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Civic Skinny

Jeff Young’s spotty record. Tirrell’s sentencing date set. Kauffman is a reporter again. Godfrey bills. Dog treats.


The Des Moines City Council on Dec. 16 gave the go-ahead for the plan by developer Jeff Young to turn the old Franklin Junior High School into an entertainment center, gathering place, office building and hotel.

There were a few questions about signage and sidewalks before the unanimous vote, but there were no questions about Young.

Perhaps there should have been.

He has kind of a sketchy record as a landowner and as a taxpayer — but not too sketchy to stop CITYVIEW readers last month from voting him one of Des Moines’ 16 most likable people.

Young, 57, is a former Hy-Vee store manager who began investing in real-estate in Des Moines a few years ago. In November of 2013, he bought the Midland Building downtown for $1 million, and 18 months later he sold it for $2.1 million. But some of his investments were in substandard buildings, and he has been slow to fix them up.

Prep Iowa

In September of 2019, his company, We Can Build It LC, was sued by the city for owning a property on 28th Street that the city called a public nuisance that was “not fit for habitation.” In late November, the city won a default judgment against him.

In May of 2019, the city sued him alleging that rental property owned by We Can Build It at 1043 21st St. was in disrepair, hadn’t been fixed in the time demanded by the city, and thus was unfit for occupancy and needed to be vacated. The case was dismissed in August.

In June of 2019, he was sued by Ken Hardy, a former tenant of 1043 21st St., who alleges in a court document that Young evicted him without appropriate notice, telling him that “if he wasn’t out in two hours he would beat his ass and throw what was left of him down the steps,” took a saw and a drill to remove the deadbolt and punctured Hardy’s hand, restrained him with a metal pole, threw his belongings out of the apartment while people with Young “urinated on Hardy’s belongings in the dumpster.” Hardy’s lawsuit alleges assault and battery and conversion of property. In July, Young denied the allegations and moved for dismissal. A trial has been set for October of 2020.

On Nov. 5, 2019, the state brought criminal charges against him alleging he lied about the values of five automobiles he was registering in Polk County, cheating the state out of more than $15,000 in tax revenue. Example: The state says he purchased a 1965 Replica Cobra for $110,000 but told the Polk County Treasurer he paid just $10,000. He was charged with five counts of fraudulent practices, second degree, which is a Class D felony. A Class D felony carries a prison term of up to five years and a fine of $750 to $7,500. This was first reported by The Des Moines Register on Dec. 10. On Dec. 18, he pleaded not guilty, and a jury trial has been set for Feb. 12 of this year.

[As a “most likable person,” Young was asked by CITYVIEW last month for “words to live by.” “Do something, even if it’s wrong,” he said.]

In March of this year, he was jailed for three days after pleading guilty of giving “false information for citation,” reduced from the original charge of perjury. Court records allege Young and Scott Long were in a fight in 2015 at Carl’s Place, a tavern in Sherman Hill. Long sued Young, and while the case was dismissed in April of 2017, there apparently was a no-contact order issued against Young. A few months later, the two encountered one another, and court records say Young lied about that violation of the order, leading to the charge of perjury.
And he is so slow in paying taxes on at least two of his properties that they are on the county treasurer’s list of “unredeemed tax sales.” That means Young’s corporation didn’t pay the taxes, and someone else has stepped in to pay; Young’s choice is to continue to ignore the taxes, in which case the person who is paying them could end up with the property, or to get title back before then by reimbursing the taxpayer for the amount paid, plus interest of 2 percent a month.

That means, in effect, he is borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars at 24 percent interest to pay his property taxes.

According to the office of Polk County Treasurer Mary Maloney, the two properties are 500 Locust St. and 317 6th Ave. The Locust Street address is a five-story parking garage with retail on the ground floor. The 6th Avenue address is the Bank of America Building. Young bought both buildings in 2017 for $5,250,000. They are currently assessed at about $6.5 million.

According to county records, Young’s We Can Build It last paid property taxes on the two downtown parcels in September of 2018. Since then, the taxes have been paid by others. Mike Klemme, of Forrest Holdings in LeMars, has paid about $60,000 on the parking-garage tax bill. Guardian Tax Partners of Omaha has paid a little more than $200,000 in property taxes on the Bank of America Building.

Meantime, Young has continued on a real-estate buying spree. In March of 2018, We Can Build It paid $1 million for the 70-year-old Franklin Junior High School. In November of 2019, title was transferred to 4801 Franklin LLC.

In October of 2019, We Can Build It purchased the old Northwest Hospital at 48th and Franklin from Hubbell Properties for $525,000, financed by a purchase-money mortgage for that amount from Community State Bank. In November, the state’s Iowa Finance Authority approved the sale of its building at 20th and Grand Avenue to We Can Build It for $1.6 million; however, that sale has not yet been recorded by the Polk County Assessor, which usually means the sale has not yet closed. …

Young did not respond to text and e-mail messages asking for comment on issues reported in this article.

