A week or so after receiving the letter of complaint from the Santa Fe merchants, Ortega sent a copy to Crider. "Please comply with their request [for an audit]," Ortega wrote.

Last month a member of Crider's staff wrote to Martinez, informing her that the auditor would be checking "compliance with the terms of the contracts between the Santa Fe Drive Redevelopment Corporation and the City of Denver." That investigation is now under way.

Martinez and Barela say news of the audit doesn't bother them. "Our books are open," Barela says. "They can come and look at them anytime they want." But they say political considerations, not financial ones, are behind the investigation. Crider has leapt at the chance to audit a perceived ally of the mayor, they say. And they charge that Ortega has sided with the merchants only because Barela is considering a campaign for the city council next year. "She's totally threatened by the fact that Veronica has talked about running against her," Martinez says.

Crider denies ulterior motives, pointing out that the city charter requires him to look into any allegation of waste or impropriety when tax dollars are involved. "There's nothing political in it," Crider says of the SFDRC investigation. "When someone says there's tax dollars being misused, I have an obligation to do [an audit]. I don't have any choice in the matter."

Ortega says she's merely trying to address the merchants' complaints because she is their elected representative. "They're especially upset because it's their money and they're not seeing their dollars' worth," Ortega says.

As for NEWSED, Ortega says that "for the most part, they have done a good job" promoting development on Santa Fe. But she is critical of the "confrontational" tactics she says Barela and Martinez frequently employ. As an example, the councilwoman points to a recent meeting notice sent to members of the SFDRC board of directors. The notice, written by Martinez, accuses Ortega of "unethical and vindictive behavior" and claims the Santa Fe merchants are engaged in a "scheme to destroy" NEWSED and the SFDRC.

"They think that by bullying people they're going to get what they want," Ortega says of Martinez and Barela. "And in some cases, they do. But at the same time, they burn bridges."

Ortega isn't the first to accuse Veronica Barela of playing political hardball. "She's been called `the queen of Santa Fe Drive,'" says Pierre Jimenez. "It's like if you come into west Denver, you have to get her permission." One of the plaintiffs in the 1988 suit against NEWSED says both Barela and Martinez are "very tough. If you don't go with them, they'll turn on you.

"These people have bludgeoned anyone who has gotten in the way," continues the source, who asks not to be identified. "People would rather step away from them than fight them."

Others voice strong support for the two NEWSED leaders. Mary Chandler, co-owner of the RiverTree Theatre, says NEWSED provided crucial assistance when she and her husband were trying to open on Santa Fe Drive. Barela and Martinez helped the theater owners negotiate the city's bewildering permit process, Chandler says, and introduced them to the right people at the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, which eventually provided Chandler with a low-interest construction loan. "I have only good things to say about them," Chandler says. "They were a tremendous source of help and support."

And as Mayor Webb's relations with other prominent Denver Hispanics have been frayed by controversies in the past year, Barela and Martinez have emerged as an especially important source of support for the administration.

Last fall the Webb administration enraged Alvarado Construction Company in a dispute over payments for work at DIA. Alvarado, the region's largest Hispanic contractor, had received more than $17 million for construction of the new airport's administration building, but it asked the city for another $6.5 million to pay for changes and additional work on the project.

When the city balked, company vice president Bob Alvarado launched a bitter public protest. He accused the Webb administration of "institutional racism," claiming the city was scrutinizing Hispanic contractors more closely than majority-owned firms. Eventually, the two sides settled on a figure of $3.65 million, but not before the damage had been done. Even Barela acknowledges that the Alvarado controversy "probably hurt the mayor in our community more than anything."

The rift may have widened further in March, when Webb announced he'd decided to sell the old Denver district attorney's building to a developer who planned to convert the property into upscale residential lofts. The building, in NEWSED territory at the corner of West Colfax and Speer Boulevard, has been vacant for a decade.

Webb's decision angered Councilwoman Ramona Martinez, who was trying to help a group of Latino investors turn the building into a Hispanic cultural center. Webb countered that Martinez had been given a year to put together a deal but had failed to come up with a way to finance the purchase. The private developer, meanwhile, had submitted a firm bid that promised to return the property to the city's tax rolls.

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