalled that his business later asked Griffen for the $1,535 he owed for the new safe and heard several excuses about why it had yet to be cover. Eventually, in February 2017, the business sued him in small claims court and was awarded a default judgment that Griffen has never paid.

Nor were paychecks and court judgments the only things Griffen avoided making good on. Todd Foglesong started as a line cook six years ago at Olde Main, eventually working his way up to sous chef. At that time, he was offered health insurance coverage that was covered by deductions from his paycheck. But then, employees received a letter from the insurer saying their coverage had been dropped. Management ensured them this had been taken care of shortly thereafter. “I ended up having to go to the hospital at one point, and that’s when I found out I was absolutely not insured,” said Foglesong, who added that Griffen promised to cover the more than $2,000 he owed Mary Greeley Medical Center but never came through. Foglesong and his girlfriend are raising a young son and still struggling to pay off the bill.

Before he left Olde Main, Foglesong became head chef. But things didn’t improve — in fact, he said things started going south sometime around 2015, when kitchen equipment started breaking down and Griffen neglected to replace it. Foglesong was open about his “many altercations” with Sinnwell, including a situation when the general manager allegedly demanded that a cook clean up the mess from an over-served customed who puked in a urinal. The cook refused, according to Foglesong, who supported the decision because of the obvious health concerns. Not long after this incident, he said, during a shift at the end of December, he and a few of the other cooks decided they’d had enough and walked out for good.

A week and a half before Foglesong quit, the food distributor Sysco sued Griffen and Olde Main for $219,737. In March, Griffen stated in an affidavit that he had told a Sysco representative “that we were considering terminating Plaintiff’s services and instead employing the services of a competitor of Plaintiff due to the significant cost savings associated with such a move.” The rep, Griffen claimed, repeatedly promised him that the company would settle the debt for $30,000 if he continued to use its services, which he did to Olde Main’s “financial detriment.” A non-jury trial is scheduled for December 5.

Because of the unpaid bills, Sysco eventually blacklisted Griffen. The restaurant switched to another distributor called Martin Bros., according to Foglesong, which demanded cash on delivery due to Griffen’s lousy credit. “That’s why trucks were late all the time, he never had money,” he explained. “They kept taking on business and expecting the kitchen to figure it out.”

Montenegró said that Sinnwell “was really nice to me in the beginning,” but, “when he realized I wasn’t going to take any shit, he got really aggressive toward me, and it felt like he was trying to intimidate me.” The “key moment” when things changed between them, she said, was Easter brunch — “a goddamn nightmare.” Amid a 36-hour shift from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon, Montenegró said, Sinnwell cornered her and yelled at her about the prime rib she was preparing. But “I wasn’t just some server who rolled over,” she added. “I kicked people out of the kitchen, I demanded respect, I had a sense of authority. I don’t think he has seen a woman in that role, with that much confidence and self-respect.”

Some of the former employees told me they either had or were considering filing a labor complaint with the state or criminal one with the Ames Police Department. Others, all too familiar with how difficult it can be to squeeze money from Griffen, said it wasn’t worth the effort. For her part, Montenegró — who is still owed about $2,000, she said, including for the marathon Easter shift — said she planned to pursue legal action. “I know that there are some people who don’t think it’s worth it,” she said, “but there’s a sense of wrongdoing here. There’s a lack of justice.”

After hearing these stories, I called Sinnwell to give him a chance to respond. As I explained why I began working on this story — after reading about the rooftop bar grant and becoming curious about what happened with the brewery and event center proposal from 2015 — he demanded that I ask him specific questions instead. He scoffed at my mention of Foglesong’s name, dismissed his alleged interest in female employees as social media gossip, and generally said he didn’t have anything to say about other stories I’d heard. Before long, he told me that he had to get off the phone, but agreed to respond to specific questions via email.

In my email, I asked him a series of 17 questions, including ones about the problems with insurance and money owed to former employees at Olde Main, if he was among those who had yet to be paid, if he any had comment on the stories I’d heard about the state of the kitchen or the Sysco lawsuit, if he wanted to say anything more specific about what Foglesong or Montenegró had told me, and if he thought that former employees might be unfairly projecting their frustrations toward Griffen or others onto him.

Sinnwell wrote back with a statement that did not directly address any of the questions.

“I must admit, when you first reached out to me about writing a story about Olde Main Brewing Company, I was excited,” he said. “I was hoping you would be writing a story about what happened at the end, and that might bring some attention to our story about not being paid. I think the attention that would have garnered might have helped us move forward towards getting help with our outstanding wages. That is something I have been working on both for myself and the other employees for quite some time now, but it’s obviously a long process.

“Unfortunately, the nature of your questions doesn’t seem to reflect that type of story. It seems more the type of story that immature and dramatic individuals might gossip about on social media. At best, I might describe it as the type of story you might read headlines about while you wait in line to check out in the grocery store. The topics posed are either complete fabrications, or obviously incomplete and one sided. Certainly even you can understand how a small number of frustrated (even sometimes justified) employees (current or former) might not always have the whole story or can exaggerate or misrepresent a situation.

“I personally just don’t see the benefit in responding or involving myself in activities like this. It’s just not productive or a positive experience for anyone. I’m sure it is quite obvious that management had a great relationship with the vast majority of our hundreds of employees over the years, many of which we are lucky enough to still be in contact with to this day.”

He did not respond to my offer to reach out to any of these employees, nor did he provide any of their names.

IV
“A person of good moral character”

What happened at the end with Olde Main, to borrow Matt Sinnwell’s phrase, was years in the making.

Evidence of this was outlined in one of the complaints filed in January by the Iowa Department of Public Safety that the Alcoholic Beverages Division released in April along with its announcement of the liquor license suspensions. Signed by John Lundquist, a state assistant attorney general, the complaint requested that the ABD revoke the brewery’s liquor license over its failure to comply with a consent agreement Griffen had signed the previous October.

