By Michael Roberts
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It cost Denver taxpayers $700 to have Lance Allrunner arrange a secret ghost-busting ceremony at Denver International Airport last month. But the way Allrunner sees it, it was money well spent.
Allrunner, a 26-year-old Denver resident, traveled by car to the Cheyenne Indian reservations in Oklahoma and Montana earlier this year as an emissary of Denver mayor Wellington Webb. His mission: to confer with leaders of the tribe about ancient spirits allegedly agitated during the construction of DIA.
Rumors that the new airport was built atop a Native American burial ground have circulated for years, though copious archaeological research has never found any evidence to support them. What's more, a group of Indians already blessed the airport in a religious ceremony eight years before. But Allrunner, a volunteer member of the city's "DIA Spiritual Resolution Committee," says it was best not to take any chances. Allrunner, who is part Cheyenne, succeeded in convincing representatives of the Montana Cheyenne to come to DIA and calm the Indian ghosts in a nighttime ritual conducted on Easter weekend.
"Whenever [spirits] are disturbed, it seems like bad things come about," Allrunner says. "I was thinking about the safety of people."
Reimbursement for Allrunner's travel costs, records show, came from the Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations, an obscure branch of city government that has engendered more than its share of controversy in the past year.
The stated mission of HRCR is to make sure City Hall has a human face--and, in the words of its director, to take care of "the most vulnerable of Denver's citizens." But critics of the agency, including former employees, say that under the current administration, HRCR has been plagued by mismanagement, political cronyism and spending that has ranged from the wasteful to the simply bizarre.
"The whole agency stinks," says Michelle Mobley, a former Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) worker assigned to HRCR last summer.
Last year Webb transferred responsibility for the federally funded "Weed & Seed" anti-crime program from HRCR to another city department after residents charged that the initiative was being mismanaged. But complaints about the program have persisted. Just last week, former HRCR employee Sue Weinstein went public with allegations that her colleagues at Weed & Seed had been hired on the basis of their ties to Webb and were more concerned with serving the mayor than with fighting crime in city neighborhoods.
In March, KMGH-TV/Channel 7 revealed that a block captain in HRCR's Neighborhood Watch program had been indicted by a federal grand jury for drug trafficking. Around the same time, Westword reported that an HRCR anti-crime coordinator active in the Webb campaign had been arrested three times in the past twelve years.
Larry Borom, the former head of the Denver Urban League whom Webb appointed to head HRCR in 1993, says the agency does a good job overall. "We serve as a liaison between the city and the citizens," Borom says. "That's what makes the city a human place--a place that cares about its citizens."
And some Denver residents say they are truly thankful for HRCR. Highland neighborhood resident Russ Tarver, for instance, says the agency helped him get a handicapped parking space in front of his home after he suffered a stroke a few years ago.
But even Tarver, who sits on the board of his neighborhood association, voices frustration with the agency. When he went back to HRCR last year to get Neighborhood Watch materials translated into Spanish for Highland's Hispanic residents, he says, staffers were rude and uncooperative. "They didn't want to help," Tarver says. "They didn't want to do anything."
Webb's political opponents, including supporters of Mary DeGroot, Webb's challenger in the mayoral election, go even further, charging that the agency has been used as a taxpayer-funded auxiliary of the Webb campaign. HRCR is "real good at promoting supporters of Mayor Webb, in my opinion," says city councilman Ted Hackworth, a longtime Webb foe. "That's its main purpose."
Founded in 1948, HRCR has grown into an umbrella agency whose official goals couldn't be loftier. The current city ordinance authorizing HRCR says its purpose is to provide "an equal opportunity for citizens of Denver to participate fully in the economic, cultural and intellectual life of the city."
The agency attempts to do that by supervising nine different offices and commissions, each with separate responsibilities. There's the Commission on Youth, which oversees programs for city teenagers and runs the Neighborhood Watch anti-crime program. There's the Public Safety Review Commission, which hears citizen complaints of police brutality. There's the Office of Citizen Response, intended to serve as a general governmental troubleshooter for Denver residents and help them negotiate the bureaucratic maze of City Hall.
Borom says HRCR offices like the Denver Women's Commission are important, even in an era when voters are railing against government waste and public spending is being cut to the bone. "For the cost that you pay, you get a very high-quality product--a distilled sense of where the problems are" for women in the city, Borom says. "It's a really important function to empower the women in the community. And no one else does that."
Much of that "empowerment," however, comes in the form of referral services and discussion groups. And many of the services HRCR provides are targeted for public employees rather than Denver residents as a whole. The Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Office, for instance, exists primarily to help ward off and mediate disputes between City of Denver workers and their managers, Borom says. (Glen Legowik, an employment law analyst for the city's Career Service Authority, says the CSA has provided a nearly identical service "for years.")
