Major Lesbian Activist Arrested for Embezzlement

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 2, 2009

The chair of the Iowa branch of Marriage Equality USA, a group dedicated to legal parity for gay and lesbian families, has been arrested on federal charges for allegedly embezzling nearly $6 million from insurance carrier Aviva USA.

Phyllis Stevens, who has served as the head of the marriage equality group, reportedly lavished herself and her female life partner, Marla, with the good life, but that's not all: as told by The Iowa Republican.com in a Sept. 29 story, Stevens spread the wealth to a variety of "liberal" candidates and causes, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, MoveOn.org, and others

Without evidence, and based solely on their documented donations, the article also claimed that is was "safe to assume" that the couple had also provided funds to gay groups.

A Sept. 28 Des Moines Register story reported that the embezzlement scheme was uncovered by Stevens' Aviva colleagues, and said that the company's attorneys had named Stevens and her spouse both in a suit intended to recover funds diverted to a joint account held by the couple.

Though Marla Stevens is not accused of embezzlement, the suit names her as a beneficiary of the crime.

The story said that Phyllis Stevens was placed under arrest by the FBI in Las Vegas on Sept. 25.

An Oct. 1 follow-up article in the Des Moines Register confirmed that Stevens had contributed a total of about $175,000 to various political candidates, many of them female, from both major political parties.

That article also detailed how the scam Stevens allegedly ran worked, and said that Stevens had been faced with accusations of embezzlement and put on leave by the company on Sept. 23, after which she tried to withdraw $170,000 from an Indianapolis bank.

The Sept. 28 Register article described how Marla Stevens wrote of herself and Phyllis as being a sort of marriage equality Bonnie and Clyde, with Marla boasting on her blog that, in defiance of the law, the couple had declared themselves a married couple on customs forms after their 2003 ceremony in Toronto, Canada.

The article quoted from Marla Stevens' blog, "We won't lie about our marriage on our tax forms, either, filing as married people we are."

Added the blog, "We've racked up about a million dollars in potential criminal fines and about a hundreds years in potential prison time under the old sentencing guidelines between us--so far."

Although Iowa is one of the six states that have legislation allowing gay and lesbian families access to marriage rights, the state's statute does not apply to federal marriage recognition, which is denied to gay and lesbian families under the 1996 "Defense of Marriage" Act (DOMA).

An Oct. 1 article at GLBT Web site The Bilerico Project noted that the Stevenses had previously lived in Indiana, where they worked for GLBT equality.

Marla Stevens was the founder of LGBT Fairness, the article noted, and lobbied state lawmakers on gay and lesbian issues; Marla Stevens also helped to organize a counter-protest to a religious right "prayer gathering" convened as a response to a corporate decision by Cummins Engine Company, in Columbus, IN.

Phyllis Stevens, the article said, had established a GLBT political action committee, the Rainbow Equality PAC.

In text posted at eQualityGiving.org, Stevens described the donation philosophy shared by herself and her wife.

"Marla and I are very careful about whom we give money to (especially when we decide to max out on a candidate)," Stevens wrote.

"As a couple, we refuse to max out on a candidate who doesn't support marriage equality."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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