In the consent agreement — the result of a recent ABD investigation — Olde Main was put on probation with a promise from Griffen that the business would promptly pay taxes it owed to the Department of Revenue and ABD; maintain dram liability insurance, which covers harm or loss caused by patrons who are served too much alcohol; and ensure that it was an actively registered corporation. (In August 2018, for the fourth time since 2004, the business had been administratively dissolved by the secretary of state’s office after Griffen neglected to file a biennial report, a simple and inexpensive process that he finally took care of in November.)

But Lundquist’s January complaint reported that Olde Main still owed $72,110 in sales taxes and $46,130 in withholding taxes that went unpaid from the third quarter of 2016 through the second quarter of 2018. The brewery had not paid beer barrel taxes since January 2016. From January 2015 through last November, not a single one of 47 city utilities bills was paid on time. (Former employees said they would sometimes show up to work to find the power out because of this, and would use space heaters to stay warm in the winter when the heat wasn’t working.)

“Iowa Code … provides that a liquor control license may only be issued a person of good moral character,” the complaint read. Griffen failed to meet this standard, Lundquist concluded, for neglecting to pay city utility bills, beer barrel taxes, and state taxes — any of which on their own would have been sufficient cause to revoke his liquor license for the establishment.

The documents released by the ABD may provide clues about one of the most mysterious aspects of Olde Main’s shadowy business operations in its final years: The involvement of David Sinnwell, the father of Matt Sinnwell and former Dahl’s CEO who facilitated the deal between Smith Metzger and Griffen in 2015 for the proposed brewery and event center.

After the project was abandoned, David Sinnwell stuck around. He worked in an upstairs accounting office and was involved with the financial side of the business in some capacity. This is evidenced in part by a March 2017 invoice for work Clive-based Barnum Floors Inc. did on Olde Main’s maple hardwood flooring that Sinnwell appears to have arranged. Griffen had cut a $6,000 check as a deposit for the services but never paid the invoice and was sued in February 2018 for the more than $7,800 he still owed. A Polk County court official who attempted to serve him notice of the suit reported that Olde Main employees told him, “You’re never going to catch him” and “Good luck finding him.” David Morse, the attorney representing Barnum, told me he still hopes to eventually collect the default judgment granted to his client but is aware his chances are slim. He even asked if I knew where Griffen was at the moment.

As far as Sinnwell is concerned, things become murkier from there. None of the former employees I interviewed knew what his official job description was — or if he even had one. “I spent quite a few years trying to figure out what the fuck that guy did for the business, because he would literally sit upstairs in Olde Main five days a week on his computer,” said Todd Foglesong, the former head chef. Pastry chef Allison Montenegró recalled, “I remember asking what his position was, because he just kind of always appeared out of nowhere and was asking, like, oh, what pastries are you making today?”

Another former employee said that from what he could gather, Sinnwell may have been trying to help with the futile task of reconciling Olde Main’s incomplete financial records. Griffen was known to move money between his businesses, which he did in part to make late payments, including to employees whose paychecks had bounced. Former bartender Ashley Clark, who had a second job doing accounting work at a car dealership when she was at Olde Main, said she saw records that had been scratched out and rewritten. Immediately recognizing this as a problem, Clark said, she brought it up with management, but to no avail.

Sinnwell is not mentioned in the documents released by the ABD in April and has not otherwise been implicated in any of Griffen’s allegedly unlawful activities. The only official title he held, as far as I could tell, was organizer of GSS BB LLC, the short-lived company he established in 2015 for the soon-abandoned event center project. Whatever his role beyond that, the record-keeping practices investigators described in the documents are broadly consistent with the stories told by former employees about the secretive nature of Olde Main’s financial operations. The investigators subpoenaed records after the business refused to hand them over. Other records were apparently never kept to begin with. Olde Main also “failed to provide accurate bank account information and/or had insufficient funds in its bank account to cover electronic funds transfers” to cover ABD taxes and fees.

As David Sinnwell did whatever it was, exactly, that he did at Olde Main, he faced his own separate legal and financial problems. In February 2017, John Michael Maier, a trustee for the Dahl’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan, filed suit in US District Court against Sinnwell — the company’s top individual stockholder — and three other former executives of the bankrupt grocery chain. The complaint, whose allegations Sinnwell has disputed, claims that he was responsible for providing false assumptions about revenue projections to outside firms Dahl’s contracted with to perform stock valuations. As a result, according to the complaint, the company’s stock was overvalued several times over, allowing Sinnwell and the other executives to cash out a significant amount of what the dying chain still had at over $1 million between themselves, and at the expense of their former employees.

Sinnwell himself filed for bankruptcy in May 2018, although those proceedings were soon put on hold pending the outcome of the employees’ lawsuit, which is set for a December 3 jury trial at the federal courthouse in Des Moines.

My initial efforts to reach David Sinnwell, which eventually included leaving a message with one of the attorneys defending him in the lawsuit who said he’d pass along my request for comment, were unsuccessful. In my email to Matt Sinnwell, who worked in various management roles at Olde Main since at least 2009, I asked him about what financial responsibilities he had as the brewpub’s general manager, what his father’s role was with the business, and if he had any involvement with it. He did not respond to any of these questions. But the elder Sinnwell apparently continued to work at Olde Main nearly until its end. “About a week or two before they actually shut the doors, I noticed that David Sinnwell hadn’t been around, so I asked where he was,” Montenegró recalled. “They said, oh, he doesn’t work here anymore.”

