DOWN BY LAW

THE CITY'S CONTENTIOUS TOP LAWYER COURTS POLITICAL TROUBLE.SECRET AGENT DAN HE'S YOUR CITY ATTORNEY. BUT DAN MUSE SAYS YOU'RE NOT HIS CLIENT.

With Denver's city elections less than three months away, Mayor Wellington Webb may be unhappy to find Dan Muse, the man he named city attorney back in 1991, buffeted by accusations of wrongdoing and ineptitude. But he shouldn't be surprised.

Twelve years ago, during his first, unsuccessful bid for the mayor's seat, Webb himself took political advantage of the travails of then-city attorney Max Zall, an appointee of embattled incumbent Bill McNichols. Zall, critics said at the time, was too old, stale and feckless for the job. He was taking every Friday off to visit his sick wife in Arizona, and he was allowing members of his staff to do legal work on the side for private clients. Webb blasted the moonlighting policy in particular, saying it created dangerous conflicts of interest for lawyers representing the city. Zall's shortcomings, Webb said in one campaign speech, were "symptomatic of this entire [McNichols] administration."

It was an effective tactic. Though Webb didn't end up winning the race (fellow challenger Federico Pena did), his charges definitely damaged McNichols. Five days before the May 1983 election, the 82-year-old Zall resigned, saying he was "tired of being a target."

Today it's Webb who's the embattled incumbent--and Muse the city attorney under fire. Last fall the Federal Aviation Administration revealed it is investigating whether Muse improperly used Denver International Airport funds to pay city legal expenses not related to the project. Muse's decision to hire the high-priced Washington law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton to defend Denver against another airport probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission also boomeranged badly when the firm racked up close to $1 million in legal bills in the span of just a few months. Muse boiled over with frustration last week when it was revealed that the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general is looking into whether the payments to Debevoise themselves were illegally made with DIA funds. "It boggles the imagination how they can think it's wrong," Muse complained to one reporter.

More than once in the last year, Muse has drawn flak for conducting city business in secret. Councilwoman Mary DeGroot recently ripped Muse for refusing to release Debevoise & Plimpton's complete billing statements to the public. (Westword has taken Muse to court in an attempt to force him to release uncensored billing statements from the city's outside attorneys.)

Two weeks ago, Muse was on the receiving end of yet another damaging allegation. Assistant City Attorney April Snook complained that Muse had vengefully demoted her because she's an open supporter of DeGroot, one of three candidates challenging Webb this spring. "I found that outrageous," DeGroot says.

The charges come on the heels of previous controversies involving Muse, such as the 1993 flap over an alleged sweetheart lease with the city-owned Winter Park ski resort. But don't expect Muse to follow in Max Zall's footsteps and quit. Muse, 48, says he's proud of his record--and insists it will stand up to scrutiny from federal investigators, the media and those seeking to unseat Webb.

"I welcome any analysis of what I've done in this office, because I've done an excellent job," Muse says. "If the mayor's political opponents want a whipping boy during the campaign, they've come to the wrong place."

When Dan Muse was growing up in Columbus, Ohio, his parents sent him to Eastmoor High School, where, he says, he was one of only a handful of black students and a regular target of racist barbs from classmates. It was excellent training, he says, for his current job. "I got shit shoveled at me every day when I was twelve years old," Muse says. "That was tough. This [being city attorney] is real easy by comparison. I can handle this doing the backstroke."

Muse was selected as Denver's top lawyer in August 1991, a month after Webb took office. The public was told he was chosen on merit alone--picked by a special Webb task force that had scoured the city to find the best possible talent to fill the new mayor's eight-person cabinet. That task force, according to the Denver Post, was "designed to keep cronyism from tainting the selection process."

But, in fact, Muse was an old friend of Webb's. Back in the early 1970s, shortly after his graduation from the University of Denver law school, Muse managed two of Webb's campaigns for the Colorado legislature. What's more, the chair of the "cronyism-free" committee that selected Muse was local attorney Tyrone Holt, a Webb campaign aide whose law firm almost immediately thereafter was given lucrative legal work on the bond-underwriting team for Denver International Airport.

Muse came to the city job with a mix of private and public legal experience. Early in his career, he was a law partner of King Trimble, a political ally of Webb's who'd served in the state legislature (and later, like Holt, as a DIA bond counsel). Muse then entered government service, working as a state assistant attorney general for several years before being appointed to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in 1979. He served as a commissioner for five years before stepping down and going back into private practice, where he specialized in utility and small-business law.

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