The Mountebank of Main Street, Revisited

A follow-up to our exclusive expose on Ames businessman Scott Griffen, with details about the new owner of Corner Pocket, a 2006 court case, unanswered questions for the Main Street Cultural District and Ames Tribune, and a wrongful death lawsuit against a former co-owner of Olde Main

From the cover of the Summer 2019 print edition of the Iowa Informer

Since August, when we published our exclusive, 12,000-word report on Ames businessman Scott Griffen’s decade-long track record of deceit and brazen disregard for the law, we’ve followed up with stories about his brother Len’s and sister-in-law Sue Griffen’s sale of 316 Main St., where his Olde Main Brewing Co. once operated, to the owners of Whiskey River; and the Dec. 5 ruling by Story County District Judge Amy Moore that the Griffens owe the food products distributor Sysco Iowa Inc. more than $200,000.

But the story doesn’t end there, either. The following is an excerpt from our upcoming print edition, a follow-up to our initial article on Griffen’s Main Street business dealings with never-before-reported details about the new owner of the 125 Main St. pool hall Corner Pocket, unanswered questions for the Main Street Cultural District, a wrongful death lawsuit Len Griffen faced in Maryland, and more.

Corner Pocket’s New Owner

As we reported in our last issue, the former general manager of Olde Main, Matt Sinnwell, was helping Scott Griffen with renovations inside Corner Pocket after both businesses were closed as a result of their liquor license suspensions. In mid-July, the pool hall’s Facebook page shared a photo of the renovation work with a message: “We’re still alive, y’all.” Sinnwell’s father, David Sinnwell, the ousted former CEO of Dahl’s Foods who played a shadowy, off-the-books role at Olde Main in its final years, took a job with Keller Williams Realty and advertised 125 Main St., where Corner Pocket and DG’s Tap House once operated, for sale at $660,000 — more than double the property’s assessed value. Matt Sinnwell, meanwhile, met with at least one local music booker to discuss future shows at DG’s. In August, the venue’s Facebook page shared an Ames Tribune article about where regular performers there went after it closed. “Thanks for the heartfelt article,” the post read. “We really appreciated being a central part of the Ames arts community, but don’t count us out just yet! Keep an eye out because big things are coming.”

Related article: Whiskey River Owners Buy Olde Main

But there’s still nothing to see. On Dec. 4, Griffen transferred ownership of 125 Main St. to his daughter, Zoey Riordan, a developer for Microsoft who lives in Redmond, Washington, free of charge. The record of the transfer was filed by the county on the following day — the same day Griffen skipped his court appearance where he and the former owners of Olde Main were found to owe Sysco more than $200,000.

It’s unclear what Griffen’s current plans for the property are, although numerous rumors persist. He still works on renovations inside Corner Pocket daily. But according to Tyler Ackerson, a spokesperson for the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Division, the liquor license permit shared by Corner Pocket and DG’s that was suspended May 13 was cancelled six months later, and the department has not received an application for a new permit since then. If Riordan “were to apply for a license,” Ackerson said, “her application would receive increased scrutiny given her familial connection to Mr. Griffen.” Riordan did not respond to a request for comment.

Dahl’s Employee Lawsuit Against David Sinnwell

Speaking of David Sinnwell, the former Dahl’s CEO was scheduled to go on trial himself Dec. 3, two days before Scott Griffen skipped his court date in the Sysco lawsuit. The top individual stockholder at Dahl’s when the grocery chain filed for bankruptcy in November 2014, Sinnwell was sued alongside three other top executives in February 2017 by John Michael Maier, a trustee for the Dahl’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan. Maier is accusing the execs of prohibited self-dealing at the expense of former employees, alleging they provided false information to outside firms performing stock valuations in the years leading up to the chain’s bankruptcy, selling off more than $1 million in stock between themselves in 2013.

In April, Sinnwell’s Dec. 3 jury trial was scheduled at a federal district courtroom in Des Moines. However, in November, Magistrate Judge Ross Walters delayed the trial in response to a bankruptcy filing the previous month by co-defendant Ross Nixon, the former president and chief operating officer of Dahl’s, pending a status report from his attorney due Feb. 5. If Sinnwell’s own bankruptcy filing in May 2018 is any indication, Nixon’s won’t put off proceedings too long — Sinnwell’s was put on hold until the self-dealing lawsuit concludes.

The Main Street Cultural District’s Vote on the Rooftop Bar Proposal

When we first reached out to Cindy Hicks, the former director of the Ames Chamber of Commerce’s Main Street Cultural District who submitted the grant application for an Olde Main rooftop bar proposal with the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Main Street Iowa program despite numerous missed or ignored warning signs about Scott Griffen’s financial standing, she told us, “There’s no reason for you to write about me in any story.”

However, Hicks later took issue with how we framed the story on social media by our suggestion that her decision to submit the rooftop bar grant application cost another Ames business owner the opportunity to receive the $75,000 award. No other Ames business submitted an application for the grant in 2018 (although businesses in other communities presumably did), and Griffen never received the money because the project was abandoned. The decision, she said, wasn’t hers but that of the Cultural District’s all-volunteer board of directors, which voted to move forward with Griffen’s proposal in the summer of 2018, at least a month before Hicks submitted the application with the state.

Kristin Roach, a local business owner who at the time served as secretary of the 14-member board and went on to become its president in 2019, said the board “did not know about or have access to financials or any pending investigations” involving Griffen. The topic was never brought up during the board’s consideration of his proposal, nor were his finances vetted at all, because the state didn’t require detailed financial information as part of the application. Nevertheless, the application still claimed that Griffen had already secured more than $1 million for the project.

Related article: Court Rules Scott Griffen, Olde Main Owe Sysco More Than $200k

Although Roach was not in any obvious position to know about Griffen’s troubles, at least one member of the board at the time was: Scott Anderson, then-publisher of the Ames Tribune and the board’s at-large non-retail representative. On Jan. 2, 2018 — at least six months before the board voted to approve the rooftop bar proposal — Anderson signed an oath with the Story County Sheriff’s Office affirming that notice of a pending sheriff’s sale of Griffen’s 125 Main St. property had been published in the newspaper as required by law that day as well as a week earlier. The document Anderson signed explicitly stated that the auction was scheduled as a result of a court ruling that Griffen owed First National Bank upwards of $400,000. It also showed that the bank sued not only Griffen, Corner Pocket, and DG’s Tap House, but the Iowa Department of Revenue and two businesses that previously won smaller judgements against Griffen that would have been superseded: Five Star FA Inc., a Clive flooring company owed $2,345; and Smith Metzger, the Des Moines architecture firm owed $25,000 for designing the ill-fated brewery and event center Griffen proposed in 2015. (The auction was ultimately cancelled after the debt to the bank was satisfied.)

It’s unclear if the Cultural District board’s vote was unanimous. It’s also unclear if the full board voted or just its smaller executive board, whose members included then-President Paul Livingston, the Hunziker Realty agent who later advertised the sale of the Olde Main property. The Informer reached out to several board members, including Livingston, who did not respond. From what we could gather from those who did, at least one member was not even aware a vote had taken place until the IEDA announced the award in November 2018. The grant consideration process seems to have been poorly communicated to the full board. It’s also not clear that Hicks truly had no say in the decision to submit Griffen’s proposal to the state.

Drew Kamp, the Cultural District’s current director, did little to clear anything up. He ignored the Informer’s request for board meeting minutes we were told would clarify how the decision to approve Griffen’s proposal was reached. He also neglected to answer a question asking how much decision-making authority over the selection process he had in his role as director. “We as an organization have moved on from this issue,” Kamp said, “and I am happy to discuss the positive things happening with that property going forward, which will be transformational to Downtown Ames, but nothing more.” The statement was reminiscent of the one Chamber President and CEO Dan Culhane made in a letter submitted as part of the rooftop grant application, in which he said that project would “greatly enrich our community and ultimately be a major catalyst for Ames.” (To be clear, the property’s new owners appear to be in much better financial standing.)

Kamp previously told the Informer that, going forward, the Cultural District would “be sure to make sure that we’re thoroughly vetting projects,” without elaborating. Roach, however, said that the organization plans to begin hosting monthly educational meetings for its members “to try and encourage more people to submit project proposals.”

Scott Anderson and the Ames Business Monthly

Scott Anderson started as publisher of the Ames Tribune in November 2015, 10 months after the newspaper’s acquisition by GateHouse Media. During his time in that position, Anderson had a close relationship with the Chamber of Commerce, which requested that the paper not publish negative news articles about the local business community in a supplemental section called the Ames Business Monthly. This special section re-ran stories from recent daily issues alongside a 12-page promotional newsletter provided by the Chamber.

As evidenced by the Tribune’s continued failure to report on any of the recent lawsuits or foreclosure proceedings against Griffen and his family’s businesses, avoiding negative news generally wasn’t much of an issue. However, on April 29, the paper did report on the state Alcoholic Beverages Division’s announcement that the liquor licenses for Olde Main, Corner Pocket, and DG’s Tap House had been suspended. The article was published four days after the May edition of the ABM, seemingly making it a potential candidate for inclusion in the June issue. But that issue was never published.

According to Andrea Hammes Dodge, the Chamber’s vice president and spokesperson, the organization informed Anderson last winter that it planned to launch a blog in July 2019 “to better communicate with our members” using “our own content and on our schedule.” At that time, the Chamber told the paper, it would discontinue its section in the ABM. “The Tribune told us in March they were changing to a quarterly anyway and would kick off their new business magazine in July,” Hammes said. “We agreed that the June 2019 issue would be the last one to include our section.” Instead, the Chamber published its June newsletter on its own website with a note that the ABM had been discontinued. The newsletter made no mention of Scott Griffen.

It’s possible that the timing was just a coincidence. Anderson left the Tribune on June 7 to pursue an MBA and travel with his family. “Unfortunately, we don’t feel it would be appropriate to comment as we don’t see the relevancy of your questions as they relate to your story on Scott Griffen and the Olde Main, DG’s Taphouse [sic] situation,” said Tribune General Manager Kim Fowler. “Also, we do not discuss business partnerships the Tribune has had, does have, or will have in the future.”