It’s not yet clear how much trouble Griffen may be in now, if any of his business associates are or could get caught up in the ongoing investigations, or if he’ll once again manage to scheme his way out of the worst of it. According to the ABD’s press release, “Referrals have been made to the Story County Attorney’s Office, Iowa Workforce Development, the Iowa Finance Authority, the Iowa Department of Revenue and the United States Department of Labor for further civil and criminal investigation.”

Tyler Ackerson, the ABD spokesperson named as the contact on the press release, clarified that the Iowa Finance Authority was erroneously included on the list instead of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, which he said was notified because of the rooftop grant award. Four days after the ABD issued its press release, IEDA Director Debi Durham sent a letter to Drew Kamp, the current director of the Main Street Cultural District, informing him that the grant was being rescinded, “effective immediately.” Griffen would never see a dime of the $75,000, but the damage to the Cultural District’s reputation was already done.

An Ames Tribune article published on the day the ABD press release came out reported that “Story County [Attorney] Jessica Reynolds confirmed … that her office has an ongoing investigation but declined further comment.” (Reynolds isn’t unfamiliar with Griffen. As an assistant county attorney in 2013, she submitted a notice to the clerk of court outlining steps that could be taken in an effort to collect a fine from a drunk-driving case. Griffen had struck a plea deal reducing the charge to a public intox and only owed $65, plus court costs, but still neglected to pay.)

Reynolds was even less forthcoming with the Informer. After several messages went unanswered, I filed an open records request in search of more details. The effort, as anticipated, was fruitless: Ethan Anderson, an assistant county attorney, responded by citing a state law that designates records relating to an ongoing investigation as confidential. He wouldn’t even acknowledge that there was an investigation. It was not difficult to independently confirm that there is one, although its progress is unclear.

The Iowa Department of Revenue was similarly tight-lipped. “Because taxpayer information is confidential, we are not at liberty to comment on this or any case that may or may not be under audit,” said John Fuller, a public information officer there. Likewise, Molly Elder, the public information officer for Iowa Workforce Development, said their records on Griffen were confidential under state and federal law.

Scott Allen, a spokesperson with the US Department of Labor, told me on June 4 that there were no open investigations relating to any of Griffen’s businesses in the department’s Wage and Hour Division. I followed up on July 17, mentioning the dozens of employees I’d heard about who still hadn’t received their final paychecks, and he said this remained the case. Allen did mention that the department investigated Olde Main twice in the recent past. The first investigation resulted in 42 employees receiving a combined $2,338 in unpaid wages they were owed from March 2013 to March 2015. The second found that one employee was owed $1,399 in unpaid wages from January to November 2017.

I also reached out to the city of Ames after hearing there may have been some talk at City Hall prior to the liquor license suspensions but when the writing was apparently on the wall — concerns about the adverse impact that the closure of three Main Street businesses could have on the downtown area. I heard back from Diane Voss, the city clerk, who said the city had been instructed to refer any reporters with questions on the matter to the ABD. “It’s a bigger thing,” she said, noting that the IRS was also involved because of Griffen’s delinquent taxes. A staffer in the IRS media relations office, who gave me the impression I was wasting his time to even ask, said it would be against the law for him to reveal any information.

V
“Just tore it down”

An Ames native, Scott Griffen was born in 1962 to Kathryn and Daniel L. Griffen Jr. His parents had two other sons, Len and Paul, before his mother died in 1971 when Scott was 8 years old. Not long after, his father married Jean Griffen.

The family name was prominent in town, and well-respected. After serving in the US Navy in World War II, Dan Griffen received an engineering degree from Iowa State University, then a law degree at Drake University in Des Moines. He joined the faculty of ISU’s industrial engineering department in 1956, teaching engineering management and law. In 1962, the year Scott was born, Dan was named director of the ISU Research Foundation, a position he held until shortly before he retired in 1990. A room on the third floor of Marston Hall, where the engineering college is based, is named in his memory.

At Ames High School, Scott Griffen was a wrestler, varsity football player, powderpuff football coach, and member of the AHS Volunteers student club, according to his senior yearbook for the class of 1981. (A photo in the yearbook shows him with a fellow member of the Volunteers as they brandish toy guns and “demand” another student’s “money for the welfare drive robbery.”)

Several years after high school, as the turn of the decade approached, Griffen opened his first businesses on Main Street. One was a bar called The Farside on Main, which was located at 115 Main Street where the Ames Tile flooring store is today. Griffen ran it with the help of three partners. “We were quite successful there,” recalled Kevin Green, one of the partners. “We took a bar that was basically not doing any business and turned it into a really popular place.” This bar was short-lived, according to Green, who said the landlord decided to sell the property and the partners didn’t have the money to buy it.

But in 1989, when Griffen was 26, his father had enough money to purchase a property at 125 Main Street from Bleeker’s Inc., which used to run a furniture store there, for $120,000. This was the year Griffen opened The Corner Pocket through a newly incorporated business called G Enterprises Inc. The building’s second floor would become a series of bars, most recently DG’s Tap House, which were part of the same company and shared a liquor license with the pool hall. Green had an early ownership stake in this business, too. “I felt fortunate to be able to get involved with Scott at Corner Pocket, because he was quite entrepreneurial and had some good ideas,” Green said, “and with the support of his dad, he was able to make a go of it.”

Griffen described Corner Pocket as a billiards parlor welcome to all, rather than “a return to the old smoke-filled pool hall,” during an interview for a feature story on his new business in the October 16, 1989, Business Times supplemental section of the Ames Daily Tribune. “The condition of the building,” which was built in 1892, “was terrible,” Griffen told the newspaper. “It needed basically to be gutted and redone. I just tore it down and put it back together.” The process was hard work — he claimed that he did much of it himself — but money didn’t appear to be an issue. Griffen’s father and stepmother, Jean, had secured a $91,000 mortgage loan on the property three months earlier. Over the next two years, they took out two more totalling $322,500. Griffen’s father would continue to help finance Corner Pocket until shortly before his death in 2007, at which time the property was transferred to Griffen from his estate.

