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After presenting himself as a longtime victim of circumstances that began at the age of eight when his mother died of breast cancer, former Ames businessman Scott Griffen was handed a four-month prison term Tuesday morning in federal court. As part of the felony tax-dodging conviction — the result of a plea deal reached last November but with sentencing delayed by the coronavirus pandemic — Senior Judge Robert Pratt also ordered the 57-year-old defendant to pay more than $150,000 in restitution to the IRS.
The prison sentence was more severe than the three years of probation Griffen received when he departed a virtual Story County courtroom in May after pleading guilty to a state felony charge similarly involving his fraudulent business practices at the downtown Ames bars he once owned. (The state ordered him to pay more than $162,000 in restitution, as well.) But it was considerably shorter than the government’s sentencing guidelines of 12 to 18 months.
Griffen was represented in the federal case by Holly Logan, an experienced lawyer with the Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines whose many areas of focus include tax evasion. Logan asked the court for leniency in a sentencing memorandum filed last week alleging that Griffen also suffered years of physical and mental abuse at the hands of his late father, Daniel Griffen, a respected Navy veteran and former professor of industrial engineering at Iowa State who went on to serve as president of the university’s Research Foundation.
When Griffen’s mother, Kathryn, died in 1971, according to the memo, his father’s abusive behavior “only escalated.” It allegedly continued “severely” after Griffen was diagnosed with dyslexia in the fourth grade, his father chastising his grieving son as “dumb” and “stupid” for his poor academic performance. Although Griffen received a high school diploma in 1981, the memo added, he “did not complete his undergraduate studies or complete vocational training.” Instead, he went to work for his father’s businesses before running his own (one of which, DG’s Tap House, Griffen renamed after his father when he died in 2007), maintaining “a strong work ethic throughout his adult life” despite “two failed marriages.”
“Mr. Griffen has learned his lesson. He is eager to turn his life around.”
The memo painted the disgraced businessman as repentant and unlikely to reoffend, citing his cooperation with the IRS investigation, age, lack of a significant criminal record outside of his admitted tax crimes, and interest in seeking employment in order to pay back what he owes. “Between the fact that he is now a felon and the loss of his businesses, Mr. Griffen has learned his lesson,” Logan wrote. “He is eager to turn his life around and wants nothing more than a quiet life working in carpentry, exercising, and spending time with his daughter.”
“Mr. Griffen understands and appreciates the Court’s decision,” Logan told the Informer after he was sentenced Tuesday. “He looks forward to turning his life around.” She did not address a question about the tens of thousands of dollars Griffen has still neglected to pay — leading to his arrest on two occasions for skipping court appearances ordered to review his finances — in the numerous civil judgments against him that the Informer first investigated in detail a year ago but were not a focus of the criminal proceedings.
Government prosecutors representing the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, where Griffen was sentenced, acknowledged the former businessman’s previously minor criminal record, cooperation with investigators, and claims of childhood trauma but were otherwise unsympathetic. “If you don’t pay your taxes, you can go to federal prison,” attorney Marc Krickbaum said in a statement after he was sentenced. “It’s that simple. Scott Griffen failed to pay employment taxes for four years, and he continued even after he was warned by the IRS. He deserves the prison term imposed today.”
A memo authored by Krickbaum and Virginia Bruner, an assistant US attorney, also filed last week, recommended that the court hand Griffen a longer prison term of 12 to 18 months, in line with sentencing guidelines. The attorneys argued that Griffen “has stolen from the federal and state government for years,” undeterred by investigators who questioned him in 2014 and after he began facing criminal charges. The federal charges were based on a period between 2012 and 2016, they added, but Griffen continued to disregard the law afterward.
“This is still theft, every bit as much as if he had robbed a bank or taken it from a convenience store.”
“He still has not paid a penny back,” the attorneys wrote. “This is still theft, every bit as much as if he had robbed a bank or taken it from a convenience store. His employees had every reason to believe he was properly paying those taxes over when he withheld them from their paychecks, not taking them for his own purposes.”