Women's Commission director Chaer Robert says she spends a significant portion of her time running the "City Women Partnership Project," an employees' group that holds monthly seminars examining the city's role as an employer of women.
"It's good for morale," Robert says. "It's good for a sense of team spirit and community service."
Martha Daley, director of the Office of Child Care Initiatives, says one of her primary responsibilities is to provide child-care referral services for city workers--even though the Work and Family Resource Center, a Denver nonprofit agency, already provides a similar service for free. "Every single [major] employer in the country does something in terms of child care," Daley says. "Every single one. It's not anything odd."
Not every HRCR client raves about the agency, however. Eva Jean Ford--whom Daley actually recommended that Westword call as a reference--says the office did little to help her get out of her own child-care quandary.
Ford, a divorced Denver General Hospital nurse, is raising her two granddaughters, ages six and nine, on her own. Deciding that she needed help with her substantial child-care costs, she contacted Daley this year after reading a letter the director had written to the Denver Post urging the federal government to increase public support of child-care services. "They weren't able to help me with anything," Ford says. "I got all excited [after seeing Daley's letter], but then I got a letdown."
Daley remembers her encounter with Ford in a more positive light. Her agency, she says, helped Ford by referring her to the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program and another program run by the Mile High United Way. "In essence, we could sympathize with this woman, whose situation is not unusual," Daley says.
But Ford says she didn't get anywhere with the agencies Daley sent her to, and she never was able to locate help. "I just got lost in the system after I left her," Ford says. "It wasn't nothing positive, really."
Critics question more than just the efficiency of HRCR. They also charge that the agency is packed from top to bottom with political supporters of Mayor Webb--from its commissioners and directors all the way to outside consultants and low-level staff. "All [HRCR] is is a nice little place to put Webb's pals," says Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas, a supporter of DeGroot.
Francie Miran, for instance, whom Webb appointed to a $50,000-a-year job as director of HRCR's Commission on Aging, doubles as the chair of the Denver County Democratic Party. Last fall Miran raised eyebrows when she helped engineer an unorthodox scheme to funnel money from Webb campaign contributors to state legislative candidates. She also was accused of using the local party machinery to boost Webb, despite being sworn to support all Democrats (including DeGroot) equally. Miran insisted that she bends over backward to be fair to all candidates from the party ("Us vs. Dem," February 8).
Chet Whye, whom Webb appointed to an unpaid post on the Public Safety Review Commission, is a strident Webb booster. Whye, who writes an op-ed column for the Denver Post, has used it to cheer the mayor's campaign. "This man has earned re-election," Whye wrote recently. (Whye stepped down from the PSRC in April, citing conflicts of interest between that post and his work as a civil-rights activist.)
Last fall, HRCR hired Webb supporter Ramon Del Castillo as a $100-an-hour consultant to perform "Cultural Competency Training" at an agency staff retreat. Del Castillo, a poet and civil-rights activist, says the purpose of the seminar was to help the HRCR staff "move from diversity to competency" and "build some awareness and sensitivity" about cultural differences that divide people. He says he used an "interactive model," getting staff members to "share an ethnic part of themselves" with the rest of the group. "We also covered a variety of different `isms'--racism, sexism, ageism," Del Castillo says.
Another outside contractor for HRCR has been NEWSED, a nonprofit community-development agency that is one of Webb's most important bases of support in the Hispanic community. NEWSED received almost $3,400 from the city in 1993 to perform a "job-readiness and training program for ex-offenders" under an HRCR anti-crime program.
Carlos Guerra, a former NEWSED employee whom Borom named head of the Weed & Seed program in 1993, spends much of his spare time working for the Webb campaign. Alvertis Simmons, one of several Neighborhood Watch coordinators working under Commission on Youth director John McBride, is a Webb campaign operative who regularly shows up at parades, debates and other political events to cheer for the mayor and razz the opposition. (Last week Simmons made news when he charged that blacks weren't allowed to ask questions at a Webb-DeGroot debate.)
Two of Guerra's underlings, Weed & Seed coordinators Jim Dadiotis and Eric Willis, also have indirect ties to the Webb administration. Willis's father is a close friend of Borom's. And Dadiotis is the son of Takis Dadiotis, one of Webb's staunchest supporters in the Greek community. In March, Jim Dadiotis was among three dozen angry Greek Americans who stormed DeGroot's campaign office after she demanded that Denver County Court Judge Andrew Armatas step down from the bench. (Armatas, who is of Greek descent and whom Webb named chief judge of the court in January, filed for bankruptcy March 3, owing almost $275,000 in back taxes.) Dadiotis told the Rocky Mountain News he didn't attend the protest for political reasons. "I was Greek a long time before I knew Wellington Webb," Dadiotis said.