Green said he sold his share of the business to Griffen shortly before Olde Main opened, after which he drank at Corner Pocket once or twice a week for the next six months. Then, with his daughter going to college and because he had another, full-time job, he got out of the bar scene. “We parted ways amicably,” Green said, “and frankly, since then, I can probably count on two hands the number of times I’ve seen him, let alone talked to him or anything.” (In liquor license applications filed with the Alcoholic Beverages Division, Griffen would not update ownership records of the pool hall until 2015, before which he continued to name his deceased father as G Enterprises’ secretary and 45 percent shareholder and Green as 10 percent owner. Griffen did much the same the last time he filed a biennial report for the business with the secretary of state’s office in August 2014, naming Green as a director and his father as secretary, treasurer, and a director.)

Green added that he’d since heard rumors about Griffen’s financial problems, including stories about unpaid employees, but said he had access to the books when he worked with him and never witnessed any problems then. “We were able to pay all the bills and all the employees, as far as I recall,” he said.

This would eventually change after Griffen put the wheels in motion for Olde Main. He again reached out to the family for help. This time, he hit up his brother, Len Griffen, a cardiologist, and Len’s wife, Sue Griffen, a biotechnology patent attorney, who live in Potomac, Maryland. In September 2003, the couple established KCJ Enterprises LLC, using an acronym representing the first names of their three children. The next month, Len and Sue purchased the property at 316 Main Street, where a run-down storefront sat at the time, for $645,000. That November, Marshalltown attorney Curtis Ward filed the incorporation paperwork for a separate business entity called LJPS Inc., using the first initials of Len, Paul, Scott, and a fourth brother who was stillborn, and naming Scott Griffen as the company’s registered agent. LJPS would open its doors doing business as the Olde Main Brewing Company on October 4, 2004.

Scott owned half the business, according to documents filed with the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Division, with Len and Sue splitting the rest. Scott was president of LJPS and its sole director, while Sue was secretary and treasurer, according to reports filed with the secretary of state’s office. Paul is named as the company’s chief financial officer on some of the reports. According to his LinkedIn profile, which also says he was an owner of the business, he held this position from July 2007 until January 2016. But his involvement — being responsible “for all financial aspects and expansion of a $3.0-million-dollar restaurant and craft brewery” — appears to be significantly overstated. It’s unclear from the documents filed with the state if he actually had any ownership in the business, and he was not usually on the premises, commuting occasionally to Ames from his home in Red Oak, where he served for a time as director of economic development for the town’s chamber of commerce.

According to the rooftop bar grant application submitted by the Main Street Cultural District, Scott Griffen invested $2 million in 2004 to rehabilitate the building that became Olde Main. From what I could gather from people familiar with Olde Main’s operations at the time who were willing to talk, Griffen did invest money he’d made from G Enterprises into the building. But for the most part, he appears to have relied heavily upon loans taken out primarily by Len and Sue Griffen.

A concept for Olde Main’s proposed rooftop bar by local firm Avec Design that was submitted to the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Main Street Iowa grant program by the Ames Main Street Cultural District in September 2018. Scott Griffen was billed about $12,000 for the firm’s work, which Elizabeth Erbes, a partner at Avec, told me he had yet to pay when I contacted her while reporting this story.

These loans included two taken out from Ames Community Bank, which is now known as VisionBank, by the couple in October and November 2004 for $100,000 and $880,000. For each, they signed a guaranty — an agreement, similar to co-signing, to cover a debt if the intended recipient of the money fails to pay it back. There were other loans, including a $1.72 million mortgage loan taken out in December 2004 by Len and Sue through KCJ against 316 Main Street, and a $608,000 loan Griffen took out in December 2008, putting up G Enterprises property as collateral.

Initially, Scott Griffen made payments on the debts, I was told, per the understanding between him and Len and Sue. But eventually, the Griffens started refinancing the loans and apparently fell behind. Debts piled up, and, in August 2013, VisionBank filed a foreclosure petition against the Griffens, KCJ, LJPS, and G Enterprises. In January 2015, a consent decree of foreclosure was filed indicating that Scott Griffen still owed over $35,000 on one of the loans; he, along with Len and Sue, owed $487,754 on another connected to LJPS; and Len and Sue were liable for an additional $1.69 million through KCJ. By the end of that June, a court record shows, all of these debts were satisfied.

But after this, the relationship between the Griffens continued to sour. When Len visited Ames, he would get into heated arguments with Scott over his failure to pay bills. A former bartender also recalled Matt Sinnwell once nervously telling him that Sue was coming to town for a business meeting. The exact details are hard to determine, but eventually, Scott was apparently forced out of his ownership role, handing his share of the company over to Len and Sue. After the brewpub closed, the couple put the property up for sale through Paul Livingston, a realtor with Ames-based Hunziker & Associates, for $1.975 million — about $237,000 above its assessed value. There is now a dispute between the Griffens over who is responsible for covering the latest of the unpaid wages owed to former employees.

When I emailed Matt Sinnwell the list of specific questions he demanded during our phone conversation, I also asked him about Len and Sue Griffen, and whether he believed Scott was being unfairly blamed for a situation that wasn’t his fault, or at least not entirely. Sinnwell did not answer these questions, either. Instead, he encouraged me to “change the direction” of my story and “reach back out,” saying he could then “add some information regarding what, when, how, and which owners took action that resulted in us not getting paid.” He also suggested I was missing court documents “that might shed a bit more light on topics like this.”

