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.

Muse insists the city routinely engaged in closed settlements long before he took over the city attorney's job. "I haven't changed the way we do business," he says. Secrecy is an unpleasant fact of life in litigation, Muse adds: Often opposing parties won't negotiate an agreement unless the city promises to keep the terms private. Muse says he understands public distrust of sealed court files, but he says it's often the best course to follow. In the Lowry Landfill suit, he says, the secret settlement limited the city's share of the cleanup bill to 20 percent of the total, now estimated at close to $100 million. Cities in similar situations around the country often have to pay as much as 80 percent of cleanup costs, Muse claims. "I'll take the criticism" over the secrecy of the Lowry settlement, Muse says, "because it's clear to me that it was in the city's best interest."

Muse has also run into a buzz saw of controversy for refusing to make public complete invoices from Debevoise & Plimpton, the law firm he hired last fall in an effort to fend off a DIA bond investigation by the SEC. Press interest in the firm's bills was sparked by the fact that Debevoise & Plimpton ran up bills of close to $1 million in five months, even though the city has never been formally accused of any wrongdoing. Citing "attorney-client privilege," Muse refused to release any of the invoices until the city council ordered him to do so. Even then, the council accepted Muse's recommendation that the bills be heavily censored because they offered a "road map" of the city's defense strategy.

Muse's sudden hard line on the privacy of legal bills is curious, since such invoices have been made available to reporters and other members of the public through the city auditor's office for years. Westword relied on legal bills extensively in a story on DIA bond lawyers last year ("Gentleman Prefer Bonds," May 18). Journalists at both daily papers say they've routinely used the bills as sources for stories. And Muse didn't crack down on the practice until shortly after Channel 7 cited legal invoices from the firm of Bookhardt & O'Toole in a story especially embarrassing to Muse last fall. Reporter John Ferrugia revealed that the city had hired the firm to explore suing Channel 4's Dan Caplis for libel after Caplis ran a story suggesting that the city may have misled investors in DIA bonds by failing to fully disclose problems at the new airport.

Muse says it was one of his subordinates, chief airport attorney Lee Marable, who sicced Bookhardt & O'Toole on Caplis. "I didn't know anything about it," he says. But he says it's always been his policy not to give out legal bills to the press. In fact, he claims he simply didn't realize the auditor's office was making them available. "There's [been] no change in my policy," he says. "I can't account for what the city auditor did."

Muse justifies his claim of "attorney-client privilege" by saying that he considers his clients to be Mayor Webb and the Denver City Council, not the general public. Without explicit permission from the mayor and council, he says, he won't release any uncensored legal bills in the future. "I cannot be accountable to 500,000 different people," Muse says. "The city council speaks for the people who've elected them."

Muse says he loves controversy. So maybe it isn't surprising that he cites the renegotiated lease of the city-owned Winter Park ski resort as one of his biggest accomplishments in office.

The initial Winter Park deal, made public in the summer of 1993, was roundly vilified as a disaster. Virtually everyone at City Hall agreed that the old lease between Denver and the nonprofit Winter Park Recreational Association, which operates the resort for the city, was inadequate. It brought the city just $7,000 in revenue every year.

Under an initial modified agreement brokered by Muse, the WPRA agreed to begin making annual payments in the millions--money Webb hoped to spend on improvements to the city's parks system. But that contract also would have allowed the association to buy the resort outright--for what critics said was less than half of its market value. Outraged, the Denver City Council shot down Muse's first lease agreement, forcing Webb to reopen talks with the WPRA. Months later, the city reached a second agreement with the association that increased the annual rent payment to $1 million plus 3 percent of the resort's total revenues--but kept the ski area permanently in the city's hands.

Muse says he deserves credit for even getting the recalcitrant Winter Park group to the table. And he says the differences between the first agreement and the second aren't significant. "It [the second agreement] was not a dramatic improvement to the initial terms," Muse claims. "For people to say it was is not fair or accurate."

Councilman Hackworth, however, finds that statement incredible. "It proves he [Muse] shouldn't be a businessman," Hackworth says. Hackworth emphasizes that the city keeps control of the resort under the second agreement, instead of handing it over to Winter Park. "Sounds like a hell of a difference to me," he says.

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