The memo highlighted Griffen’s “fairly privileged life,” arguing that his “theft just took a more sophisticated manner, assuming perhaps that there would be no real consequences” or “at worse, perhaps he would have a judgment against him.” Prison, the attorneys added, “appears to be the only consequence left that may dissuade Defendant and others like him from taking this same lackadaisical approach to tax laws, laws that everyone is subject to, regardless of their tax bracket or ownership status.”
Although the federal case focused solely on Griffen’s G Enterprises Inc., the business through which he operated the Corner Pocket pool hall at 125 Main Street and DG’s Tap House, a popular music venue on the second floor, the government’s sentencing memo seemingly made a reference to the operations of the Olde Main Brewing Company, the business Griffen co-owned with his brother and sister-in-law from Maryland, Len and Sue Griffen, until they apparently seized full ownership from him and sold it last October to the owners of another downtown Ames bar called Whiskey River. Another brother, Paul Griffen, was also involved with the brewpub at one point, although he has since scrubbed mention of it from his LinkedIn profile.
Griffen “tried to shift the blame for his failure to pay taxes to his brothers,” the memo said. “In November 2014, he told revenue agents that his brother was taking care of the employment taxes, and that his brother had access to the business bank accounts. Defendant now admits this was not true.”
The sentencing memo submitted by Griffen’s defense attorney, Holly Logan, refers to his daughter, Zoey Riordan, on multiple occasions. “He maintains a great relationship with his adult child, Zoey, who recently moved back to Ames to live with him after living out of state,” it reads in one section. Elsewhere, the memo notes that Riordan has been helping her father financially now that his businesses are closed and he is no longer self-employed.
Until recently, Riordan lived in Redmond, Washington, where she was employed as a developer for Microsoft. Griffen transferred ownership of his 125 Main Street property to her at no cost last December, raising further questions about whether he had plans to sidestep the two-year liquor license suspension that he was handed in May 2019 by the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Division. (Previously, Griffen appeared to be quietly working on an arrangement with his former general manager at Olde Main, Matt Sinnwell, and Sinnwell’s father, David, the former CEO of the now-bankrupt grocery store Dahl’s who is currently being sued in federal court for allegedly stealing money from the company’s employee stock ownership plan and trust.)
“The renovations requiring his help have now been completed and he is not allowed in the building any more.”
In February, two former employees of Griffen’s, Lucas Taege and James Stolfus, founded a new business incorporated as LTJS: Services, Inc., using an initial-based naming convention similar to those used by Griffen and his family for their Main Street businesses. Documents the pair filed with the state showed that they intended to operate the new business under the names DG’s Tap House and Corner Pocket. They had already been working with Griffen on renovations inside the building. In January, Stolfus told the Informer that Griffen would have no involvement in their business, although they continued to work together on the renovations.
The Informer reached out to both Stolfus and Riordan on Tuesday. Stolfus said he was aware that Griffen had been sentenced to prison but did not otherwise comment. Riordan said that she was “still processing the verdict” and “would rather not comment on it.”
However, Riordan confirmed that she is still helping Griffen out financially. She added that she remains employed by Microsoft and moved to Ames temporarily, “mostly to be more available” in case the Alcoholic Beverages Division or city of Ames needs her assistance in their review of a liquor license application Taege and Stolfus submitted with the city and state earlier this year that has yet to come before the City Council for initial approval. An ABD spokesperson previously told the Informer that the application would be subject to stricter scrutiny than usual due to the circumstances, in an effort to determine whether Griffen might be attempting to circumvent the terms of his suspension.
Riordan also responded to a question about this. “Yes, he was helping with renovations,” she acknowledged, but added: “The renovations requiring his help have now been completed and he is not allowed in the building any more. Other than that, he has no involvement in any business affairs. James and Luke are the only ones making decisions in regards to running the business.”
Tuesday’s sentencing judgment requires Griffen to turn himself in to the Federal Bureau of Prisons by September 25. After serving his four-month sentence, he will be put on supervised release for a period of three years.