After learning more about the dynamics between Scott Griffen and his brother and sister-in-law, I followed up with Sinnwell to let him know that I had copies of the foreclosure lawsuit records, asking if those were the documents to which he was referring. I also offered to tell his side of this story — a version of events that would have gone unchallenged by both Len and Sue, whom I was unable to reach, as well as Scott, who declined to comment. But Sinnwell instead requested a draft of everything I’d written to that point so he could “review” it, “correct any misinformation,” and “fill any holes” where the story “might be incomplete.” He didn’t know it, but at the time, that was about 7,000 words.

But even if they bear some — or even all — of the responsibility for the failure to cut former employees of Olde Main their final paychecks, the situation that unfolded at the brewpub in its final years closely mirrored what happened at G Enterprises, a business owned and controlled by Scott Griffen with management help from Sinnwell. (A man named Trace Thunhorst, who runs an online pool accessories business called Cue Doctor from Corner Pocket’s basement, also helped with bookkeeping.) In some ways, G Enterprises was even worse.

Josh Davis, who was hired by Sinnwell in 2018 to manage show booking at DG’s Tap House, said that at least eight of his paychecks bounced from the beginning of this year to when the venue closed in May. “As soon as the paychecks started bouncing, he did not lift a finger to try to help me get paid,” Davis said, referring to Sinnwell. Davis said he also spoke to Griffen about his checks bouncing, and even resorted to calling the bank ahead of time, whose representatives told him there was no money in the account. Griffen has “an answer for everything, and they’re all lies,” he said.

A former bartender at Olde Main who was also a bar manager at DG’s and got insurance deducted through G Enterprises, not LJPS, had a story similar to Todd Foglesong’s, the former head chef, about bogus coverage. In May 2015, a few short hours after his wife gave birth to their son, the couple was informed by a woman from the hospital’s billing department that their policy had been cancelled. It was eventually reinstated, allowing the former employee to cover the costs of the birth, but then, when he tried to use it later, he was again told it was no good. The employee said he angrily confronted Sinnwell about this, showing him paystubs and records from the insurance company proving that he was owed over $2,000 from deductions for coverage he never actually had at the time. Sinnwell, he said, just smiled in his face. A week later, he called him “and straight up told me they would never be paying me.”

The Alcoholic Beverages Division’s investigation into G Enterprises resulted in a second consent agreement that Griffen also signed last October. John Lundquist, the state assistant attorney general who filed the subsequent complaint against Olde Main on behalf of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, filed one against G Enterprises, too. This complaint likewise stated that Griffen had shown proof of liquor license insurance on the same day his license was suspended for not having it. But this one went on to claim that the ABD had received notice the very next day that the insurance had been cancelled, and another notice two months later. It also alleged that G Enterprises had “knowingly engaged in criminal activity on the licensed premises by making taxable sales to the public without possessing an active Iowa sales tax permit” since its revocation by the state Department of Revenue in 2004.

VI
“No individual that bothers me more”

If you search the state’s Iowa Courts Online database for cases involving Scott Griffen in Story County, the resulting list will display with a message: “Your query returned more than 200 records. A subset of the results (the first 200 records found) is shown below. To get full results, go back to the search screen and narrow your search.”

The main reason for this is that those records include dozens of parking tickets — plus a handful of citations for driving without a valid license. Many of the tickets were left on a green 2002 Ford F-150 pickup registered to G Enterprises, which Griffen would ignore until someone from the city came into Corner Pocket to collect the fines.

But other records reveal more clearly that Griffen’s habit of ignoring debts and flouting court orders dates back at least two decades. In 1999, he was issued a $500 fine for a fire code violation after an inspector found scrap lumber piled at the bottom of an abandoned stairwell in the basement of Corner Pocket, which Griffen subsequently failed to remove. It was only after Judy Parks, an assistant city attorney at the time, threatened to hold him in contempt that he paid the fine. During a protracted divorce battle with one of his ex-wives, Griffen was held in contempt “for willful failure to pay child support” and arrested on three occasions from 2000 to 2004.

More recently, there were several other lawsuits filed against Griffen, including one in November 2016 involving a foreclosure that nearly led to his house in north Ames being sold at a sheriff’s auction; and another in April 2017 concerning a debt of about $50,000 he owed Flash Advance, a Florida-based cash advance business, which led to the seizure of $293 in cash from Corner Pocket’s register after Griffen once again refused to pay up.

Yet another lawsuit came in January 2017, when local business owner Matt Bradner filed a petition in small claims court regarding an unpaid bill of $4,088 from November 2014 that Griffen owed his company, Iowa Home Consulting LLC, for work done on Griffen’s house. “The way he initially set things up is he said, oh, there’s a little scratch in the door, if you guys could just take care of that little scratch, I’ll take care of the bill,” Bradner said. “So we picked up the door. And in reality, what he was setting up was, they have my door, I’m not paying until I get my door back.” To this day, the door still sits in Iowa Home Consulting’s office. Bradner was looking at it as he spoke with me over the phone.

Scott Griffen pictured as a senior at Ames High School in his 1981 yearbook, left, and in a booking photo from October 2017 after he failed to show up for a court hearing over a debt he neglected to pay a fellow local businessman.

That February, court records show, a notice of the lawsuit was delivered to the address of the house Iowa Home Consulting did the work on and left with Daniel Griffen, Scott’s son. On April 4, district court judge Amy Moore granted Bradner a default judgment for the full amount of the bill plus an additional $198 for fees he paid John Tillo, an attorney with the Ames firm Pasley and Singer and former member of the city’s planning and zoning commission. Griffen “has received proper notice and has failed to answer,” Moore wrote.

What happened next bore a striking resemblance to the sequence of events in previous lawsuits, including Smith Metzger’s case involving the brewery and event center proposal. Griffen still wouldn’t pay Iowa Home Consulting’s bill. The Story County Sheriff’s Office contacted US Bank, Wells Fargo, First National Bank, and Great Western Bank in an effort to garnish money from him, but reported that Griffen either had no account or insufficient funds to cover the bill in each case — further evidence, perhaps, of his knack for moving money around.

