A THIRD-RATE BURGLARY

A "POLITICAL" BREAK-IN LOOKS MORE LIKE WHISKEYGATE THAN WATERGATE.

The break-in at the small South Broadway office a month ago had all the sinister overtones appropriate to what would turn out to be Richard Nixon's final weeks. In fact, a Denver police detective recalls the phone conversation that put him on the case: "The guy called up and said, `This is like Watergate. You'd better get over here.'"

On its face, the burglary at the cluttered headquarters of the American Constitutional Law Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose philosophy leans toward the libertarian, was unremarkable--the area sees its share of property crimes. But the foundation's claims of what was swiped smacked of high intrigue: a host of politically sensitive computer files, including phone records from a lawsuit against Governor Roy Romer.

Since their investigation into the incident began, however, police are discovering that the truth behind the burglary is remarkably slippery.

The director of the American Constitutional Law Foundation, Bill Orr, declines to talk extensively about his organization and the crime. "There are some fairly complicated things going on right now," he says. "Our investigators have advised us not to discuss this at all."

A 1991 ACLF brochure describes it as a "non-profit, non-partisan litigation organization...committed to preserving the right of peaceful self government." The foundation, which Orr says raises its annual budget of up to $500,000 from donations and membership fees, also lists an office in Florida, although it has since closed.

Since its founding by Orr in 1989, the ACLF has taken its mission statement to heart. It participated in a lawsuit against Romer, who, the group claimed, was violating citizens' rights by campaigning against a tax limitation measure at taxpayer expense (the case was dismissed).

The ACLF has since filed several lawsuits against Secretary of State Natalie Meyer, all of which revolve around citizens' right to petition. And it enjoyed a legal victory in 1991, when it sued the Denver Election Commission for disqualifying signatures off a petition challenging a local gay-rights ordinance. A judge ordered the commission to include the signatures it had tossed, and the referendum appeared on the ballot, although it was voted down.

Considering the organization's past political activity, the March 27 break-in was bound to become controversial--especially after Orr reported to police that the thief had stolen private phone records from a file the foundation kept on the Romer lawsuit. Stranger still, Orr added that other information was downloaded off computers (including the valuable formula of a new gasoline mixture that Orr was patenting), that taped phone conversations were listened to and that a laptop computer was swiped.

Orr, who told reporters that the burglars had expertly dismantled the office's security system, hired a private investigator. He also said the business phones had been tapped (US West checked and found no taps) and reportedly took to sleeping in the office, at the corner of Center and Broadway. "This is spooky, to have a professional hit like this," he was quoted as telling the Denver Post. "We're just a volunteer organization trying to do some good."

And along the way, it seems, trying to get some publicity. J.C. Tyus, the Denver police detective assigned to the case, says he has received phone calls from several national newspapers asking about the burglary, as well as a producer from 60 Minutes whom, Tyus says, an ACLF staffer admitted alerting about the story.

For Tyus, however, the ACLF investigation has become murky. Despite what Orr told local reporters about the thief's professional alarm-disabling ability, for instance, Tyus quickly discovered that the foundation's security system had been turned off for months. Moreover, Tyus says he still has difficulty pinning down exactly what's missing. "I would love, more than anything, a list of what was taken," he says.

Tyus's problems began when he first interviewed Orr, and Orr told him that a list of Romer's phone messages were missing. "I asked him, `How did you get Governor Romer's phone messages?'" the detective recalls. "It turns out that maybe it was a phone bill for his cellular phone, not messages. Well, that's a public record. Why would anyone steal that? It's of no use to anyone."

Next, Tyus recalls, Orr "kept talking about certain trade secrets that were taken. He said it was the multimillion-dollar loss of a new gasoline formula that he had patented. So I asked him, `If the patent is pending, isn't that a public record, too?' And he said, `Yeah, I guess you're right.' So who would steal that?"

Since then, Tyus says, Orr has stopped talking to him. "The problem is, there's no cooperation from him," the detective says. "He assumes certain things were taken. But to this day we don't know what they were."

Actually, Tyus says, that's not entirely true. As far as he can tell from his investigation, three things for certain were taken from the ACLF's offices last month: a laptop computer, some cookies and a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey left on the same desk as the laptop--all of which, the detective points out, would not be an unusual haul for burglars in the high-crime area.

 
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