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Tirrell indicted, faces 30 years in prison. … Sen. Joni Ernst says husband abused her.


A federal grand jury has charged Marty Tirrell with mail fraud, wire fraud, two counts of bank fraud and fraudulent use of another person’s credit card.

The charges follow years of scams by the one-time sports broadcaster and talk-show host, scams in which he defrauded friends and employers and advertisers and ticket brokers and allegedly two ex-wives and a girlfriend and one of his lawyers. Judgments of several millions of dollars have been entered against him in Iowa and federal courts. They remain uncollected.

If convicted, Tirrell, 59 years old, faces up to 30 years in a federal prison and fines of up to $1 million. The trial has been set for April 1 in the federal courtroom of Judge Stephanie Rose. B. John Burns, a lawyer in the Federal Public Defender’s Office, has been assigned to the case.

The grand jury indictment was handed up to federal court on Jan. 23, but it was sealed until Tirrell was arrested by FBI Special Agent Kevin Kohler on Feb. 13. That evening, he was booked into Polk County Jail.

For a while, Tirrell was a popular talk-show host, yelling at listeners or sternly disagreeing with his sometime co-host, Ken Miller, and having a loud opinion on all things sport. He would purchase time on the stations, promising to reimburse them from ad revenue. But either he wasn’t selling enough ads or the money was staying in his pocket, for he regularly moved from station to station. Some of the stations ended up suing him. He ended up with a show on a cable channel, but that, too, ended several months ago — presumably because he fell behind in paying the cable company.

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At the same time, his behavior became more and more bizarre. He fell behind in child-support payments, his second ex-wife says, and in October his former girlfriend, Mari Jo Corley, got a protective order against him after she told a Polk County District Court judge that he had abused her, threatened her and hit her with his fists. There is a warrant out for his arrest in Massachusetts, apparently involving an alimony issue with his first wife.

And in the past few weeks he has been telling people he was dreadfully ill with cancer, or some disease, some acquaintances say. They doubted him. People who know him say that in recent weeks he has been sleeping in shelters and churches, and assuming he was a homeless man a couple who encountered him in a parking lot near the Jordan Creek Mall gave him $20 to help him out. He had told them he had lost his wallet and  “was pretending to look for it,” an acquaintance says. Later, the couple figured out who he was. (The federal defender’s office was asked if it could supply a comment for this column from the jailed Tirrell, but it did not respond.) In addition, for the past five years the Internal Revenue Service has had liens against him for about $45,000 because of nonpayment of federal income taxes for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012. He sought protection under the bankruptcy laws a few years ago, but the petition was so full of holes the court rejected it.

Tirrell’s scams were pretty simple: He would invite an advertiser or a friend or a prominent business leader to join him in VIP seats at a major sporting event — the Final Four, the Masters, the Super Bowl, for instance. They would pay him for a ticket, he would provide the ticket, and they’d head off.

Once reeled in, the folks often were offered “opportunities” to make some money by partnering with him to buy blocks of tickets to major events from brokers and then reselling them at a profit. Many agreed to front the money, but, according to the indictment, Tirrell “instead kept all or large portions of the funds provided by investors and used the funds for unauthorized purposes.” These unauthorized purposes included “personal use” and, in a Ponzi-like scheme, the repayment of earlier “investors.”

To keep the “investors” at bay, according to the indictment, “he would mail insufficient funds checks to investors; and transmit false money wire information to investors to place the investors temporarily at ease.”

He also “defrauded financial institutions by engaging in check kiting and submitting false debit card fraud claims, in an effort to fraudulently obtain monies and pay back investors and/or obtain monies for his personal use.”

The indictment lists — by initials — eight “victims” who had “approximate losses of over $1.5 million” In fact, there were others, some of whom didn’t bother to sue because they knew they’d never collect and others who were too embarrassed to sue after being taken by a guy who many people in town knew was a con man.

[The indictment should be no surprise to CITYVIEW readers. CITYVIEW has chronicled Tirrell’s schemes and scams for years, and it reported last July that the FBI was asking questions about him. But The Des Moines Register seems to have had nary a word and the TV stations little or nothing over the years. Indeed, to give its readers a little history about Tirrell, in its story on the indictment the Register linked to a CITYVIEW column.]