So, in September, Bradner requested a debtor’s exam to see if Griffen had any other assets to pay what he owed. A hearing was scheduled for October 2 and an effort was made to notify Griffen, who failed to appear. A warrant was issued for his arrest, this time with a much smaller bond of $300. About three weeks later, he was taken in. Matt Sinnwell, the general manager at Olde Main, posted his bond (“I don’t know anything about that incident in particular, not really, to be honest with you,” Sinnwell claimed during our brief phone conversation), and Griffen finally showed up to a rescheduled hearing. But it was no use, and Bradner says he has no expectation that he’ll ever be paid considering the numerous, larger debts Griffen still owes the government and other businesses that supersede his. “In my time operating as a business owner and manager and as an individual in Ames, there’s no individual I have found in this community that bothers me more than Scott Griffen,” he said.

VII
“No knowledge of the operations”

From the time Griffen signed the contract with Smith Metzger to design the concept for his brewery and event center proposal, and also from the time that Cindy Hicks started as director of the Main Street Cultural District, both in early 2015, until the day Hicks submitted the rooftop grant application in September 2018, Griffen was sued by six businesses demanding a combined $90,000. A default judgment was granted against him in every case but he still never paid any of them. He routinely failed to appear in court to answer to the people he stiffed and was twice arrested for it. The Iowa Department of Revenue informed him that he owed the state another $86,000. And two financial institutions with branches in Ames initiated foreclosure proceedings against his home and Corner Pocket over debts totalling more than half a million dollars.

The Ames Tribune, which was routinely sent logs of recent filings in Story County District Court when I worked there, never covered any of the lawsuits. Notice of the impending sheriff’s auction of 125 Main Street was published in the newspaper on two occasions, in December 2017 and January 2018, as required by law. Scott Anderson, the GateHouse Media-installed publisher of the paper at the time, signed a document under oath confirming he had published the notices. But the newsroom didn’t report on this, either.

The only aspect of Griffen’s financial troubles that the paper did touch on before news of the liquor license suspensions broke was the first US Department of Labor investigation finding that Olde Main employees were collectively owed $2,338 in unpaid wages. According to the article’s author, Griffen “said his businesses violation [sic] was the result of a clerical error from a third party that operates the payroll for Griffen’s restaurant,” that “he has since rectified the mistake by paying all the employees the money they were owed,” and that “the necessary steps were taken to make sure this sort of issue could not happen again.” But this debt would pale in comparison to what Griffen soon owed others, including many more employees. In fact, he overstated the amount, reportedly telling the paper it was $3,000.

The Des Moines Register overlooked Griffen’s business improprieties, too, until the liquor license suspensions in late April. In their reports on that development, both papers misspelled his last name “Griffin.” (They weren’t alone: The editors of his high school yearbooks made the same mistake on several occasions and, in 2012, he had to sign an affidavit of identity swearing he wasn’t fellow Story County resident Scott Griffin, the defendant in two small-claims cases.) The papers did manage to get the real Scott Griffen to talk, though. “I don’t have any definite plan or anything,” he told the Register. “This all came down fairly quickly and I did not expect it.”

“We were not aware of the legal issues the company was facing at the time,” said Dan Culhane, president and CEO of the Ames Chamber, the Cultural District’s parent organization, in response to an email I sent him after he did not return a voicemail message. “The brewery and the event center plans were abandoned and we took that news at face value. Businesses change their minds and it was no business of ours why they decided to delay and/or abandon the plan for the brewery and convention space.” Until now, no one has ever reported that the event center project was abandoned, either.

I, too, missed an opportunity to shed light on Griffen’s business practices when I was at the Tribune reporting on the event center proposal in 2015. He had previously pitched another grand proposal in 2006, the same year Culhane joined the Chamber as its president and CEO. Griffen was in talks with Gordie Meyer, one of the owners of the Great Plains Sauce and Dough Company, a pizza place neighboring Corner Pocket, to develop a $720,300 downtown cultural events center on Main Street. The two contracted with Benjamin Design Collaborative PC, a local firm that began work on the concept that May. But after six weeks of work, Meyer contacted the firm and told them to put the project on hold, then paid his portion of a $29,178 invoice.

On December 20, 2006, the firm’s principal architect, John Lott, sent Griffen a letter informing him that he was terminating the contract and demanding immediate payment of the remaining balance of nearly $9,000. “Dear Scott,” he wrote, “It’s been quite some time since we’ve had any discussion concerning the above referenced project. In fact, even though I have called numerous times over the last few months, I have not received a single response since sometime in June.” He added that his “optimism of this contract continuing is now completely gone” but encouraged Griffen to convince him otherwise.

He wouldn’t, nor would he pay his debt. On the advice of an attorney, Lott chose to file suit in small claims court, where the costs associated with the legal action would be smaller but so would be the maximum judgment, which at the time was $5,000 in Iowa. Griffen did eventually settle this debt, but not until five years later.

There’s an added irony to this case due to the involvement of Lott, who was one of the founders of the business partnership established to renovate the Sheldon Munn hotel building on Main Street, the project that was awarded the grant from the same program as the rooftop bar proposal during Cindy Hick’s first year as director of the Main Street Cultural District.

On Valentine’s Day in 2018, Griffen visited a Main Street jewelry store called Ames Silversmithing and cut a bad check for a “14K two-tone pendant containing one 6mm round tsavorite green garnet weighing 1.01 carats,” according to a description of the purchase. By October — the month between the application for and announcement of the rooftop bar grant award — Griffen still hadn’t covered the $1,375 balance, so the shop’s owner, Gary Youngberg, sued him in small claims court. Eventually, Griffen did pay what he owed, but not before avoiding three attempts by the county sheriff’s office to serve him notice of the suit.

