The nonprofit group that appears to be the focus of an FBI investigation of former Grandview Mayor Steve Dennis had only one known project, other than picking up trash along the highway.
By MIKE HENDRICKS
The Kansas City Star
That was to build a veterans memorial that Dennis saw as a potential tourist draw to a Kansas City suburb short on attractions.
Whether the memorial project is of interest to federal investigators is not known. As a matter of policy, neither the FBI nor the U.S. attorney’s office comments on pending investigations.
But the manner in which the project came together raised concerns with other local elected officials who learned of it only after Dennis had worked months behind the scenes with the developer of a city-financed project.
“Heck, I had vets at the VFW breakfast ask me about the memorial just the Saturday before the state of the city address last year,” said Grandview Alderwoman Annette Turnbaugh, “and answered them that I had no idea. Truly.”
It was during that speech that Dennis unveiled his vision:
A 90-foot clock tower dedicated to America’s military, surrounded by a reflecting pool, bathed in light with one powerful beam shooting so high into the night sky that, he claimed, it might be a hazard to aviation.
Working closely with the company picked to redevelop the Truman Corners Shopping Center, Dennis strove to make Heritage Tower the center’s focal point.
Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, he wrote in a project promotion, would record the narration for audiovisual boards at the tower’s base.
But irregularities in the formation of the nonprofit Matters of the Heart Inc. — which Dennis founded and was using to raise funds for the project — attracted the attention of federal investigators last year, Grandview officials say. Of chief concern initially: Dennis had named two aldermen as board members of the charity, of which he was the only other director, without their knowledge or permission.
The probe led to Dennis’ recent resignation and could possibly bring him prison time, he himself suggests.
“Please pray for my family,” the 50-year-old Navy reservist wrote a friend in a Jan. 10 email that Grandview officials made public last week. “I’m not sure how we’re going to make it financially when I’m gone for a year to PRISON (never thought I’d be saying that about myself). I’m just hoping to wake up from this ‘nightmare’!”
Dennis has not responded to phone messages or emails seeking comment from The Star and other media outlets, nor did he reply to The Star’s messages sent to his Twitter account, which has since been deactivated.
On its face, the secrecy in which Dennis worked and his close relationship with the developer raise questions, but that by itself might not rise to the level of impropriety, one expert on local government said.
“There’s a difference between what I would call an ethical issue and what I would call bad judgment,” said John Nalbandian, a professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas.
Dennis often spoke about honoring veterans, and the memorial was his passion.
Documents obtained by The Star detail the behind-the-scenes effort that Dennis put into planning the project in the two years leading up to his resignation.
Emails from 2012 and 2013, obtained through an open-records request, show Dennis collaborating with employees of the city’s choice to redevelop Truman Corners Shopping Center, Kansas City-based RED Legacy, to make the memorial a reality.
Dennis worked closely with RED Legacy and Ochsner Hare & Hare, a landscape architecture firm that the developer regularly does business with, for the better part of a year by the time he made the project public.
Grandview city government selected RED Legacy’s predecessor company, RED Development, over two other companies on Feb. 7, 2012, to redevelop Truman Corners, a now 57-year-old open-air shopping center at Interstate 49 and Blue Ridge Boulevard built on land once farmed by Harry Truman’s family.
Grandview officials had been pushing for an upgrade since the late 1990s, but the owner fell short of meeting the city’s expectations and canceled the tax-increment financing plan, city administrator Cory Smith said.
In 2011, RED Legacy proposed leveling the center and replacing it with what came to be called Truman’s Marketplace.
Construction hasn’t started, but Grandview has agreed to back bonds accounting for nearly half of the roughly $80 million cost.
The TIF plan for Truman’s Marketplace included a statue of the late president. Nowhere was there mention of a veterans memorial.
But it would eventually become a part of the center’s marketing plan at Dennis’ suggestion.
“That was an add-on from (Dennis),” RED Legacy co-founder Dan Lowe said in an interview earlier this month. “He had requested a little space to put up a war memorial.”
Emails between Dennis, RED managing partner Bart Lowen and others show that planning for the memorial was well underway within a few months of the city’s go-ahead for the shopping center.
“As mentioned, I have requested one of our General Contractor’s to put an estimate together for the Veteran’s Memorial tower for Truman,” Lowen wrote Dennis on May 22, 2012.
By that time, Shannon D. Gordon, a senior project manager at Ochsner Hare & Hare, had already done a conceptual design on which to base that estimate, the emails show.
Nowhere in the messages is there an inkling of how the memorial project came to be part of the shopping center plan in the first place or whether the firms involved were compensated for their planning work.
Smith and other city officials say they were not involved in the planning and that no city funds went toward it. Gordon declined to comment, and Lowen did not respond to phone calls or an email posing those and other questions.
Lowen’s boss, Lowe, did not respond to a follow-up request for comment on Friday.
The emails show that Lowen, as promised, emailed Dennis a cost estimate in June 2012. Based on the preliminary design, the memorial would cost $1.4 million.
Fundraising “has started in earnest,” Dennis responded a week later, adding that Ochsner Hare & Hare would soon be finishing a video that would help with raising money and, perhaps “pursuade potential Retailers and Restaurantuers to sign on with Truman MarketPlace.”
RED Legacy did end up making the proposed memorial one of its selling points in the brochure aimed at attracting potential tenants.
“The Veteran’s Memorial Plaza will be dedicated to the members of all US Armed Forces,” the blurb said, “and will attract tourists and the local community to celebrate, learn about and reflect on U.S. freedom and history.”
In an email, Dennis noted his “rather close working relationship” with RED and described how he used “Mr. Lowe” rather than a first name when contacting, presumably, a prospective tenant at the request of the developer.
“I wanted them to believe that there are no ‘palms being greased’ here,” Dennis wrote Lowen on May 23, after returning from a trip to Las Vegas and an annual meeting of the International Council of Shopping Centers.
“Thanks again for coming out to Vegas!” Lowen responded. “Your level of passion continues to prove very helpful in our process.”
That exchange of messages came a few months after entities connected to RED Legacy’s Lowe had contributed $15,000 to Dennis’ successful 2013 mayoral campaign, more than half of the total Dennis raised for that race.
Lowe stressed to the The Star that the contribution was perfectly legal — Missouri has no limits on campaign contributions — and said his support was based on Dennis’ being “a phenomenal mayor.”
Lowe did not, however, donate to the memorial fund, he said.
The plan also called for a fundraising dinner at the Armacost Museum, a privately owned facility in Grandview. Whether such a dinner was held could not be ascertained. The events coordinator at the museum did not respond to phone and email messages.
Dennis said the veterans memorial would commemorate “in a grand way, the struggles and celebrations of ‘our American experiment.’ ”
In addition to the tower, there was to be an “Eternal Flame of Remembrance,” empty brass boots representing “the fallen soldier,” and seven bronze statues representing the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, Reserves and National Guard.
Along with those statues, according to the January 2013 document, there would be audiovisual boards telling something of each service “quite possibly narrated by a recognizable voice from Hollywood (a contract is currently being negotiated).”
On another page, it says “Morgan Freeman to narrate.”
Contacted by The Star, a spokesman for Freeman’s production company disavowed any knowledge of the Grandview project. So did Freeman’s agent.
“We do not do these kind of things,” Fred Specktor said.
RED Legacy hopes to close on its purchase of Truman Corners in March, with the opening of Truman’s Marketplace to follow next year.
Absent a big donor, the veterans memorial won’t be built.
“That was kind of the former mayor’s dream,” said Smith, the city administrator. “It looked like a great design, was a great idea, but funding was the issue.”
To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.