INK-STAINED KVETCHES

MEDIA COVERAGE OF DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT IS CREATING ITS OWN TURBULENCE.

In terms of sheer manpower, the AP's Denver bureau pales in comparison to the Post and the News, which between them employ close to 400 writers, editors and other newsroom employees. The AP bureau, though it has fewer than twenty editorial staffers, enjoys greater impact nationally. Hundreds of American newspapers and television stations subscribe to the AP, which long ago established itself as the nation's preeminent wire service. Stories sent from the bureaus to AP headquarters in New York often beam back out on the national wire and run on news pages all over the country.

That's just what happened with Paulson's exclusive on Dean Hill.

Hill, a former construction inspector for DIA contractor CMTS, first surfaced publicly this summer. On July 5 Hill visited the office of Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter and told prosecutors there that he'd witnessed workers cutting corners at the airport that could lead to buckling walls and falling ceilings inside Concourse C. He said his warnings about the bad work had been ignored and that other inspectors had falsified reports to cover up the problems. Though Hill hadn't worked at the airport since 1992, he claimed he had pictures to back up his allegations.

Accompanying Hill to the DA's office that day was a coterie of die-hard enemies of DIA. One was Jack Wogan, a leader of an unsuccessful voter drive to defeat the airport back in 1989. Another was Jim Buck, a retired engineer from Englewood who says he was asked to join the group as a "technical advisor." Buck notes that he's devoted "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours" to researching DIA's flaws over the last nine years and then sharing his findings with reporters and like-minded friends and associates.

Yet another DIA opponent along for the ride was Stew Webb, probably the Denver area's best-known conspiracy theorist. Webb, now a leader of a group called Guardians of American Liberties, hocks videotapes linking DIA to scandals in the savings-and-loan industry, the junk-bond market and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also claims to have evidence that former president George Bush and members of Congress operated a huge child-sex ring called "Operation Brownstone," which preyed on young boys and girls imported to Washington from orphanages all over the country. Webb declines comment on his role in the Dean Hill story, saying he plans to file a $100 million lawsuit against Westword for an article the paper wrote about him in February 1993. "I already own your newspaper for the character assassination you did," Webb says.

After concluding their meeting with prosecutor Phil Parrott and investigators from Ritter's office, Buck says, Hill and the rest of the group trudged across the street to the Rocky Mountain News and made a similar presentation to reporter Dan Luzadder. Luzadder confirms he heard them out but says he was hindered in pursuing the story because Hill refused to make his charges on the record.

Several weeks went by and, say Buck and Wogan, the News seemed to give up on the story. Eventually, both say, they approached the AP's Steve Paulson, in whom they found a more receptive audience. "He seemed interested, so we kept going to him," Wogan says. "It's that simple."

Buck says he's not surprised the News didn't follow through with an article on Hill's allegations. Both of Denver's daily papers, he claims, have become mere shills for the Webb administration on the airport project. "I don't think the newspapers have done a decent job at all" covering the airport, Buck says. "The top management in the Post and the News know that this thing has the potential for enormous corruption and public-safety questions. But they have just ignored it."

Unlike the News, Paulson was able to convince Hill to attach his name to the shoddy-work allegations. He printed Dean Hill's charges in a story that moved October 16 and quickly burned up the national wire. The next day Hill saw his mug shot in USA Today next to a headline that read "Another blow for Denver airport." The article was peppered with inflammatory charges, quoting Hill as saying that DIA workers routinely ignored safety problems in the rush to get the airport done on time. "Everything was based on the schedule," Hill told Paulson. "If a contractor got behind, they'd let them get by with murder."

The only problem with the story, Denver city officials contend, is that Hill's allegations aren't true. The city scrambled to respond, setting up meetings between Hill and top airport-construction officials over the course of the next two weeks. Airport officials sent Hill copies of Concourse C blueprints so he could point out specific problems, but Hill never got back to them. The city even spent $7,500 on an outside firm, Olson Engineering Inc., which X-rayed walls and support columns in an investigation of Hill's most serious claims.

In the end, the city says, none of Hill's charges could be substantiated. "We've failed to find any validation of the concerns Mr. Hill raised with us," says Mike Musgrave, director of the public works department.

Both the Post and the News, meanwhile, reacted warily to Hill's charges. Editors at both publications kept Paulson's story out of their October 17 editions. The following day, Kevin Flynn of the News and the Post's Patrick O'Driscoll reported Hill's apparently odd behavior in his dealings with Denver's district attorney. In the weeks since his July 5 meeting at Ritter's office, both reporters noted, Hill had declined to hand over evidence supporting his allegations. Hill, both papers said, complained that Ritter's people had been "too pushy."

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