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Civic Skinny

Homeless Tirrell is indicted, faces 30 years in prison. More bills in Godfrey case. David Johnson (Dem).


A federal grand jury has charged Marty Tirrell with mail fraud, two counts of 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. 

Prep Iowa

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. 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.

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.” But that just covers 15 months, from September of 2016 through December of 2017; in fact, there were judgments over the years of close to $4 million. There were other people who didn’t bother to sue because they knew they’d never collect and still others who were too embarrassed to sue after being taken by a guy who many people in town knew was a con man. Some of those lost several hundred thousand dollars.

[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 but judgments that prompted Tirrell to change his method of stealing. …

David Johnson represented northwest Iowa in the Legislature for 22 years, being easily elected seven times as a Republican. But he became disgusted by Donald Trump, and in 2016 — in the midst of his fourth term in the state Senate — he changed his registration to Independent. The Republicans, furious, turned on him with vigor, and Johnson decided not to run as an Independent last year. Now, Johnson has registered as a Democrat, and he says he will support Minnesota Sen. Amy Klolbuchar in the Iowa caucuses. Except on the issue of abortion, Johnson had been closer to the legislative Democrats on most issues for a decade or so. …

The bills, the paperwork and the interesting tidbits continue to mount up as the defamation, discrimination and retaliation lawsuit brought by former Iowa Workers Compensation boss Chris Godfrey against Terry Branstad, Kim Reynolds and four others moves toward a June 3 trial in the courtroom of Iowa District Judge Brad McCall.

First, the bills: Republican Governor Branstad, not wanting to be represented by the office of Democratic Attorney General Tom Miller, maneuvered to be represented by the law office of George LaMarca shortly after the lawsuit was filed on Jan. 11, 2012. LaMarca and his associates worked on the case until the middle of last year, running up taxpayer-paid bills of $1,006,109.12 (including a $192 bill just approved by the Executive Council.) The new lawyers, Frank Harty and some associates at the Nyemaster Goode firm, have already submitted two bills totaling $272,769.38. So that’s $1,278,878.50 combined. So far.

A reminder: Godfrey’s lawyer is Roxanne Conlin. If she wins, the state will have to pay her bills as well, so by the time the case is over — after all the appeals that surely will follow — the legal bills probably will be around $3 million. Cut to its essentials, the case is over a pay cut totaling about $150,000 over the four years that remained in Godfrey’s term.

Second, the paperwork: Mounds of motions have been filed over the years (the case has twice gone to the Iowa Supreme Court on narrow issues) and pages and pages and pages of depositions have been taken. In January alone, 23 new filings were made. 

Third, a tidbit: While depositions are not part of the public record, snippets of them get quoted in various motions. In January, there was a back-and-forth over whether Godfrey could call to the stand as an expert witness Kevin Nadal, a psychologist who looks at employment bias against gays. Godfrey was the only openly gay department head in the Branstad administration.

To try to show Branstad is biased against gays, the Godfrey brief got into the former governor’s views on gay marriage. (He professed not to know that Godfrey was gay.) In the deposition, Branstad acknowledged that he had said:

“Well, it’s got to do with the whole structure of the American society. And, uh, a lot of people say when other ancient societies have gone this direction, it was the beginning of the end of their society. Because, the building blocks of really having stable culture is really having one man, one woman marriage.” ♦

The gift of justice

When Iowa Chief Justice Marc Cady delivered his “Condition of the Judiciary” talk to legislators a few weeks ago, he talked about the “gift of justice.”

That’s the gift that deals with the problems of societies and families in fair, innovative and compassionate ways. It’s the gift that tries to keep families together, put youth back on the right track, help the addict and the mentally ill — and put the truly bad guys in prison.

It’s a gift that can be given by judges chosen through a reasonably impartial merit system, which Iowa has. It’s a system that dilutes political influence by letting the state’s lawyers choose half of the commissioners who select the slates of potential judges sent to the Governor. It has worked well for 57 years.

Now, still stinging from the Varnum gay-marriage ruling of 2009, Republican legislators and the Governor want to politicize the system, giving the Governor and the legislature full power to directly appoint all the men and women on the commissions.

And in a particular swipe at Chief Cady, who wrote Varnum, the legislation says the justices will elect their chief every two years. Now, once a justice is elected as chief by his colleagues, he (or, once, she) serves until leaving the court.

The gift of justice is on its way to becoming the take of politics. ♦

— 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. DM says:

    Reading about Marty – makes me think he should file a change of venue to the Eastern District of Virginia, where tax evasion and bank fraud are generally tolerated.

  2. Mari Jo Corley says:

    “62 YEARS and Even” works for me.

  3. Pingback: Bleeding Heartland

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