Reached for comment, Youngberg told me he didn’t really see a benefit in talking about the situation. “I mean, everybody knows Scott’s got issues from soup to nuts and, you know, I’ve got issues with him,” he said, “but I’m not really a fan of kicking a man while he’s down.

“Though I’d like to.”

In the course of my reporting, I reached out to Griffen by phone and email but didn’t hear back. Closer to publication, I emailed him again, this time with a list detailing information in the article to give him the opportunity to tell his side of the stories. One item on the list mentioned the name of the event coordinator and marketing director at Olde Main, a woman who was romantically involved with Griffen. The two of them enjoyed socializing with Hicks and her husband, Dyke, which has led some to question whether there was any undue favoritism at play that clouded Hicks’ judgment when she chose Olde Main’s proposal for the Main Street Iowa grant application.

Griffen responded to this email, saying, “If you want any comments from me you will have to eliminate” his former partner “and Cindy Hicks from the article as they have no knowledge or anything to do with the operations of Olde Main.” In the interest of her privacy, the Informer is not naming Griffen’s former partner, who left Ames in May to get away from the situation. Regardless, as director of the Main Street Cultural District, Hicks played a central role in this story — one that raises too many questions to simply dismiss — and her friendship with Griffen’s recent ex was a big part of it.

One week after the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Main Street Iowa organization announced the $75,000 rooftop grant award, the Alcoholic Beverages Division informed the IEDA of its investigation into Olde Main. Four days later, on the 19th, the IEDA put the grant award on hold. And four days after that, Hicks left the Cultural District.

Asked if the timing of her departure had anything to do with the grant, Culhane seemed to suggest it did not, without explicitly saying as much. “Cindy Hicks was extended an opportunity for a change of career and she took it,” he said. “She did a fine job for the Ames Main Street organization and we wished her well.”

Hicks started a new job in December as a communications specialist at Iowa State University’s Seed Science Center, where I reached her by phone. “Yeah, I no longer work for Ames Main Street, so you’ll need to direct any questions you have to them,” she answered. When I explained that she would be mentioned in the story because she was the one who submitted the grant application, she shot back, “There’s no reason for you to write about me in any story,” then hung up.

Several weeks before this exchange, Hicks also got defensive on the widely read Facebook forum Ames People. Someone had posted a screenshot of an email City Attorney Mark Lambert sent to other local officials with a link to the press release and related documents that the Alcoholic Beverages Division had just made publicly available when it announced the liquor license suspensions in late April. “Is it just me, or does it seem inappropriate that someone at the City shared an internal email?” she asked. “How often does this happen?”

The reaction was curious, considering how often Hicks made a point of touting her background as a “former award-winning journalist” when she first arrived in Ames from Augusta, Kansas, in 2015. (Before living there, Hicks had jobs as a TV news producer in nearby Wichita and Corpus Christi, Texas, and she also does freelance writing.) She was presumably aware that the email did not contain any otherwise unavailable information and would likely qualify as a public record under Iowa law regardless because it was between local government officials. The screenshot was already circulating widely by the time it hit the forum. Lambert didn’t seem to mind. Josh Davis, the final show-booker at DG’s Tap House, said it was how he first heard of the suspensions, not from his employer, and he was far from alone. I received the screenshot in a text from someone who lives in the neighboring town of Nevada.

Five days after the ABD issued the press release and related documents, which highlighted numerous findings of longstanding, unlawful business practices, Hicks posted a selfie on Facebook taken at London Underground, the pub that was awarded a grant from the same state program as Olde Main in 2015, with her husband, Griffen, and Griffen’s then-partner. “Hanging out listening to the Kentucky Derby with friends,” Hicks wrote, seemingly unconcerned with how this could be perceived. When I reached out to Griffen’s then-partner on Facebook in an effort to understand more about her situation, she responded by blocking me. Only after this did Hicks remove the selfie from her profile, as well as another one from early March when she attended the Annual Murder Mystery Dinner at the Dyer Dowell Victorian House in Nevada with Griffen and the woman.

A Facebook selfie posted, and later deleted, by Cindy Hicks, bottom left, the former director of the Main Street Cultural District who submitted the Olde Main rooftop bar grant application with the state. The photo also includes her husband, Dyke, to her right, Scott Griffen, and Hicks’ friend and Griffen’s then-partner. It was taken at downtown pub London Underground in May 2019, five days after the Alcoholic Beverages Division announced that Griffen’s liquor licenses had been suspended.

For years, Griffen had a rocky relationship with the Cultural District, and he continued to feud with the organization after Hicks came on board in March 2015. In January 2016, the city received a letter from Rick Swank, the owner of Swank’s Jewelry on the 300 block of Main Street, complaining that the location of the downtown farmers’ market was hurting his bottom line by closing off the block to vehicles on Saturdays. Olde Main was right across the street, and Griffen was one of the business owners who showed up to a City Council meeting that March to voice his concerns. “He does lose business on Saturdays,” the minutes from the meeting read. “Mr. Griffin commented that the problem is a lack of direction in the Downtown; there is a lack of communication. He does not feel that the location of the Farmers’ Market is as much of a problem as the lack of leadership and communication.” (In fact, Griffen did have a problem with its location, having previously insisted that Olde Main be included in Cultural District-sponsored events while at the same time refusing to pay membership dues in protest.)

“I’ll tell you right now, the only reason why the Main Street Cultural District started to back us again was because of [Griffen’s then-partner],” said Todd Foglesong, the former head chef at Olde Main. He described her relationship with Hicks as “absolutely buddy-buddy” and recalled that “it was kind of weird to see us start to get back because of how often Scott would shit on the District.”