The Nyemaster law firm has submitted another bunch of bills for representing the state in Chris Godfrey’s suit against the state and former Gov. Terry Branstad, a suit alleging discrimination and retaliation against the former head of the Iowa’s Workers’ Compensation board. Godfrey won a $1.5 million judgment, but the state and the former governor are appealing to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The latest bills total $388,595.74. The five-member Executive Council approved the bills, but State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald and State Auditor Rob Sand voted against payment. The bills raise to $2,796,138.48 the amount the state has paid lawyers to defend it. The suit itself arose out of a pay cut Branstad ordered — a cut that totaled about $150,000 over the 46 months remaining in Godfrey’s six-year term. Godfrey was one of the few Democrats in the Branstad administration and the only openly gay department head.

If Godfrey prevails in the Supreme Court, the state also must pay the bills of his attorney, Roxanne Conlin. On January 3, the district court awarded her and her associates fees of $2,875,576 and costs of $202,692.54, a total of $2,875,576.20. Those will rise, of course, if Godfrey continues to prevail. One possibility: the Supreme Court will send the case back for a new trial, which would add millions to the bills from each side. …

The Iowa operation for States Newsroom is building a powerful staff. The news service — “a nonprofit dedicated to state capital coverage” — had hired veteran Register political reporter Kathie Obradovich to head the Iowa operation, and now it is adding Clark Kauffman, Perry Beeman and Linh Ta.

Kauffman was a longtime Register investigative reporter and, for a while, editorial writer who can strike fear in the hearts of a miscreant with a single phone call. Beeman spent 32 years at the Register and has been a mainstay at the Business Record for the past five years. Ta, a Register reporter, was the Iowa Newspaper Association’s “young journalist” award winner in 2019. …


Gov. Kim Reynolds in December ordered the state’s flags flown at half-staff in memory of Hayden Fry.
But not for Berkeley Bedell. ♦

Marty Tirrell, the sports-talk guy who shouted on the radio but smooth-talked friends, wives, relatives, acquaintances, advertisers and strangers as he bilked them out of millions of dollars, has made a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

On Dec. 6, he pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud, and the Government agreed to drop the other nine counts leveled against him in a superseding indictment handed up by a federal grand jury last May. Those counts included wire fraud, bank fraud and, in effect, credit-card fraud.

Under the agreement, Tirrell acknowledged he could be sentenced for up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary, fined as much as $250,000, and, after serving his sentence, be placed under supervised release for three years. Sentencing, by Judge Stephanie Rose, is set for April 7.

Court watchers expect a sentence of around five years, though no agreement is set and the sentence will be entirely up to Rose.

Tirrell turns 60 years old in January. After taking his radio show from station to station since coming to Iowa 25 years ago, and then to cable television, he has been off the air for a couple of years, apparently unable to find a station willing to deal with him. Past employers had sued him for failing to pay for the air time he purchased.

Besides facing prison time, Tirrell also could be ordered to make restitution to the victims scammed in the surviving count, which covers his frauds from September of 2016 to December of 2017. That amount exceeded $550,000, according to the plea agreement. Collection seems unlikely.

In fact, court judgments and statements to CITYVIEW by people he dealt with indicate Tirrell bilked people out of several millions of dollars in the six years before being arrested by the FBI last February. He was sued — successfully — at least 20 times in state and federal courts, and often he never showed up to defend himself.

Some folks, like Des Moines developer Richard Hurd, never bothered to sue because there was no chance of collecting, though Hurd told CITYVIEW he lost $660,000 when he lent Tirrell money to buy out his partners in a radio show — a show that shortly went out of business. Others won big judgments. The most recent: Jason Whitinger of Waterloo won a $1,071,327.43 default judgment in 2018.

Many of the schemes involved the purchase of tickets to major sporting events like the Masters golf tournament, major football bowl games, the World Series and the college NCAA basketball tournaments. He would talk people into up-fronting money to buy blocks of tickets, assuring them they’d share in the proceeds of the resale. Usually, there was no sharing. Others were defrauded by purchasing tickets to big sporting events — and then never getting the tickets.

In the plea-deal filing, Tirrell admits he “acted with the intent to defraud.” 

Tirrell used the money to finance a plush life style, traveling to big events, staying in fine hotels, and, in the words of one ex-wife, “living large.” As things turned sour, he filed for bankruptcy, but the court threw out the case when it determined he wasn’t honest about his finances. Two or three years ago, he quit paying the $1,031-a-month court-ordered child support for his young daughter, his second ex-wife says.