The alleged fraud was a twist on earlier schemes by Tirrell. In those, when he had a reputation as a sports-talk guy and not as a flimflam man, he would buy large blocks of tickets to major sporting events from ticket brokers in New York or Chicago. Then, he simply would not pay. Two ticket brokers won million-dollar judgments against him in federal courts, judgments that never were paid. …

Sen. Joni Ernst says her now-ex-husband physically and emotionally abused her, had a long-time girlfriend while they were married, did not support her career and then sought alimony when they filed for divorce, according to documents on file in the Iowa District Court for Montgomery County.

Joni Ernst was auditor of Montgomery County from 2005 to 2011, and during that time her husband, Gail Ernst, “had a special friendship” with their daughter’s baby-sitter, the court documents say.

“He began hanging out at the babysitter’s house, even when [their daughter] wasn’t there. I confronted him about the situation, and we went through a very dark and troubling time in our marriage. I very nearly filed for divorce after a night that we argued, and it became physical. I fled the house (with their daughter) and went to my mother’s house in the middle of the night.”

The next morning, according to an affidavit from the Iowa Republican in the file, “I went to work and met with our Victim’s Advocate…at her office in the courthouse. She did a quick exam of my throat and head and wanted to take me to the hospital. I declined because I was embarrassed and humiliated and didn’t want anyone to know about the assault. 

“Gail agreed to go to counseling at Offutt Air Force Base to repair our marriage, but he told me not to bring up the assault in our counseling sessions. I stupidly agreed. We moved on, although things have never really been the same.”

Things got worse on their 25th wedding anniversary last July. She opened his Hotmail account and “what I found devastated me.” Her affidavit says: “There were e-mails in his account from a long-time girlfriend, Carla Rickert, and they were planning their respective divorces. There were disgusting sexual discussions, sharing of financials, scheming, demeaning talk about me and Carla’s husband, discussions about where they would live, house floor plans, etc. I started a downward spiral of not sleeping and eating, and I rapidly lost 17 pounds, about 13% of my body weight. My staff had to cancel two days of my appointments because I couldn’t function.”

In response, Gail Ernst said he had never had an affair, accused her of having an affair while she was deployed in the military, alleged she had “dated other men while in D.C.,” said she had been “neither a mother nor spouse” in recent years, said he had “given up all my aspirations and goals to be a good dad and husband so Joni could pursue her dreams.”

His affidavit also says she hacked into his email account and “sent e-mails to another person using my email account as if she were me.” 

UPDATE: The day CITYVIEW published details of the divorce documents, Joni Ernst’s lawyer, Matt McDermott of the Belin law firm in Des Moines, filed an “emergency motion to seal the record.” The next morning, Tuesday Jan. 22, the motion was granted, and the record was sealed by District Judge James. S. Heckerman.

Gail Ernst filed for divorce on Aug. 27 of last year. The petition asked that Joni Ernst pay alimony and pay his legal fees. The divorce was granted on Jan. 3 of this year. There was no alimony, each agreed to pay his or her own legal fees, and Gail Ernst was ordered to pay the court fees.

A stipulation filed by the two of them says they were married twice — on Oct. 1, 1992, in Savannah, Georgia, and again in Stanton, Iowa, on July 24 of 1993. At the time of the marriage, he was 39 years old and divorced with two daughters. She was 22. As they grew older and she won well-paying jobs in politics, he would refer to her as “my retirement plan,” according to the divorce papers. “I didn’t think it was funny and didn’t appreciate the reference,” she said.

They had met while she was a student at Iowa State. Her name was Joni Culver, and she was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. He was a career Army man who retired in 2001 after serving for 28 years. She joined the Army after graduation and served in the Iraq War. After serving as Montgomery County auditor, she was elected in 2010 to the Iowa Senate from Red Oak. She was elected to the United States Senate in 2014, beating Democrat Bruce Braley after Tom Harkin announced he was retiring.

Court documents say the Ernsts had a combined net worth of $932,000 (her figure) or $1,039,000 (his figure).

In the divorce, she got the condo in Washington, and he got most of the property in Red Oak. He got the Tempur-Pedic bed, and she got the piano. She got the 2013 Hyundai and the 2017 Explorer, and he got the 1998 Corvette and the 2008 Ram. They each got a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and she got her guns while he got his.

According to an article last year by Carroll newspaperman Doug Burns, Joni Ernst is “a fierce advocate for justice for victims of sexual assault in the military as well as improved workplace environments for women in general.” He wrote that “she gives ‘kudos’ to survivors of sexual abuse or harassment.” On the other hand, she has introduced a bill in the United States Senate to prevent any federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood and is a vigorous foe of the organization, a leader in the fight against domestic violence. …  

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie is out and about raising funds for re-election, and the long-time Democrat is being aided by Republican lawyer and insider Doug Gross. There’s probably a reason. As starters, they are asking 10 business people to cough up $5,000 each.

