Don Bell likes to mix business, politics and religiosity.
Bell, an Olathe homebuilder, bought a Kansas bank in 1989 after receiving what he has called a divine revelation. In 2005, the bank, Security Savings, reported $850 million in assets. As Bell put it, in a written history of his success, the bank and its growth were "a modern-day miracle."
Bell used his angel-kissed wealth to support Nazarene colleges and conservative Christian political causes. In the past, he gave the maximum allowed to the campaigns of Phill Kline and Sam Brownback.
Security Savings itself became a Republican redoubt. Kevin Gilmore, who pushed for an emphasis on abstinence in sex-ed courses as the Kansas Board of Education chairman in the late 1990s, was promoted to chief operating officer in 2004. (Gilmore sits today on the Olathe school board) That same year, Olathe Mayor Mike Copeland and John Bacon, a conservative who took Gilmore's seat on the Kansas school board, joined the bank's board of directors.
Astride his empire, Bell liked to believe that he stood in the light of the Lord. The thing about claiming to run a business "with a mission to further the Kingdom of God," as Bell had done, is that it leads to uncomfortable questions when executives disappear, assets shrink and investors file lawsuits.
In 2004, Bell fired the bank's president and chief loan officer. It was his response to the bank's audit committee calling on him to retire as CEO. The fired officers spoke of "conflict of interest" and "governance issues" on their way out the door. Bell insisted that the bank's best days were ahead.
They weren't. In the last six months of 2005, Security Savings booked $1.2 million in loan losses. A year ago, the bank sold three branches in and near Garden City, Kansas.
Stockholders in Brittany Savings Corp., the bank's holding company, watched their dividends dwindle, then stop altogether. Gilmore, who had been promoted to CEO, blamed the mutinous executives whom Bell had dismissed earlier. "[W]e want to make it clear these losses are associated with credits that were on the books of the Bank prior to October 2004," he wrote in a 2007 letter to stockholders.
But in April, Gilmore was out. Copeland, a fellow MidAmerica Nazarene University graduate, took his place.
Turnover has not been limited to the chief executive's office. A number of senior loan officers have come and gone. In April, Security Savings named Dave Kjellerson as its executive vice president and chief credit officer. That didn't last long. Kjellerson now reviews loans in the Kansas City office of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. (A former VP who has gone to work for a regulatory agency — that can't be good for God's favorite banker, can it?)
Bell has other problems. In July, an Olathe resident named Matthew Mabe filed a lawsuit claiming that Bell had cheated him out of profits in a land deal.
The property sits adjacent to a development under way near Interstate 70 in Independence. It's an interesting project. The bulk of the land used to be owned by Tri-City Ministries, a Baptist church run by the politically ambitious evangelist Carl Herbster (Blessed Are the Moneymakers April 28, 2005). Church insiders now control the land through a company called Trinity Real Estate Development. Trinity has estimated the land's value at $29 million. (Memo to Tri-City members: Please ask Herbster or a deacon what the church received in return.)
Bell and Herbster have a relationship that goes back more than 10 years. Herbster lives in a Don Bell home near the church.
Bell's links to Tri-City were a source of alarm for the bank executives who had tried to remove Bell in 2004. A year earlier, Bell's development company had bought land from Tri-City before the church borrowed $7 million from Security Savings — a potential conflict of interest.
In 2006, Bell asked Mabe to join with him in guaranteeing a loan to the group developing the I-70 ground. Mabe accuses Bell of breaking a promise to cut him in on the future profits. Bell denies in court papers that Mabe has been wronged.
Mabe is also pursuing Bell in federal court. Last month, Mabe and his relatives filed a suit alleging that Bell lied in an effort to entice them to invest in Brittany Savings. According to the suit, Bell approached the Mabes in 2003 with a spiel that they "would never have to worry about money" if they moved quickly and bought pieces of Brittany Savings. The Mabes eventually invested almost $1 million, some of it borrowed.
The Mabes' investment initially produced healthy dividends. Then Gilmore's gloomy letters about the bank being "liability sensitive" began arriving. The value of the stock dropped, the suit says, and the distributions "trickled to a stop."
Investments go bad, of course. (Have you watched CNBC lately?) But the Mabes are claiming fraud. Their suit accuses Bell of misrepresenting the bank's financial position and omitting information about the attempted coup. The suit says the pre-purge Security Savings board hired a Kansas City law firm to investigate Bell at the behest of the bank's regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision.
Bell's lawyers have not responded yet to the federal suit. Bell's son Frank, the president of Brittany Savings, tells me: "We believe the allegations are completely false, and we intend to vigorously defend them."
What I find interesting about the Mabes' unhappiness with Bell is that they appear to be like-minded Christian crusaders. Matthew, Paul and John Mabe and their wives helped sponsor the National Day of Prayer conducted at Bartle Hall last May. The National Day of Prayer Task Force is chaired by Shirley Dobson, the wife of Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a Christian Right group that Bell supports. (Paul Mabe is a dentist. The suit indicates that Matthew and John Mabe own a business called Precision Communication.)
Alas, like Gilmore, the Mabes now find themselves on the outs with Bell, who likes to tout his godliness as a businessman. Bell commissioned the glossy history (available on the bank's Web site) describing his "revelation," his good works and his commitment to the defeat of secular America. Sample sentence: "Don describes himself as a patriotic American who firmly believes in the strength of family."
In the brochure, Bell sets a goal for the bank to reach $1 billion in assets "because we've caught the vision." Security Savings' assets have fallen to $694 million, casting a bit of doubt on the quality of Bell's communication with the Almighty.
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