In the months before his arrest, he was homeless and broke. Recently, he apparently has been living in a church-sponsored facility and has been monitored by authorities. He was given permission to travel to Massachusetts over Thanksgiving, and in December the court gave him permission to travel to his mother’s home there from Dec. 20 to Dec. 29.

There apparently is still a warrant out for his arrest in Massachusetts, apparently related to an alimony dispute. In Iowa, there are still federal tax liens against him totaling about $45,000 for failing to pay income taxes in 2010, 2011 and 2012. …

Des Moines developers, always major donors in local political campaigns, showed little enthusiasm for fellow developer Jack Hatch in the November mayoral election and the runoff in December. Instead, they came in big-time for incumbent Frank Cownie.

Jim Conlin gave Cownie $15,000, Bill Knapp gave $17,000, and Jake Christensen gave $5,000. Frank Cownie’s cousin, Jim Cownie, contributed $19,000, according to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, while developers Mike Nelson and Rich Eychaner each gave $1,000. Ankeny’s Denny Elwell gave $5,000, and Harry Bookey gave $500.

All told, Cownie raised $255,720 in his bid for a fifth term, and he added a $50,000 loan from himself. Hatch, who lost by just 281 votes out of 20,409 cast, raised just $56,954, but he loaned his campaign $205,000. Winners can usually keep raising money after an election to help pay off their loans to themselves, but it’s hard for losers to keep raising money.

Frank Cownie also received contributions from five fellow council members — Joe Gatto, Josh Mandelbaum, Bill Gray, Linda Westergaard and Chris Coleman. Only Connie Boesen didn’t contribute. No council members contributed to Hatch’s campaign. One other notable contributor to Cownie: former city manager Rick Clark, who sent $100 from his home in Florida.

The mayoral job pays $57,760 a year.

Carl Voss far outraised Jacquie Easley in the run-off for the at-large seat being vacated by Coleman, $152,692 to $14,304. The job, theoretically part-time, pays $28,880 a year. Voss, who won with 55 percent of the vote, was the biggest donor to his own campaign, contributing $10,000, but he had a passel of $2,500 and $2,000 and $1,000 donations.

Voss, who got more votes in the Dec. 3 election than anyone else on the ballot, says he knocked on 7,000 doors. Supporters knocked on another 4,000. He says he also handed out 20 pounds of dog treats.

And in what was probably a political first, his wife, Susan, and his ex-wife, Lindy, knocked on doors together. ♦


  1. Al Schlaf says:

    A lot of this does not surprise me. Last month, at the Iowa Youth Chorus recital, attendees and chorus members were not allowed to exit the way they came in, adjacent to the north parking lot. Instead, they were forced out another door, down outside steops that were ill lit and had no railings, then onto ill lit sidewalks with no signage as to how to get to the parking lot. Many were small children and the elderly.

    This is not the way to run things.

  2. Diane S Kolmer says:

    “Jeff Young’s spotty record”….a tad of an understatement if I ever read one. HA! This deadbeat should run for President…he can brag that he is the premier developer in the midwest…because he doesn’t have to pay his bills or his taxes…so he’s the smartest person in the midwest. How can any city entity give him any authority to buy and ‘develop’ anything..until he pays his bills and his taxes? What a racket.

    Defining Clark Kauffman as “, editorial writer who can strike fear in the hearts of a miscreant with a single phone call. ” made me LOL. That is so true…my father would give a big HOWDY to that characterization! That’s why I love and my father respected Clark Kauffman. Kathie Obradovich’s creation of States Newsrooms with Clark Kauffman, Perry Beeman and Linh Ta will add great depth to our news of state government and how it affects our daily lives.

    ..and don’t get me started on the ridiculous and self dealing effort of Terry Branstad to spend my tax money to ‘clear’ his name from a well documented and jury approved judgement of his prejudice and homophobia. How many millions has this GOP KOCH Brothers owned Iowa government paid in sexual discrimination and abuse judgements? They love government as long as it pays their personal legal judgements…

    As always… have nailed it…and I love you for it.

  3. jim duncan says:

    Hey, what can you say ? Carl Voss is a really nice guy.

  4. Merle Walter says:

    Pretty good article. One glaring error. 40 year subscriber to the Register. Clark Kaufmann has agenda’s. They are very evident to anyone who have read his stories. Not a fan. Never wrote anything about anyone I know, but.The Editorial staff has improved since he is gone. They could still improve, but a good start. The other three are stellar, Hope they keep him from writing the same kind of slanted stories.

  5. Herb Strentz says:

    As a reporter, investigative reporeter and editorial wrtier, Clark Kaufman has had one agenda: An informed public. Given all the cuts in staffs and the number of Regrister editorials about 15 percent of what they oncee werre, and, good grief, less than 5 percent of the R&T days, it is folly to say the editorial staff has improved.
    Herb Strentz

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