STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT

If Mayor Wellington Webb truly wanted to save the city "embarrassment," as he professed when he announced the "indefinite" delay of Denver International Airport's opening, he might have awakened a little earlier last Tuesday morning. Even if Webb's Good Morning America no-show was due to alarm-clock failure rather than any lack of courage, those GMA stiffs got in a few good jabs about missing mayors and missing bags. Coming after David Letterman's late-night pummeling of the day before, it was downright embarrassing. You snooze, you lose.

But at the same time Colorado was being kicked around the country like a piece of errant luggage, one resident was actually having a good morning. For the second year running, a Coloradan has won the prestigious Cavallo Prize for Moral Courage, given to individuals "who have chosen to speak out when it would have been far easier to remain silent."

"Colorado's looking very good," says Michael Cavallo, who started the awards in 1988 and funds them through his Cavallo Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It seems to have people with backbone."

And with all the spineless butt-covering and backsliding over who's responsible for the debacle at DIA, it's sometimes difficult to remember that.

In this instance, the fellow with the upright posture and outlook is Wes McKinley. You've met him before in these pages: He's the foreman of the Rocky Flats grand jury, the rancher who rode herd on 22 citizens for two and a half years as they traveled through previously uncharted territory, sifting through evidence seized in the FBI's raid of the nuclear-weapons plant in June 1989. By the time they were through, they wanted to indict eight individuals for environmental crimes at Rocky Flats--but the prosecutors refused to issue the indictments. So the jurors wrote a report of their investigation--but the judge refused to release it. Five days later excerpts of that report first appeared in Westword. Within a week the judge asked the Justice Department to determine if the story indicated a breach of grand jury secrecy--and if so, to find and punish whoever had broken the law.

In November 1992 McKinley stood before the federal courthouse and read a letter from the grand jurors, asking President-elect Bill Clinton to investigate the Justice Department. Eighteen months later the jurors have yet to receive Clinton's response.

Perhaps McKinley can pick it up in person later this month, when he travels to Washington, D.C., to accept his Cavallo Award--one of three presented this year. Maybe he'll ride his horse right onto the steps of the Capitol, as he once threatened to do. Or maybe, since McKinley's still officially muzzled by the laws that bind grand jurors to secrecy, he'll just play a few songs on his guitar, as he did when Cavallo went riding with him a few weeks ago.

The answering machine at McKinley's cattle company near Walsh features some of that nice country twang, as well as these words: "If you're trying to collect a bill, well, friend, prosperity's about to shine on me." Although the message was recorded years ago, it still rings true: The Cavallo Award comes with a $10,000 prize--which happens to be the maximum fine allowable should McKinley be charged with contempt for speaking out.

It's a small price to reward moral courage, says Cavallo, who's made millions investing in futures. "I started the awards for much the same reason you write about these people," he notes. "They deserve recognition. They've spoken out at great risk, and often suffered economic hardships for doing so."

For proof, look no further than last year's Cavallo prizes, one of which was shared by Coloradans Bruce Pederson and Jacqueline Taylor. On May 7, 1992, the two lawyers for the Resolution Trust Corporation were "kicked out of our jobs, kicked out of the building, and our reputations dragged through the gutter," Pederson says. And all because they fought--ultimately all the way to Congress--against a disastrous RTC reorganization that could wind up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

As thanks for their whistle-blowing, the two were demoted and harassed. It was during one of their darkest hours, Pederson says, that they learned they'd won the 1993 Cavallo Award. They went to D.C. to accept their prize last June--nine months and another administration after they first warned the Senate Banking Commission about RTC mismanagement.

The next day the pair sat in on a House Judiciary meeting and watched as Treasury Department officials waved letters from then-acting RTC head Roger Altman, which argued against extending the statute of limitations on S&L crimes. They realized their troubles wouldn't be over soon.

And in fact, after I interviewed Taylor in March, she received a letter of warning from Ellen Kulka, RTC general counsel, chiding her for failing to obtain permission from her "clients" (read: RTC officials, not taxpayers, as you might think) before speaking with me: "The general principle that attorneys do not discuss client matters with the media, absent express client permission, is particularly true where matters raised are of more personal interest than of public concern."

Although she's still officially gagged from discussing the RTC, Taylor is willing to risk further censure on behalf of McKinley--not that she's ever met the man. "My hat's off to him," she says. "Ever since the day I first read about him and saw him on television, I thought: This is one person who's truly a courageous man. I know he couldn't have had an easy time."

Which is precisely what Cavallo has to say for Taylor and Pederson, both of whom plan to attend the May 24 awards presentation. "The new administration really blew a chance to rectify that situation," he says. "In that department, the climate's very much unchanged. They should be embarrassed.

 
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