It’s unclear who or how many people will challenge Cownie, but several are kicking the tires. Cownie, 71, has been mayor since 2004, and by the end of this four-year term he will have been mayor for twice as long as any predecessor. Except in his first race, when he beat Christine Hensley, he has coasted to office.

If he is to be beaten, “it will have to be by a west-sider,” said an old-time politician who watches such things. And, indeed, people on the West side and in Beaverdale tend to turn out for elections in greater numbers, confirms Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald.

Going back to 1956, when Ray Mills was elected to a two-year term, Des Moines has had 13 mayors. Eight were from the West side: Charles Iles, George Whitmer, Tom Urban, Dick Olson, Arthur Davis, Bob Ray, Preston Daniels and Cownie. Three were from the East side: Mills, Reinhold Carlson and John (Pat) Dorian. Two were south-siders: Pete Crivaro and George Nahas.

The election is Nov. 5, and candidates can file between Aug. 26 and Sept. 19. The November election will be the first under Iowa’s new law combining municipal elections with school-board elections, which probably will affect the turnout. …

Meantime, Republican Jim Cownie (he and Mayor Cownie share a great-grandfather) and Democrat Gerry Neugent are out raising several hundred thousand dollars to support a campaign advocating for a one-cent local-option sales tax. The election on that is March 5, and if it passes it will bring in an estimated $37 million a year for the cash-strapped city. …

The final accounting has been filed for the estate of Kirk Blunck, the Des Moines architect who died under mysterious circumstance on Jan. 24, 2016, leaving a trail of debts and lawsuits as well as a heritage of being a pioneer in the development of the East Village.

The gross value for estate-tax purposes is $6,549,68.22, according to the court filing. That’s after the many claims against the estate have been settled, but it is not after mortgages or other types of debts he might have had. The number includes art works valued at $1,800,000 and life insurance of $150,000 payable to the estate. Excluded from the estate is another life insurance policy, of $1,020,000, payable directly to his widow.

Blunck died at age 62 on a Sunday afternoon when he fell or was shoved to his death in a stairwell of the East Village’s Teachout Building, which he owned. The Polk County Coroner said the death was caused by “multiple blunt force trauma, manner undetermined.” The family, and some law-enforcement people, believe he was murdered, though no charges ever were brought.

The family, however, filed a wrongful-death action against Zachary Allen Gaskill, a 27-year-old convicted would-be burglar. The suit sought $6,250,000. Gaskill never showed up in court, and the judge entered a default judgment against him for the entire amount.

At the time of his death, there were millions of dollars of claims and lawsuits against Blunck, who had the contradictory life of being a good architect and a bad businessman — in at least one case, a slumlord. Among the claims paid off by the estate was an 18-year-old note to the city, which was in default at his death but which was paid in full with a final $920,276.25 check on Dec. 1 of 2017. ♦        

John Culver 

John Culver, a bear of a man, had a booming voice, a fierce temper and a magnificent brain.

He used all to his advantage —and to the benefit of Iowans and the nation.

Culver, who died Dec. 26 of kidney disease in Washington at age 86, was a five-term Congressman from Northeast Iowa and then a United States Senator from 1975 to 1981, when he was beaten by Charles Grassley. 

He grew up in a staunchly Republican household in Cedar Rapids. He remembered as a teenager picking up the newspaper in the front yard of his home the morning after the 1948 Presidential election and rushing it upstairs to his father. “Dad, Dad, Truman won!” he reported. “John,” his father replied, “that’s nothing to even joke about.”

By the time he got to Congress 17 years later — as a staunch Democrat — he had developed the drive of a Marine captain, the skills of a first-rate lawyer, and the connections and intellect of a Harvard graduate — he was all of those things — along with the compassion of a preacher. He was also a great story-teller.

He was a liberal who always voted his conscience — even when that conscience was at odds with the views of most Iowans. In 1967, his third year in Congress, he voted against a bill that would have made it a federal crime for protesters to burn the American flag, a way of protest that he found deeply offensive. He was one of just 16 Congress members to vote that way, and later he said it was the most important vote he ever cast.

To some Iowans, the vote was courageous. To others, it was outrageous. To him, it was simply the right thing to do. (And, 22 years later, in 1989, the United States Supreme Court embraced Culver’s view on the issue, ruling in a five-to-four decision that flag burning was a form of speech protected by the Constitution.)