Sue Weinstein, the former Weed & Seed worker, wrote in a recent letter to local media that politics undermined the integrity of that program. Weinstein didn't name names in her letter and declines further comment. But she wrote in the letter that she "experienced first-hand the use of friends and political supporters in positions that they were...not qualified for.
"These...staffers were hired not because they had the appropriate qualifications and experience for the positions, but rather because they had strong ties with the mayor on a variety of levels," Weinstein wrote. "Their first priority is not to serve the communities they were hired to work in. Instead, their first priority is to make sure that the mayor is well `looked after.'"
Michelle Mobley, the former VISTA volunteer, voices similar complaints. "Webb has taken [tax dollars] and squandered them taking care of his buddies," she says. Mobley was assigned to work with Commission on Youth staffers last summer but says she "never did figure out what our purpose was.
"We didn't do anything," says Mobley, who eventually quit the VISTA program. "I'm still gnashing my teeth about my experience."
But Borom denies that HRCR is populated with political hacks. "I think it's an unfair criticism," Borom says. People like Guerra, Dadiotis and Simmons, he points out, are not political appointees. All, he says, were hired through the normal, merit-based career-service process. Borom says Weinstein's letter, which appeared on the editorial page of the Rocky Mountain News last week, is "not an accurate depiction" and is "really misleading."
"When you look at this agency, you've got some very well-qualified people," Borom says. "Whatever else you might say about them, they're very competent."
Competent or not, a review of public records shows that a number of people connected with HRCR have had run-ins with the police and the tax man.
Annie Slaughter, for instance, the $45,000-a-year director of HRCR's Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Office, owes the State of Colorado more than $4,000 for unpaid taxes dating back all the way to 1983, according to a 1993 tax lien filed with the Denver Clerk and Recorder's office. Slaughter did not return a phone call seeking comment.
That's nothing compared with Johnnie Williams, an unpaid block captain in HRCR's Neighborhood Watch program. Federal authorities allege in court records that the city crime fighter stood at the center of a well-organized cocaine distribution ring that masqueraded as a legitimate business enterprise known as "T.R.I.P.S." According to a transcript of a wiretapped conversation between Williams and his alleged co-conspirators, on file at U.S. District Court, Williams even bragged that he was virtually immune from prosecution.
"I ain't going to jail for nobody, unless I kill somebody," Williams said during the conversation, recorded last summer. "Even if they tie me into some shit, I'm smart enough to get off on it." If convicted, Williams could face life in prison and a $4 million fine.
Williams's simultaneous indictment and involvement in Neighborhood Watch were first reported by Channel 7 reporter Julie Hayden. When Hayden questioned Borom, the HRCR director told her he was aware of the charges against Williams, and he defended Williams's role in the Neighborhood Watch program.
"In general, is a person who is under federal indictment for drug dealing the kind of person you want as a block captain?" Hayden asked him.
"I think you have to say that when a person is under indictment, they have not been convicted of anything," Borom replied. "We might indict anyone." (Borom now says that block captains are elected by neighborhood residents--not chosen by HRCR. "We don't screen the people," he says. Borom adds that he has "no idea" whether Williams is still involved with the Neighborhood Watch program.)
Alvertis Simmons, another HRCR crime watchdog, has been arrested three times in the past twelve years ("Arrested Development," March 29). Simmons receives a taxpayer-funded salary of more than $28,000 a year.
Simmons's first arrest occurred in 1983, when he was caught shoplifting at the Target store in Glendale. Denver police arrested him again in 1988 and charged him with assault. All the court records relating to that incident have been destroyed, but Simmons says it involved allegations of domestic violence. His most recent arrest came on New Year's Day, 1994, when a police officer found him yelling at his wife outside their home and charged him with disturbing the peace. Records show the city later decided it couldn't prove its case and dropped the charges. "I was exonerated," Simmons says.
Webb press secretary Briggs Gamblin says that in many ways, Simmons is an "ideal person" for his Neighborhood Watch assignment, which involves organizing blocks in crime-ridden parts of northeast Denver, where suspicion and distrust of police run high. When Simmons talks to at-risk youth in that part of the city, "he knows the choices they're facing," Gamblin says. In fact, says Gamblin, Simmons's past encounters with the criminal justice system "give him some credibility."
Borom agrees. "Are you talking about a criminal here? No," Borom says. "I think he [Simmons] has made a lot of progress. When he's had his problems in the past, he's learned from them."
Carlos Guerra, whom Borom picked to administer Denver's $2.7 million Weed & Seed grant from the feds, also has had brushes with the law. Colorado Bureau of Investigation records show that Guerra, 42, was charged with drug possession in 1973 and arrested for violating probation twice in the following two years.
