Longform

Dismal House

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Bob St. Clair, who served as house manager for several months, says the operation lacked the "spirit of reconciliation" touted in Dismas literature. "The house meetings were mostly in-your-face harangues about breaking the rules--nothing healing about it," he says. "Bob Sylvester would come in and say he wanted five minutes to talk to the guys. He would spend 45 minutes in a diatribe against them, about what a bunch of scum they are for not kissing his ass for all the favors he's done for them."

Other boardmembers who visited the house regularly also noticed Sylvester's abrupt, even disdainful way of dealing with residents. "I was horrified at the way he spoke to them and treated them," says Richards, who served as the board's recording secretary for several years. "They did not get second chances. Anything they had to say, he couldn't hear."

But his backers were willing to give Sylvester a great deal of latitude. After all, as an ex-offender, he knew exactly the kind of people he was dealing with. "Bob is a very autocratic kind of person," says St. Clair. "He plays this card--'I've been to prison; I know what I'm talking about, and you don't.' It's his way or nothing. There's no negotiating."

Sylvester has always insisted that the board of directors made all the crucial policy decisions for the house; as executive director, he had no voting authority on the board. But Richards, St. Clair and other ex-boardmembers say that the board almost always deferred to Sylvester and that many of his strongest backers--such as board chairman Reverend Tony Wojcinski, a priest based in Pueblo, and board president Fred Carter, a retired Denver police officer--were among the least involved in the day-to-day operations. Those who challenged Sylvester, they say, were either shifted to the advisory board, a chiefly honorific body that rarely met, or simply asked to resign.

"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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast