Dismal House

Ex-con Bob Sylvester wanted to help parolees go straight. But angry former supporters say that what happened at his shelter was pretty twisted.

"What Bob wants, Bob gets," Richards says. "It's like a Mack truck going through. He had sole power, and he was abusing it."

Although the board had its own treasurer, some members claim that vital financial details were kept from them by Sylvester, resulting in a murky tax status that dragged on for years. After Colorado Dismas parted ways with the national organization, it operated for a time under the tax-exempt umbrella of Catholic Charities. But that relationship ended in mid-1994, after Sylvester was notified that Dismas had failed to reimburse Catholic Charities for more than $20,000 in payroll payments. For some time after that, Dismas continued to enjoy an informal arrangement with the Archdiocese of Denver--one official there has acknowledged that she was aware that Dismas House used the archdiocese's sales-tax exemption in making purchases--but Sylvester's group never got around to applying for its own not-for-profit status with the IRS until earlier this year.

Several individuals who've made loans or donations to Dismas over the years say that Sylvester personally assured them that it was a valid tax-exempt organization. Some of them have since received their money back, but not Bob St. Clair, who is now suing Sylvester and Dismas over $11,000 in loans he made to the group, claiming that Sylvester "fraudulently" represented to him that the organization was tax-exempt.

For months, St. Clair says, Sylvester concealed from him and other boardmembers the 1994 letter from Catholic Charities terminating the relationship. (Sylvester has denied this.) When St. Clair formally demanded repayment last spring and asked for copies of Dismas tax records, board president Fred Carter responded that the tax filings were "private and also not relevant to documenting our obligation to you." Actually, the IRS Form 990s for nonprofits are public records--but Colorado Dismas was not a legal nonprofit at the time and had never filed any tax returns.

Dismas House lawyer Howard Haenel says the organization obtained its tax-exempt status from the IRS last month and is seeking to make the exemption retroactive.

He says his own review of the situation has persuaded him that Sylvester and the board "had an honest belief that they were covered by Catholic Charities and then the archdiocese."

Haenel adds, "I don't think there was a deliberate attempt to mislead anybody. There wouldn't have been any advantage in that to anyone." He says he's satisfied that every dollar donated to Dismas "went to further the mission of the organization" and that no one was harmed by the four-year lag time in gaining a tax exemption, particularly since many of the donations came from other tax-exempt groups.

Others, though, see the tax problems as part of a larger pattern of deception by Sylvester. While in public the executive director was speaking passionately about parole reform and raising funds, they say, in private he was castigating residents, intimidating volunteers and turning Dismas House into his personal fiefdom.

"If the guys in the house didn't do things, he'd abuse them," says former chaplain intern Owens. "He would throw dishes, put up signs, harass them. Ultimately, I think Bob just wanted them to leave."

Gardner recalls that Sylvester told him once, "These guys are nice at first, but after two weeks they all become assholes." The comment distressed Gardner; he'd come to know many of the residents himself, and he'd seen some succeed against tall odds. But as the house became more crowded with parolees, it also became more like a halfway house--with Sylvester as the chief enforcer.

Owens recalls the lavish presentations of "gorgeous" food that would appear in the house at every fundraiser. But after the guests were gone, she says, the residents would be stuck with mystery meats and stale bread, damaged or distressed goods bought from discounters. "The stuff was almost garbage," she says. "Things had mold on them. They were told just to cut it off."

For Owens, the contrast seemed to capture what Denver's Dismas House was all about: It made a good first impression, but there was something malodorous and possibly rotten at the core. Sylvester boasted that the house had a success rate of around 75 percent, comparable to that of National Dismas, but he often neglected to mention that the rate excluded those residents who stayed in the house less than thirty days; many of those who absconded, reoffended or were sent back to prison on a parole violation did so within the first month. By contrast, the national organization's figures took into account all participants who lasted more than a week.

"It's not as successful as Bob Sylvester says it is," says St. Clair. "I wouldn't be surprised if the actual rate [of recidivism] is down within the range of a halfway house."

"If you stood up to Bob," says Owens, "you knew he was going to find a way to send you back."

Strictly speaking, Sylvester didn't have the power to send anyone back to prison. That authority rested with state parole officials, who also decided which parolees would be sent to Dismas House in the first place. But the relationship between Sylvester and parole and corrections officials is one of the strangest aspects of the rise and fall of his mission.

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