OPEN WIDE

This won't hurt a bit.
You've already suffered the injury, although you may not know that yet. Because by the end of January, the City of Denver had racked up $15 million in bills from all the outside attorneys it had hired over the past three and a half years to help do the work of the city attorney's office.

And if City Attorney Dan Muse has his way, another $1 million will be added this week to cover unanticipated legal fees from the New York-based firm of Debevoise & Plimpton. That's the outfit that has already run through a fast $750,000 defending Denver against an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, one of a dozen (at last count) probes into Denver International Airport.

When Debevoise & Plimpton was first hired last fall, the city assured Denver City Council that $750,000 would take the firm through March--certainly enough time to set the pesky SEC right. But three-quarters of a million dollars doesn't last long when the lead attorney on the project charges $500 an hour, the firm's paralegal bills more for sixty minutes of copying than most people earn in a day--and the SEC shows no sign of giving up.

You aren't entitled to know that, though. At the same time the city was requesting another million to throw at this law firm--just in time to see Mayor Wellington Webb through his interview with the SEC at the middle of the month--it was refusing to release the attorneys' billing statements that say what Denver taxpayers have been getting for their money.

Six months ago, such bills were considered public record. You could get copies simply by calling the Denver city auditor's office. After all, it was your money that had paid the outside firm's fees. But that was before Webb-appointee Muse took another look at the law and decided the city's decade-old system-- in place when Webb was auditor, even--was all wrong. Those bills were not public, Muse announced last September. They were protected by lawyer-client privilege.

In this stunning legal opinion, Muse overlooked one important point: that privilege is designed to protect the client, not the lawyer. The client can waive the privilege. And you are the client.

If you have ever had the misfortune to look over legal bills, you know they do not make for titillating reading. The only obscenity is usually the bottom line--arrived at by adding inflationary fees for faxes, phone calls and conferences during which several overly educated people abandon all common sense. Secret strategies? You won't find them here.

Still, as the client, you might want to see how much of your money has gone to the firm of Irizarry & McCall, which did considerable work on the city's minority-contracting program. Or how many tax dollars went to Bookhardt & O'Toole, hired by the city last year to investigate whether legal action could be taken against lawyer and KTLK talk-show host Dan Caplis for daring to say that Denver officials might have been less than honest regarding the balky baggage system in their airport bond disclosure statements.

Caplis had simply suggested what the SEC is now investigating with a vengeance--intently enough that the city considers another million in legal fees a worthwhile investment.

But Muse decided the Bookhardt & O'Toole bills, the Irizarry & McCall bills, were off-limits to the public. And why stop there? Muse determined that all outside legal bills were confidential. Because he disagreed with Muse's reading of the law, City Auditor Bob Crider (who also happens to be running for mayor against Muse's boss) asked that Muse's office approve and forward just the amount that should be paid to those outside firms, rather than send the complete billing statements, as had been customary. "I said I would not hold those back," Crider says. "Everything here is public." So today the auditor's office can give you only the totals paid to outside attorneys, $15 million doled out to such a broad cross-section of Colorado's lawyers that it's hard to find a major firm that hasn't done business with the city.

Which may be one of the reasons no one challenged Muse's decision--even though it cut through the heart of the Colorado open-records laws that the media holds so dear.

Until late last month, that is, when councilwoman Mary DeGroot--who also happens to be a candidate for mayor--asked that Debevoise & Plimpton's records, which councilmembers had been allowed to review but prohibited from discussing, be made public.

Muse refused.
It is not as though the bills spill over with highly classified material. In a letter of protest to Muse, DeGroot noted that "99 percent of the information is strictly factual, it does not reveal the client's motivations for seeking legal representation, strategies to be employed during the investigation or other confidential information...It is unreasonable to think that the legal bills in your files will do anything more than shed a little light on how three-quarters of a million dollars got spent in less than 75 days."

But reason doesn't play a strong role here.
DeGroot wasn't the only one seeking information. The federal inspector general's office has asked the city auditor for bills from Irizarry & McCall and Bookhardt & O'Toole, as well as the city's contract with public-relations specialist Hill and Knowlton, which has done such a swell job of making Denver International Airport look good in the national press. And last week, the inspector general also asked the city attorney for copies of Debevoise & Plimpton's bills.

So did Westword, first through a formal open-records request--and then in a lawsuit filed Monday in Denver District Court.

Within an hour of being served, Muse notified councilmembers that he wanted to meet with them during the recess of their regular meeting that night.

Even though Muse had protested that the Debevoise bills provide a blueprint for anyone who wants to sue the city, in executive session--which is private, of course--he now told councilmembers that wanted to make edited versions available. (Webb, as it happens, is also running for mayor this May.) And so by a 7-5 vote, councilmembers agreed to the release of the records--with names of those interviewed by the SEC and legal strategies removed. The five members who dissented pushed for fuller disclosure.

But the matter doesn't end there. Westword has requested not just the Debevoise bills--certainly the most worrisome to the city, given the SEC's interest--but all the attorneys' billing statements that were once considered public before Muse reread the law.

Open wide, Dan. This won't hurt a bit.

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