Foglesong credited Griffen’s former partner and her strong people skills not only for rekindling Olde Main’s relationship with the Cultural District but also reinvigorating the restaurant’s catering business. “They just kept rolling with whatever she was doing,” he said. “She, I guess, just took over, and she was just the face of business for a while, and Scott just sort of hid away from everyone.” Allison Montenegró, the pastry chef, also recognized the woman’s dedication. “[She] did not get that job because she was sleeping with the owner, as so many people will say,” she said. “She actually worked her ass off for that job. Despite all of her flaws, she did her best. She really did.”

Asked if the Chamber planned to implement any changes to help ensure that projects like Griffen’s are properly vetted in the future, Culhane deflected. “We will continue to encourage and advocate for local businesses to grow and expand in the community,” he said. “The grant was not extended as those dollars are always disbursed at the conclusion of the project. Obviously, the project never happened and so the money was never awarded.” Drew Kamp, who took over as director of the Cultural District in January, said he was not involved in the rooftop grant application decision and declined to comment on it. However, he did say, “Going forward, we will be sure to make sure that we’re thoroughly vetting projects.”

Griffen never got the money, but Hicks’ error in judgment — and the Chamber’s apparent failure to conduct even a cursory review of Griffen’s business practices over the course of several years that on multiple occasions directly involved past and present members of the prominent civic organization — prevented a legitimate Ames business owner from having a chance at receiving the $75,000 grant. Each Main Street organization is only allowed to submit a single application per year for the program.

VIII
“Still alive”

Almost immediately after Scott Griffen’s liquor licenses were suspended in late April, rumors began to spread about how he might try to hang on to 125 Main Street by finding a way to circumvent the suspension there. And it’s clear that something is indeed going on.

On May 24, Griffen mortgaged Corner Pocket once again, this time in order to secure a $425,000 loan from his stepmother, Jean Griffen, who is in her 80s and lives in Ames’ Green Hills Retirement Community. I attempted to reach her by phone but she never answered or returned a message seeking comment.

On a morning in mid-July, Griffen and Sinnwell were spotted exiting Corner Pocket together. A couple days later, I took a writing break just after noon and grabbed a draft of Budweiser at Sportsman’s Lounge, which shares its bar-side wall with the pool hall. The entire time I was there, I could hear loud pounding noises coming from the other side of the wall. This plainly pissed off the bartender, who said people had been stripping the drywall in the building during business hours for the past three days. “Don’t let that distract you,” someone else snarked, shaking his head in irritation. “They’re going to China.”

About a week and a half later at the end of July, one of Corner Pocket’s front doors was propped open with a brick. I spotted Matt Sinnwell taking a smoke break as he sat on the steps leading to the entrance of DG’s Tap House next door. He greeted me, describing himself as “tired and dirty.” On a daily basis since then, Griffen’s truck — still a green Ford F-150, but a 2015 model now — has been parked outside the pool hall, which is just four doors down from Avec Design, the firm that he stiffed to the tune of $12,000 for its work on the Olde Main rooftop bar concept.

Corner Pocket’s page on the business review website Yelp currently says the pool hall is “temporarily closed” and “scheduled to reopen on August 10, 2019.” The page is “claimed,” meaning that only someone with access to an account verified by the establishment’s owner could have posted the update. Recently on Facebook, a member of the pool league posted a message on Corner Pocket’s page about an August 28 informational meeting upstairs at DG’s Tap House regarding the league’s next season. But a former employee familiar with what’s going on now replied to a question on the same page about when the establishment would reopen, commenting, “November is the goal.” Under new ownership, Corner Pocket would be eligible to serve booze again on November 13.

Thickening the plot further is a property listing for 125 Main Street on the website of Keller Williams Realty. The realtor presenting the “home for sale,” according to the listing, is David Sinnwell, the embattled former Dahl’s CEO and father of Matt Sinnwell who’d worked in the shadows at Olde Main. The listed price is $660,000, well over double its assessed value of $301,700. David’s cell phone number is on the listing. I called it on three occasions. He didn’t pick up the first time and ended the other two calls before they went to voicemail.

A property listing on the website of Keller Williams Realty for 125 Main Street, where Scott Griffen and his former manager at Olde Main, Matt Sinnwell, are working on renovations. The realtor, David Sinnwell, is Sinnwell’s father and the former embattled CEO of Dahl’s Foods.

If the rumor holds true that Griffen plans to turn ownership of Corner Pocket over to Matt Sinnwell, or otherwise hopes to maintain control behind the scenes, there’s a good chance the scheme would fail. “Mr. Sinnwell would not be explicitly barred from holding an alcohol license or permit under the terms of the suspension, as he is not identified as being an owner, officer, or director of G Enterprises Inc. or LJPS Inc.,” said Tyler Ackerson, the Alcoholic Beverages Division spokesperson who issued the press release in April about the suspensions.

“However, because of his connection to the establishments that were impacted by the suspensions, there would likely be closer scrutiny given to an application from him to ensure there would be no connection between his operations under a new license and Mr. Griffen,” he added. And even if Griffen finds a different buyer, “Any applicant seeking a license for those locations would come under a higher level of scrutiny given the administrative actions that have taken place,” Ackerson said. “Ultimately, we need to ensure that Mr. Griffen is not attempting to circumvent the terms of the settlement agreement through a new owner/operator at those establishments.”

On July 19, the day after I reached out to Ackerson, Corner Pocket’s Facebook page posted a photo confirming the story I was told about the banging on the other side of the wall at Sportsman’s Lounge. The photo, taken from the north end of the pool hall’s bar facing east, displayed the exposed brick that once stood behind the partially removed, painted-green drywall.

It was posted with a message: “We’re still alive, y’all.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.