BLANK CHECK

At the moment, Westword may be responsible for the only positive revenue stream at Denver's $5 billion new airport.

That's because we pay the city's Airport Revenue Fund $1.25 for each piece of paper we are allowed to see regarding the fees paid to private legal firms retained by the Denver city attorney's office. With about $15 million collected by outside attorneys over the last three and a half years, and those attorneys being typically long-winded, if vague, in accounting for their time, that adds up to a lot of paper. And so far, each piece offered for purchase has been carefully perused by the city attorney's office to insure that any scrap of potentially embarrassing information has been blacked out by a highly trained, high-paid pen. But when the copying is thrown in, a buck and a quarter suddenly seems like quite a deal--particularly after you read the page and learn how much the city has forked over for similar services.

Exhibit A: The statements submitted by Debevoise & Plimpton, which include such items as a legal assistant's bill for ten hours--at $116 an hour--to "copy materials for attorneys, review and index files, begin breakdown of index by document; review BLANK files and index." Some copying here, some indexing there--pretty soon you're talking about a million dollars going to a New York law firm to defend Denver against an "informal inquiry" by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Keep that Magic Marker handy: Last week the U.S. Attorney's office--representing the Department of Transportation and independent auditors for the FAA--also requested copies of Debevoise & Plimpton's bills, the better to determine whether funds intended for the airport were instead diverted to a private firm fighting an investigation by another federal agency.

If the city truly has nothing to hide, why not give the feds keys to the office, explain how the copier works and let them figure things out for themselves? And let them share their copies with the Inspector General's office, which three weeks ago asked the city for, among other things, records of payments made to local firms Irizarry & McCall and Bookhardt & O'Toole.

Irizarry & McCall was the focus of John Ferrugia's series last fall on Channel 7, which reported that the firm's work on the city's minority contracting program had been paid--perhaps illegally--out of airport funds. Presumably, the IG's office received paperwork that appeared less like a censored porn-movie script than the material made available to Westword last week. Like the Debevoise & Plimpton invoices, these include charges for such services as "preparation of package for M. Eddy of the Denver Post" (you'd think the city could at least do its own clipping for reporters), as well as such titillating entries as "Review of District Court Opinion and preparation of chart showing BLANK BLANK BLANK BLANK BLANK BLANK." (The last two scribbled-out words are "District Court"--dangerous stuff, indeed.)

The Bookhardt & O'Toole billings offer their own intriguing gaps: "10/31/94: Research BLANK. 11/01/94: Research BLANK. 11/01/94: Research BLANK. 11/01/94: Review BLANK. 11/02/94: Research BLANK. 11/02/94: Research alternate means of home office overhead. 11/03/94: Work on briefs. 11/03/94 Research briefs. 11/7/94: Legal research re: BLANK BLANK BLANK BLANK." What the IG hopes to find in these records is difficult to determine. Apparently it's not the $840 billed on June 14, 1994, for the seven hours spent to "research libel against Caplis et al."--that item appears in full even in Westword's censored copies. Dan Caplis, of course, is the lawyer-turned-journalist who first suggested that Denver's bond sales might have violated SEC regulations because they failed to divulge problems with the baggage system.

Ah, yes, that balky baggage system. With just a week to go until Denver International Airport opens, there must be special BLANKety-BLANKs in hell reserved for how the city feels about the fabulous, absolutely automated baggage system that managed to queer the whole deal. How badly won't be certain until DIA opens and the first undamaged suitcases arrive. In the meantime, however, we can content ourselves with reading between the lines of the bills submitted by Gelt, Fleishman & Sterling, which represented the city in its recent negotiations with BAE and United Airlines. Here again, the law firm provides a convenient clipping service, charging $437.50 on July 26 for "legal research--computer search for articles about United and DIA for statements by United officials." Those statements could account for why the black pen starts working overtime in early August, when Mayor Wellington Webb announced he would not set a fifth official airport-opening date until he knew the baggage system was operational. On August 5, for example, the firm bills for "review and analysis of city charter BLANK BLANK BLANK." Three days later, it's "Review concessionaires' contract. Draft memo re BLANK BLANK BLANK BLANK." But for the bills from September, by which point the SEC had started sniffing around, the city sets aside its pen for such feel-good notes as this one from September 14: "Meet at L. Marable's office [the city attorney in charge of airport legal matters] to discuss issues prior to investors' call, participation in investors' call, and conversation with M. Musgrave and L. Marable concerning pending issues with BAE and UAL."

Just how much does the public have a right to know? Citing lawyer-client confidentiality, City Attorney Dan Muse, who was appointed to his position by Webb, now contends that his clients are the mayor and city council, not the taxpayers and electorate. That interpretation, however, does not sit well with First Amendment experts and journalists, including Metro State College professor James Brodell; he suggests calling 911 rather than an attorney. If citizens are denied access to public records, Brodell says, it's a clear violation of Colorado's Open Records Act and a potential misdemeanor charge against Denver's city attorney--if Denver's district attorney would actually take such a case.

When airports fly.

 
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