Did These 2 Activists Perpetrate a $5.9 Million Embezzlement Scheme?


The first thing Bil Browning of The Bilerico Project says in a report about Marriage Equality USA’s Iowa chairperson Phyllis Stevens (pictured, left) is that she nor her wife Marla (right, a Bilerico contributor) never donated money to Bil’s website. This is important to note, since Stevens was just arrested on charges of embezzling $5.9 million from her employer, the insurance giant Aviva USA.

Phyllis stands accused of money laundering and wire fraud, with FBI officials saying she manipulated policy payouts at Aviva (where she’s worked for 35 years) so commissions went to a fake employee who, uh, “lived” at Phyllis’ home address. (More explanation about the fraud here.) A fellow employee discovered the alleged fraud. And Marla, meanwhile, has been named in a civil suit as a beneficiary to her wife’s crime.

But that’s not where this story ends.

Phyllis and Marla are ardent supporters of LGBT causes, donating over the years to political candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Campaign, plus organizations like the Iowa Democratic Party. As Bilerico notes:

Both Marla and Phyllis Stevens have a well-respected history of LGBT and progressive activism. Marla founded one of Indiana’s first gay rights organizations, LGBT Fairness, and was the first Statehouse lobbyist focusing solely on LGBT issues. Marla was also one of the first Hoosier LGBT activist to use direct action techniques to draw attention to gay rights.

[…] Phyllis Stevens has been financially supportive of several LGBT friendly politicians. In May she created the Rainbow Equality PAC which has given money to prominent Democratic politicians like Speaker of the Iowa House Pat Murphy. Finance records show that since October of 2005, she gave $14,669.07 in state political contributions. Since January of 2007, she has donated $15,213 to federal candidates.

Oh, and then there’s this small matter: The couple, who married in Canada in 2003, have been filing joint tax returns as a married couple, something that’s, uh, illegal under DOMA. If all goes accordingly, both women are looking at hefty prison sentences, though it doesn’t appear federal officials are going after their tax filings, yet.

In the meantime, if the allegations are true, it’s an enormous setback all around. Not only will the political campaigns the women donated to be forced to give back that cash (Hillary is hard up for dollars, you might have heard), but this is a scarlet letter for Iowa’s activism, and it will be very easy for opponents to launch a “gays are evil and fraudsters” campaign.