As a crowd of 100 or so waited patiently inside the community center for Grandview Mayor Steve Dennis to arrive and deliver his state of the city address last January, it heard a throaty rumble that grew to a roar.
By MIKE HENDRICKS
The Kansas City Star
A helmeted Dennis, dressed in leather, rolled into the room astride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle borrowed from the local dealership.
To his friends and detractors alike, the big entrance was classic Steve Dennis, a charismatic figure alternately described as energetic and something of a showboat.
“This is the way he is,” former mayor Jan Martinette said. “He has to be the center of attention.”
Dennis remains just that, both the center of attention and much speculation, one week after his surprise and unexplained resignation that came amid reports of a federal investigation.
Fellow members of the Grandview Board of Aldermen say they have been interviewed by FBI agents in recent months concerning a nonprofit group that Dennis founded with no connection to city government called Matters of the Heart Inc.
Dennis, 50, confirmed the existence of that investigation in an interview published Thursday in the Jackson County Advocate, Grandview’s weekly newspaper, but has said little else.
The precise nature of the inquiry remains unclear and Dennis has not responded to requests for comment from The Star and other news outlets.
Likewise, the FBI and the U.S. district attorney’s office do not comment on investigations until charges have been filed. None have been, according to a Justice Department spokesman.
But last spring, about the time that the investigation appears to have begun, Dennis publicly defended his actions with regard to the nonprofit when some paperwork irregularities were disclosed at a public meeting.
In a letter published in the Advocate, Dennis addressed the rumors that had begun to circulate.
“Now, I have heard a couple of different stories that have been told in the community,” he wrote, “that automatically assume that I am either falsely stating my ‘importance’ in a do-good organization or that I must be pilfering money illegally through the nonprofit for my own benefit.
“Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Promoter for the city
Dennis has many fans in this town of 24,000 on Kansas City’s southern border.
His decision to step down was met with disappointment by those who described him as a dynamic leader who worked tirelessly to promote a community that has been his home nearly all his life.
“He’s constantly trying to improve himself and the city,” said Gail Worth, owner of the Harley dealership that lent Dennis the bike he rode into the community center. “He was always looking at how to make the city better.”
Dennis was appointed mayor in 2010 after the death of Bob Beckers that August, then went on to win in his own right in the April 2011 election. Grandview voters granted him another two-year term last April in a landslide — he garnered 63 percent of the ballots in a three-way race.
Grandview has a weak-mayor form of government. The person holding the office has no more power than anyone else on the governing board and votes only in the case of a tie.
But perhaps more than any mayor in modern times, Dennis leveraged his position as Grandview’s figurehead to boost the city’s image in the region and build pride among its residents.
“He’s probably the best mayor this city has ever seen,” former alderman Tony Preyer said.
Dennis set out to counter an impression that his community was crime-ridden and backward when it came to economic development, as symbolized by the declining Truman Corners Shopping Center.
With crime rates falling and redevelopment efforts advancing ever so slowly to rebuild and reposition Truman Corners as Truman’s Marketplace, Dennis spoke often of “the new Grandview,” a place that was business-friendly and a good area to raise a family.
“We’re changing in a great way,” he told an interviewer on the Internet-based public affairs show “What’s Up Kansas City” last fall. “I’m a cheerleader. I’m a cheerleader for Grandview.”
Dennis still lives in the house his family moved to when he was 4. He’s been active in local affairs much of his adult life. Before becoming an alderman in 2001, Dennis served on a variety of city and community committees.
A U.S. Navy reservist, Dennis plays taps at more than 100 military funerals each year and occasionally serves on military color guards, according to his biography on the city’s website.
Between all that and the fact that he treated the part-time mayor’s position as if it were a full-time job, easily working 40 hours a week, friends and colleagues long wondered how he had time to make a living outside public service. The mayor of Grandview, after all, isn’t paid much.
“I asked him when he won the first election, ‘How can you live on $16,000 a year?’ ” Alderwoman Annette Turnbaugh said. “He said, ‘We’ll definitely be eating into our savings.’ ”
Dennis, a chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve, would qualify for a monthly salary between $352 and $632, depending on years of service.
As of 2012, according to a tweet, Dennis’ wife, Kelli, did not have a job outside the home. Her current employment status is not known.
