603497F247692.Image Tony Messenger Blows Corrupt (Bop) Halfway House Out Of The Water - Thomas Utterback

Understanding Thomas Utterback propertly requires us to go back four decades or so, to 1987 in a federal courtroom in downtown St. Louis.

Utterback as a Attorney

Utterback was an attorney then, representing Democratic committeeman Leroy Tyus in the corruption trial of the century in St. Louis. This was the trial that led to multiple convictions of mail and wire fraud in a get-rich-quick scheme involving bribery of public officials making a decision as to who would get the city’s cable television franchise.

A who’s who of Democratic politicians and operatives were eventually charged or convicted. Sorkis Webbe Sr., the power-broker who ran his political machine out of the Mayfair Hotel, would die before he went to trial. His son, Sorkis Webbe Jr., was convicted of fraud. Tyus, Eugene P. Slay, and attorney James Cullen were all convicted, though an appeals court later overturned those convictions.


Utterback’s role in the case would seem not particularly noteworthy — attorneys represent all sorts of clients, that’s their job — if not for what happened about 10 years later.

That’s when Utterback was arrested in a Geneva hotel room with $3.2 million in $10 and $20 bills stuffed in four suitcases. Utterback had agreed to try to launder the money for a drug dealer, Edward Trober, the former owner of the Panama Jax nightclub in Collinsville. Trober promised Utterback 10% of the drug money if he would fly it out of the country and launder it.

Utterback first flew to Panama, but his contact there said it was too much money. So, he repackaged the money and flew to Switzerland. An airline worker in Amsterdam tipped off police.

Utterback was sentenced to three years in federal prison. Utterback had spent much of his career as a municipal attorney. But he wanted something more, speculated some attorneys who knew him at the time.
“I think Tom was interested in getting rich quick and being successful,” one lawyer told the Post-Dispatch in 1998. “I think Tom was always one of these guys who wanted to strike it rich,” said another. “He wanted to make a lot of money.”

Fast forward another couple of decades. That’s when I met Utterback. He had a news tip for me. Look at the Dismas House, he said. That’s the nation’s oldest halfway house for federal prisoners, right here in St. Louis. Utterback passed through its doors when he left federal prison. Look at its board, Utterback told me. The place is run by former city and county parks director Gary Bess, he said.

I started looking. I found years of financial shenanigans, with Bess’ wife, Vivienne, and her brother, John Flatley, and other family members, taking about $5 million in inflated salaries from the $43 million federal contract handed out by the Bureau of Prisons to run the facility. The contract is supposed to pay for services that help former federal detainees get jobs and integrate back in the community. My reporting, spurred first by a tip from Utterback, showed that the board running Dismas House was not fulfilling that mission, instead using too many of its resources to line family members’ pockets.

Until today, I didn’t mention that Utterback was the source for the tip. I had an agreement with him to protect him as a source. That changed this week when Utterback sent me an angry email, copying another reporter, outing himself as my source. I don’t blame Utterback for being angry. He didn’t like my most recent column on Dismas House, the one that explains that Utterback’s new nonprofit, Exodus Reentry Villages, the one that won the latest $44 million BOP contract, is running into its own problems.

St Louis Halfway House

He’s now promised two different locations to the federal government; both have fallen through. He’s given the federal government inaccurate information in his application about who was on his board. His statements, to the federal government, to people in the St. Louis community, and to me, simply don’t add up.

“There will be no Gary Besses or John Flatleys in Exodus, and Exodus profits will be invested back into the neighborhoods so ravaged by mass incarceration,” Utterback emailed me and another reporter on Thursday. “Just remember that you had no interest in Dismas House until I informed you Gary Bess ran the place. You did a fine job of investigation, but I still know more than you do about the whole thing.”

I don’t doubt that Utterback knows more than me. That is why I keep asking him questions he won’t answer. Who is on his board? How did he convince the BOP that his startup nonprofit, with no experience or funding, was better than a competing bidder made up of the most experienced prison reentry nonprofits in St. Louis?

Why does he tell me that another ex-con with a banking fraud conviction, Mark Repking, is playing no role with Exodus, when board member Gene McNary tells me Repking plays an important role? Why does Utterback use his status as an ex-con when he thinks it helps him, but get angry at me when I mention it in the context of him trying to manage a $44 million federal contract?

They are the sorts of questions Utterback might have asked back when he was an attorney, in a federal courtroom in St. Louis, trying to help his client beat a bribery charge.


Tony Messenger

Original Article