Last week, the Story County attorney’s office filed three felony charges and an additional serious misdemeanor against former Ames businessman Scott Griffen for tax evasion and related offenses. The charges stemmed from a referral by the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Division, which last May suspended the liquor licenses for his downtown bars after its own investigation into Griffen’s unpaid taxes and suspect bookkeeping.
The news of the criminal charges was broken by the Ames Tribune and later covered by KCCI and WHO-TV. All three outlets reported that Griffen is facing three felony charges. Including the misdemeanor charge, the Tribune noted, he could be handed a maximum 41-year sentence (although that’s unlikely).
However, Griffen is already awaiting sentencing for a previously unreported federal felony charge relating to his admitted failure to pay taxes to the IRS on employees’ wages. The federal charge, which was filed last November in the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, carries penalties of up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, and an additional three-year supervised release. (In our previous article on Griffen’s legal troubles, the Informer also overlooked this development, reporting that the status of an IRS investigation was “unclear.”)
The federal case focuses exclusively on G Enterprises Inc., the company through which Griffen ran his Corner Pocket pool hall and DG’s Tap House bar and music venue at 125 Main St.
According to a court document detailing his plea agreement, Griffen admitted that he “willfully failed to collect” more than $89,000 in taxable wages from about 30 part-time employees and “willfully failed to pay over those employment taxes to the IRS” from 2012 through 2016. He also copped to failing to pay $61,275 over the same period in Federal Insurance Contributions Act, or FICA, payroll taxes used to fund the Social Security and Medicare programs.
As part of the agreement, Griffen owes the IRS nearly $150,300 in restitution, plus interest. By pleading guilty, he will likely receive a lighter sentence, although other guidelines will also be considered, including past criminal convictions (most of Griffen’s other legal issues have involved civil cases) and “whether sophisticated means were used” to dodge the taxes.
Griffen’s guilty plea was accepted on Dec. 3 by US District Court Judge Robert Pratt, although the agreement is contingent on the findings of a presentence investigation report prepared by the US Probation Office. A draft of the presentence report, which is confidential, was filed Jan. 13, but there is no date scheduled yet in the court docket for a sentencing hearing.
It’s unclear from the court documents if additional charges will be filed for similar tax violations relating to LJPS Inc., the company that did business as the Olde Main Brewing Co. until it closed last May and the property was later sold. Over the same 2012 to 2016 period, Olde Main was at least half-owned by Griffen’s brother and sister-in-law, Len and Sue Griffen, whose names do not appear in related federal court filings. The couple also owned the 316 Main St. property.
Numerous former employees of all three of the downtown businesses are still owed money; some have had issues with the IRS because of missing W-2s. The Alcoholic Beverages Division also made referrals last year to other agencies including the Iowa Workforce Development and US Labor Department, which investigated unpaid wages at Olde Main twice in the past but previously said that there were no current investigations. The Informer has submitted requests with both agencies to see if there are any new developments.
While the Story County attorney office’s investigation was ongoing, the office forwarded a complaint made by one former Olde Main employee to the Ames Police Department last July. The complaint laid out a series of allegations against Scott Griffen and Matt Sinnwell, the former general manager at Olde Main who also helped manage the G Enterprises businesses. Several of the allegations — including sexual harassment, bullying, and underage drinking — were consistent with stories of other former employees the Informer interviewed for our initial expose on Griffen (and Sinnwell, whose name does not appear in any of the publicly accessible court documents relating to Griffen’s state and federal felony charges). However, the complaint is currently inactive, according to an Ames PD records clerk, because the former employee did not follow up on a request for additional information.
The state charges against Griffen stemming from the Story County attorney office’s investigation appear to strictly relate to the findings from the ABD and not concern former employees. Griffen was charged with a class B felony, which carries a maximum 25-year prison sentence, for ongoing criminal conduct for financial gain. He was charged with a class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years and a $10,000 fine, for submitted fraudulent tax forms with the state. The third charge, a class D felony with maximum penalties of five years in prison and a $7,500 fine, is for sales tax evasion. Griffen was also charged with a serious misdemeanor, which could get him up to one year and a $1,875 fine, for operating his businesses without a sales tax permit. (The earlier ABD investigation determined that G Enterprises hadn’t had a permit since the Iowa Department of Revenue revoked it in 2004.)
Griffen is currently listed as a pro se defendant in online court records for the state’s case against him, meaning he has not retained legal counsel. He is scheduled to be arraigned Feb. 3 at the Story County Justice Center in Nevada. In the federal case, he is represented by Holly Logan, a Des Moines-based attorney with the Davis Brown Law Firm, which also has an office in Ames whose lawyers have defended Griffen in previous legal actions.
Meanwhile, Griffen is currently out of jail and continues to spend much of his time inside Corner Pocket at 125 Main St., a property he transferred ownership of in early December to his daughter, Zoey Riordan, a software developer who works for Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. In recent months, two former Corner Pocket employees, James Stolfus and Lucas Taege, have been in and out of the building with Griffen. In recent weeks, Taege and Griffen have visited another local bar where Stolfus now works. Their relationship is, or was, apparently tied to tentative plans for Stolfus and Taege to lease the building from Riordan with the intention of reopening both Corner Pocket and DG’s Tap House. (The DG’s in the name is short for for Daniel Griffen, Scott’s father, who died in 2007, the year the bar opened under that name.)
Reached for comment, Stolfus claimed he was no longer in contact with Griffen and said he was currently working to secure a deal with Riordan, whom he said would have no direct involvement in the business itself but just serve in a landlord role, to lease the property. Griffen “will absolutely in no way shape or form be involved in my business,” Stolfus said. “We are working with my lawyer on a lease but no final agreement has been reached yet. As of this point in time nothing is agreed to.”
The Alcoholic Beverages Division suspended the liquor license shared between Corner Pocket and DG’s Tap House for six months last May. Because the license were not renewed at the end of the suspension, it was subsequently cancelled. Griffen himself still owned the property at the time and has a lengthier two-year suspension. Because of this, Tyler Ackerson, a spokesperson with the Alcoholic Beverages Division, has told the Informer that any application submitted by a family member or former associate of Griffen’s would receive increased scrutiny in an effort to determine if Griffen was truly out of the picture or still trying to control the business behind the scenes in violation of the suspension’s intent.
Initially, Griffen had apparently planned to reopen the bars through Matt Sinnwell, the former Olde Main GM, and his father, David Sinnwell, the embattled former CEO of Dahl’s Foods who advertised the building for sale at over twice its assessed value. Last month, the Informer heard conflicting accounts from other sources about whether the Sinnwells continued to have any involvement. Matt Sinnwell did not respond to a request for comment, but, according to Stolfus, he is no longer in the picture.
Stolfus said that he was well aware of the potential challenges that could be presented because of the bars’ previous association with Griffen. “I hope that I can overcome his reputation and succeed in this,” Stolfus said.