Culver understood that freedom, and liberty meant everything. Freedom to speak out. Freedom to march. And freedom to protest in ways that many people— a majority of Americans at that time of bitter divisiveness over the Vietnam war — believed to be criminal.

The vote, he said later, was his “moment of truth.” “My conscience and my constituency were clearly in conflict,” he recalled 20 years later in a speech at Harvard. That vote, early in his career, made all future tough decisions seem not so tough, he said, for it taught him a valuable lesson: “Do what one believes is right, rather than popular at the moment.”

And that’s what he did, without fail.

When he took up a cause, he took it up with every fiber of his body. He would master the facts, then master the politics, then master the oratory. His voice would rise — and sometimes his temper would rise with it — as he argued, be it with his colleagues, his staff or his constituents. (Years later, and mellower, he admitted to a dinner companion that sometimes he planned to lose his temper in an argument, knowing how effective it could be.)

“He is an unusual combination: a man with firm principles and beliefs who is also a practical politician — one who gets in there and does the hard work of legislating, of putting together coalitions, of mediating among the conflicting interests in this country, of making the whole thing go,” reporter Elizabeth Drew wrote in The New Yorker magazine in 1978.

As a legislator, he knew that compromise was “essential to the functioning of our political process.” However, he said, “that compromise should take place regarding issues, not ideals, and the compromise is with competing interests, not with one’s integrity.”

He was very smart. He graduated cum laude from Harvard (where he was the fullback on the football team) and then studied at Cambridge University in England before serving three years in the Marines and then going back to Harvard for law school. He could talk knowingly of Greek philosophers or Linn County corn prices, and in 1999 he co-wrote with former Register reporter John Hyde the definitive biography of Henry A. Wallace, an Iowan who blazed a trail sometimes trod by Culver.

All told, he was elected six times — five times to the House and once to the Senate. But he said it was the seventh election, which he lost decisively to Grassley, that “was the most satisfying and memorable to me.”

“After a defeat,” he told his Harvard audience, “you have plenty of time to think about what you did wrong. Looking back on that campaign, I am sure we most likely made some tactical errors. But I have no regrets and no second thoughts, for one simple reason: I said and did what I believed to be right.” ♦

— Michael Gartner

Jim Flansburg

Jim Flansburg did not suffer fools gladly or editors at all.

As best he could, he ignored both.

He had even more disdain for owners of newspapers. “I assure you that, in the final analysis, all owners are horseshit,” he once said.

But he loved newsrooms — in his day, a “mixture of bums and gentlemen” — and was dedicated to newspapering and to his job. That job, for a generation or so, was informing Iowans about what was going on, first at City Hall in Des Moines and, later, in the Statehouse. Early on, he figured fools couldn’t help him and editors could only crimp him, so he simply went out every day on his own to find out what was going on and then reported it.

Along the way, he became certainly the best political reporter in the state and perhaps the best reporter on any beat in Iowa. His method was simple: “Learn more about your subject than the subject knows. Know more about what is going on in the legislature and in the law-making than the legislators and the governor know.”

Then, he said in an interview for a University of Iowa oral-history project in 1998, “restrain yourself…rather than go crazy with the enormous detail” you’ve gathered. In an era when the Register was state-wide and enormously influential, that watchful eye kept the politicians honest and the readers informed.

He was raised in Tiffin, Iowa — his dad and uncle owned the hardware store there — and he knew as a boy he wanted to be a newspaperman. He studied journalism at the University of Iowa — an education interrupted by a stint with the Army in Korea — and upon graduation in 1957 he joined the evening Des Moines Tribune as a $70-a-week reporter. He moved over to the morning Register in 1965, became chief political writer in 1971 and editorial page editor in 1983. He stepped down from that role in 1989 but continued writing a column until he retired in 1997.

“It was just incredibly heady” being a newspaper reporter, he recalled. “My Lord. Nothing was asked of you except to go out and find the news and write it and make sense of it. And they put your name above it and pay you for it….” He viewed being a reporter as “something sacred…a calling.”

He had an ego, or maybe he was just supremely confident, and a temper, or maybe that was just part of an act. Young reporters — who sometimes called him The General, and not necessarily with affection — often gave him wide berth. So did some politicians, including the amiable Bob Ray, who was governor for 14 years while Flansburg was the Register’s main political reporter. “I never could figure out if Flansburg liked me,” Ray told a friend long after leaving the Governorship. 