Dennis attended Baylor University and graduated from the University of Arkansas with a bachelor’s degree in art and computer graphics, according to his resume and information supplied to The Star when he ran as a Republican for Congress in 2004 and for a Missouri House seat in 2006. Both attempts were unsuccessful.
In those same disclosures to the newspaper, Dennis said he had worked at one point for a Lenexa ad agency and later as the vice president of marketing at a Missouri bank holding company.
More recently, Dennis listed his occupation on the city website as “executive director of a local community service organization.”
The name of that group wasn’t specified.
However, records on file with the Missouri secretary of state’s office show Dennis was one of three directors of a nonprofit group called Matters of the Heart when it was incorporated in December 2011.
The purpose of the group, according to its articles of incorporation, was “to be a local community outreach to the poor and disadvantaged through direct volunteer involvement in education, literacy programs, entrepreneurial training, business mentoring, before- and after-school programs, home and auto repairs, community service projects and financial benevolence.”
What if any of that was ever accomplished is unclear. No website or Facebook page could be found for a Matters of the Heart in Grandview. An online search turned up no evidence of the group’s activities beyond its secretary of state filings.
Friends and colleagues who spoke with The Star said they were unsure what the group did.
“I knew about the charity, but I never donated to it,” Worth said. “But then he never asked me.”
The Internal Revenue Service’s public database of tax-exempt organizations lists no record for a Matters of the Heart in Missouri or Kansas, nor does it have any financial information in the public file.
However, Dennis made no secret of the group.
Matters of the Heart joined Missouri’s Adopt-a-Highway program on Sept. 30, 2011, three months before officially incorporating. Signs on each side of Interstate 49 say the group has volunteered to pick up trash between 140th and 145th streets, a Missouri Department of Transportation spokesman said.
Also, Dennis announced publicly that he planned to use the group as a conduit to raise funds for a pet project of his: a veterans memorial he hoped to have built at Truman’s Marketplace.
More than a year ago, he sought fundraising advice from Carl DiCapo, one of the leaders in the effort to rehab Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial and build the National World War I Museum.
“He didn’t have any idea in the world,” DiCapo said, so he told Dennis his best bet would be to solicit donations from the largest companies in Grandview, and Dennis said he’d do just that.
“He raised $70,000 the first two weeks, that’s what he told me,” DiCapo said.
In an interview with the Advocate last spring, Dennis said he had pledges for $3 million, but no checks in hand.
Dan Lowe, a principal in RED Legacy, the firm that plans to develop the shopping center where the monument was to go, said he gave nothing to the nonprofit. Campaign finance records show that entities connected to Lowe were Dennis’ biggest campaign contributors last year.
The Missouri secretary of state’s office dissolved Matters of the Heart in December 2012 for failing to file an annual report.
According to state law, “a corporation administratively dissolved may not carry on any business except that necessary to wind up and liquidate its business affairs.”
That notice came a month before Dennis rode into the community center on the Harley and announced his plan for the veterans memorial, which he said was to involve Matters of the Heart as the fundraising vehicle.
When the dissolution was disclosed in April by a resident speaking at a meeting of the Board of Aldermen, Dennis said he had been unaware that the nonprofit’s legal status had lapsed and would seek to renew it.
Records show that Matters of the Heart remains dissolved.
But two other records in the secretary of state’s file set off alarms that something else might be amiss at Matters of the Heart.
They were formal complaints filed by two members of the Board of Aldermen, Brent Steeno and John T. Maloney, who said they were falsely listed as the board’s two other members on the incorporation papers that Dennis filed with the state.
Both men learned about it from a member of the public who was curious about the mayor’s charity, more than a year after the nonprofit was formed.
Dennis claimed in a letter to the Advocate that he included the names on the record by mistake, a failure to cut and paste properly while working on his computer.
Steeno and Maloney said they were among those contacted by the FBI.
Dennis was scheduled to deliver this year’s state of the city address next Thursday. Instead, the city administrator and department heads will recite their accomplishments, said Kim Curtis, president of the Grandview Area Chamber of Commerce.
Clearly it won’t be nearly as exciting as last year, she said.
“Everybody thought it was kind of fun,” Curtis said of Dennis’ blaring arrival on the bike. “He’s an outgoing man.”