Griffen Released from Prison; Biz Associate Sinnwell Nears Settlement in Dahl’s Suit

The convicted tax cheat was freed amid a lockdown ordered ahead of Biden's inauguration; meanwhile, a shady past partner finalizes terms to settle a lawsuit claiming he ripped off retirees

Former Dahl's CEO David Sinnwell, left in a photo posted with a property listing for the downtown Ames pool hall Corner Pocket; and Scott Griffen, in a police booking photo.

Find all of our reporting on the fallout from Scott Griffen’s dishonest business practices by clicking this link.

Disgraced Ames businessman Scott Griffen was released Wednesday from the federal penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois, where he’d been serving a four-month sentence for a felony tax conviction.

Meanwhile, a past business associate of Griffen’s, former Dahl’s CEO David Sinnwell, is “finalizing terms of a settlement agreement” in a lawsuit filed against him and three other executives at the bankrupt grocery chain, according to a status report filed January 11 in the same US district court where Griffen was sentenced last August. The suit was filed in February 2017 by John Michael Maier, a trustee for the Dahl’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan and Trust, and alleged that the former execs cheated workers out of retirement savings by cashing out company stock they’d greatly overvalued — an allegation they denied.

Griffen’s music venue, pool hall, and brewpub in downtown Ames were managed by Sinnwell’s son, Matt Sinnwell, before their liquor licenses were revoked for a host of tax violations. As the Informer reported in its exclusive expose of Griffen’s “decade-long trail of sleaze,” the elder Sinnwell played a shadowy, off-the-books role in an upstairs office of the brewpub, Olde Main, after he was fired from Dahl’s. He later joined Keller Williams Realty and put up Griffen’s Corner Pocket pool hall for sale as part of an apparent effort to sidestep a two-year liquor license suspension Griffen was handed, although that plan was abandoned and Griffen eventually handed the property over to his daughter, Microsoft developer Zoey Riordan, at no cost.

Sinnwell, who filed for bankruptcy in May 2018, is the sole remaining defendant in the case. Settlement agreements were previously made with former Dahl’s president and chief operating officer Ross Nixon; another former CEO, Mark Brase; and a company executive named Richard Rissman. Claims against the three were dismissed as a result — a standard part of such agreements, whose terms in their cases were not publicly disclosed.

Attorneys representing Sinnwell and Maier, who demanded a total of $7.8 million from the defendants according to the federal court docket, did not respond to requests for comment about the status of the settlement negotiations. “They anticipate that the settlement will be finalized and a stipulation for dismissal will be filed in relatively short order,” the status report said.

Griffen was released from USP Thomson on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, amid a lockdown of federal prisons ordered several days earlier as a “precautionary” measure in the wake of the deadly pro-Trump riot at the US Capitol January 6. As of Saturday morning, visiting hours at the penitentiary remain “suspended until further notice,” a message prominently displayed on its website says.

The former businessman’s four-month federal sentence was the result of a plea deal in which he admitted to failing to pay the IRS taxes on employees’ wages in exchange for getting two other felony charges and a misdemeanor tossed. He originally faced a maximum sentence of about four decades in prison, although such sentences are rarely handed out to someone with a “fairly privileged life,” as a prosecuting attorney described his in a court memo.

Griffen asked for leniency, claiming that his father Daniel Griffen, a former Iowa State University professor who later became president of the ISU Research Foundation, subjected him to years of physical and mental abuse as a child.

He faced similar charges in a state case, pleading guilty to one felony tax charge but escaping with three years of probation and no jail time. Following his release Wednesday from USP Thomson, he is now separately required to abide by the terms of a three-year supervised release. Between the two cases, Griffen has also been ordered to pay more than $300,000 in restitution to the IRS and Iowa Department of Revenue.

After Griffen was sentenced in the federal case last August, his attorney, Holly Logan of the Des Moines-based Davis Brown Law Firm, told the Informer, “He looks forward to turning his life around.” She’d added in a memo filed in court that Griffen “wants nothing more than a quiet life working in carpentry, exercising, and spending time with his daughter.”

The federal plea deal was reached in November 2019 but Griffen’s sentencing was delayed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Griffen’s daughter, Zoey Riordan, who now owns the building where his Corner Pocket pool hall operated, plans to reopen it but insists her father will have no involvement in the business. An application for a new liquor license that was filed with the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Division last spring is still pending approval. If Griffen were to try remaining involved with the business, it could potentially jeopardize approval of the license.

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.