But if they feared him, the reporters and the politicians also respected him. You couldn’t fool Flansburg, former Lt. Gov. Art Neu used to say. And, he added, woe be to anyone who did try to fool him.

He could tell wonderful stories, but he wasn’t given to small talk. His son, Jim, recalled the other day that the conversations at the Flansburg house “were rich and deep, even when we were kids.” And in contrast to his gruff, take-no-prisoners persona at the office, Flansburg was a loving dad at home on Urbandale Avenue, where he and his wife, Carol, raised three daughters and a son. (Carol Flansburg “was upset about equal rights before women were invented,” Don Kaul once said.)

“He taught us to love nature, from ants to pets to deer and everything in between,” his son said. “He would take us on nature walks. When he heard a bird sing, he would know precisely what kind of bird” it was. Flansburg the father once saw his son stomp on an ant hill. “Dad stopped me, asking, ‘How would you like it if someone came and stomped on your house?’ 

“He loved all creatures great and small.” 

 And he hated all stomping, small and great — on ants by little boys or on citizens by big politicos.

Or on politicians by grumpy columnists. After writing a column, he told the University of Iowa interviewers, “I ask myself, ‘Does this represent honest, intelligent analysis or is this the bitchery of a grouchy old man whose knee hurts.”  He added: “You have to watch that kind of thing.”

(The father was puzzled that three of his four children initially became journalists.  “I guess they figured if I could do it, anybody could,” he said.)

As Flansburg got old, macular degeneration took most of his eyesight and dementia took most of his mind. By 2011, he could no longer live at home. In the past year, he didn’t recognize his children when they visited. He was dimly aware that his wife died in 2015. “I presume your mother has died,” he said to his daughter Jane in a moment of lucidity three months after the fact. She said yes. “I always loved her,” he said and burst into tears. “Within a minute or two, dementia returned and he started whistling,” his son said.

James Sherman Flansburg had just turned 87 when he died of dementia on Jan. 30.

                                                            * * * *

I returned to Des Moines to become executive editor of the Register and Tribune in January of 1974. I had known Jim for years — he was a young reporter when I was working there summers during college in the 1950s, and my father and brother knew him — and on my first day in my new job he walked into my office.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said, and we chatted for a couple of minutes.

Then he said: “I just want you to know, if there’s ever anyone you want me to get, I’ll get him.”

I was taken aback. That’s not the way the Register or I operate, I told him. “I know,” he said, “but I just want you to know the offer is on the table.” He then walked out.

            Years later, after he retired and after we had become good friends, I asked him about that. “That has always troubled me,” I told him.

“Aw,” he said, “I was just testing you.” ♦

     — Michael Gartner          


  1. Susan Haupts says:

    You folks at Cityview are pure dumpster divers digging into other people’s tragedies and publishing in your “edgy” way to promote your own agenda with no regard to how it impacts others. Despicable. What a rag…

    1. Johanna VaNatta says:

      Sorry, not buying it. Joni Ernst threw her full support behind Brett Kavanaugh, knowing he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman. That woman had the courage to come forward and try to open America’s eyes to the twisted way we support men who are violent towards women. Joni was not willing to support the victim of Kavanaugh, nor was she outspoken over Trump’s own sexual depravity towards women.

      So, what does Joni want? Does she want someone to care, when she didn’t stand up for women who have come forward about the men she works with?

      I file this under “too bad”. Joni used her political affiliation to allow a sexual predator to sit on the highest court in America. She is shameless!

  2. Jeffrey Pierson says:

    I worked for Marty Tirrell some 20 years ago. While I am not about to defend him in any way, people like Michael Gartner helped enable his behavior. When Marty was doing his schemes dating back over 20 years ago, his employers (including Michael Gartner and the Iowa Cubs) were too embarrassed to seek retribution. It’s a shame those people put their pride over the right thing, because those ex-wives and ex-girlfriends could have been spared some devastating times.

  3. Vance Derek Hawthorne says:

    Mr. Gartner: I am a former employee of yours when you were editor at the DMR, a staff writer dating back to the late 70s and early 80s,. I am a regular reader of Civic Skinny and enjoy keeping up on behind the scenes happenings in Iowa via your column. I am now in my mid-60s and looking for a good literary agent to publish my science-fiction genre book. Would you be able to furnish some ideas on who to contact? Appreciate your time and good luck to you in your future endeavors.
    Vance Hawthorne

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