Curiously, though, the ABM returned in July, sans the Chamber newsletter — or any news about Griffen. On page 2, a note from editor Michael Crumb explained that it would be the last issue in the current format. “Why? Because we are working to revamp it, make it better and provide more business-related content you will find useful.”

The Converse Conditioned Air Dispute in 2006

Although the Informer’s expose was thorough in its details about the lawsuits against Griffen, it wasn’t all-inclusive. One case in particular that we left out is interesting in that it predates the series of recent suits starting with the one filed in March 2016 by Des Moines architectural firm Smith Metzger by a decade. It was brought about a month and a half before Dan Culhane joined the Ames Chamber as its president and CEO by local businessman Matt Converse, himself a major player at the Chamber who currently sits on its board of directors and has also served on the Ames Tribune’s editorial board.

In March 2006, Converse sued KCJ Enterprises, the company established by Griffen’s brother and sister-in-law, Len and Sue Griffen, for the 316 Main St. property where Olde Main operated. Converse’s business, Converse Conditioned Air, made an oral agreement with KCJ the previous March to install an air conditioning unit on the roof of the brewpub for $6,491, the suit alleged.

According to people familiar with the financial arrangements at the time between Scott Griffen and his brother and sister-in-law, Griffen was expected to handle day-to-day operations at Olde Main, including paying bills, in part because Len and Sue lived in Maryland. In turn, the couple owned the property and had an ownership stake in the business as well because they financed the majority of its start-up costs through loans they secured for Griffen.

Whoever was responsible for paying the bill for the AC unit didn’t, and, on August 9, 2005, Converse filed a mechanic’s lien against the property. “KCJ has failed, neglected and refused to satisfy Plaintiff’s claim and demands although given an opportunity to do so,” the subsequent lawsuit claimed, despite that Converse’s business “did furnish the labor and materials.” It appears that the dispute was resolved after this, as the suit was voluntarily dismissed at the end of the month it was filed. This would fit the pattern of lawsuits whose debts were eventually satisfied specifically when Len and Sue Griffen were involved, as opposed to just Scott.

The Investigations

As we previously reported, Ames city officials declined to comment on Scott Griffen’s legal troubles, saying they were advised against it at least in part because the IRS was investigating Griffen’s unpaid taxes. Former employees of Griffen’s previously recalled in interviews with the Informer seeing law enforcement officials enter Olde Main and Corner Pocket and seize cash out of the registers behind the bars. The current status of this investigation is unclear.

Related article: The Mountebank of Main Street

The Story County Attorney’s Office, led by Democrat Jessica Reynolds, has also reportedly been investigating Griffen for months. The office wouldn’t tell the Informer anything about the investigation and has yet to release any details, including about the extent of the probe and when it might be completed. Reynolds herself is resigning effective Feb. 7 to take a job in the office of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller as a training coordinator for state prosecutors. She’ll also serve as director of the nonprofit Iowa County Attorneys Association.

Wayne McGlone and the Wrongful Death Lawsuit

A review of Maryland court records shows that the legal issues of Len and Sue Griffen — the former owners of Olde Main and its 316 Main St. property — pale in comparison to Scott Griffen’s. Records from 2015 appear to indicate that Scott’s brother and sister-in-law were responsible for preventing VisionBank of Iowa from foreclosing on Corner Pocket and Olde Main by satisfying loan debts of more than $2 million. In a separate August 2017 case, the couple paid $33,170 in back taxes to resolve a federal tax lien.

But there was also another, more eye-catching case involving Len Griffen’s career as a cardiologist. In November 2013, he became one of several defendants in a lawsuit filed in Maryland’s Montgomery County Circuit Court by the family of Wayne McGlone, who died at 53 of a heart attack after Griffen allegedly refused to order a CT angiogram test for him.

According to the complaint, McGlone called 911 in December 2011 after experiencing chest pain and difficulty breathing and was taken to a hospital that recommended he get the test. However, because the facility was not affiliated with his health care provider, Kaiser Permanente, McGlone was sent to the Adventist Healthcare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville, Maryland, where Griffen worked. There, the complaint alleged, Griffen performed an exercise stress test, concluding that its results were “non-diagnostic” based on McGlone’s heart rate. “Dr. Griffen did not order that the test be repeated,” the complaint read. “Dr. Griffen did not order that a CT angiogram, as recommended by Frederick Memorial Hospital, or any other study be performed.”

McGlone was discharged but sought a second opinion from another Kaiser-network doctor, whom he told about the CT angiogram recommendation and also his family’s history with heart disease including the sudden death of his brother. After his requests for further testing were repeatedly denied for more than two months, according to the complaint, the second doctor ordered another stress test. But McGlone died in April 2012, before the test was performed.

In addition to seeking damages for wrongful death, the lawsuit was also one of more than 100 medical malpractice allegations brought against Kaiser hospitals in 2013 alone. The case is featured on the website of a Washington DC law firm that represents clients in medical malpractice suits against the health care provider. However, in November 2015, a jury found that Griffen himself bore no responsibility for McGlone’s death.

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.