And Guerra's had other, more recent difficulties. In 1992, he and his wife, Judith, filed for bankruptcy after a school Carlos was running called the Colorado Training Institute went out of business. Records at U.S. Bankruptcy Court show the school had debts of more than $200,000, including more than $2,500 in taxes to the state and federal governments. Its assets totaled less than $43,000.
Guerra says the idea behind the school was sound: He was training homeless people for careers in the removal and transport of asbestos and other hazardous materials, a field where jobs pay as much as $17 an hour. But, he explains, like many small businesses, the institute was "undercapitalized" and couldn't keep afloat financially.
Guerra says his experience in bankruptcy court has no bearing on his performance as the city's Weed & Seed coordinator. "I think it's irrelevant," he says. Borom acknowledges that he knew of Guerra's financial difficulties when he hired him, but that he picked Guerra to run Weed & Seed anyway, because he had worked with him in the past and was confident he would do a good job. "Not only was I impressed, but everyone around him was impressed," Borom says of Guerra. "He's a high-caliber guy."
But residents of neighborhoods served by the Weed & Seed program have repeatedly complained about Guerra to Borom and other city officials, claiming he has mismanaged the program and has been difficult to work with. "None of us wanted Carlos," says one Baker neighborhood activist involved in the Weed & Seed program, "and we continue to have him shoved down our throat."
As a partial concession, Webb last year took Weed & Seed away from Borom's agency and transferred responsibility for it to Public Safety Manager Fidel "Butch" Montoya. Guerra, however, has remained on board.
Though HRCR has been around a long time, its budget has ballooned under the Webb administration. Agency spending has grown by more than 50 percent under Webb, from about $1 million when the mayor took office in 1991 to more than $1.5 million today.
Borom attributes the bulk of the increase to an expansion of the agency's workload: In the past few years HRCR has been given responsibility for the Public Safety Review Commission and the Neighborhood Watch program, which used to be run by the Denver Police Department. Other than those additions, he says, the agency's spending has remained fairly flat. "It hasn't been a big growth," Borom says.
But records show that HRCR spends thousands of dollars on services that might be viewed as less than essential.
In 1993, for instance, HRCR spent $391 on decorative African "kente strips" for "graduates" of a controversial group called Operation Reconstruction. The group, founded by convict-turned-businessman Barry Frye, professed to help steer at-risk teenagers away from gangs and into jobs. Last year, however, an Operation Reconstruction member was jailed after police busted him for having $300 worth of crack cocaine. And just last month, Orlando Domena, a former leader of the group, was arrested and charged in a drive-by shooting that left a rival gang member dead and another seriously wounded.
Last May, Francie Miran's Commission on Aging bought 469 T-shirts to hand out at its "Spring Into Health '94" conference for Denver seniors. The cost: $2,345. Denver taxpayers even footed the bill for a $24 membership for Borom in the Alliance Francaise, a group dedicated to "fostering friendly relations between the French and American peoples." Borom defends the expenditure, pointing out that Denver is home to a number of French-owned businesses. "We try to involve all the various ethnic and national communities in our work," Borom says.
HRCR staffers also have piled up expenses attending conferences and seminars. Denver taxpayers shelled out $150 so Martha Daley, head of the Office of Child Care Initiatives, could attend a conference at the Denver Tech Center organized by White Bison Inc., a nonprofit Native American organization based in Colorado Springs. The conference, according to city records, included an "Elders Talking Circle" on violence and racism and a panel discussion entitled "What Is a Man/ Woman?--Diverse Perspectives."
In May 1993 a Denver Weed & Seed neighborhood representative flew to Washington, at a cost to taxpayers of $963, to attend a conference sponsored by the National Forum on Preventing Crime and Violence. According to city records, conference guests sat in on forums titled "Looking at Violence as a Public Health Issue" and "Creating a Climate of Hope for All." The same year, Larry Borom flew to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend a five-day gathering of the National Association of Human Rights Workers. On his travel request form, Borom claimed the $1,400 trip would enhance Denver's ability to "interface with administrative civil-rights enforcement agencies."
Borom says HRCR's travel budget is insignificant compared to that of other city departments. "Our office doesn't fly a lot of people to conferences," he says. "There really isn't much travel in this department."
And not all of the trips have exactly qualified as pleasure cruises. Last July, Women's Commission director Chaer Robert traveled at public expense to the annual meeting of the National Association of Commissions on Women in Topeka, Kansas. Topics on the agenda included "Women and Depression--It's Not an Equal Opportunity Illness" and "Media--How to Get Their Attention and What They Want From Us." Robert says she hates to travel, anyway, and that Topeka is no Shangri-la. Besides, she says, she made the daylong journey to Kansas by bus to save the city money. "I will never, ever take a twelve-hour bus ride again," Robert says.
Robert acknowledges that the Women's Commission provides Denver taxpayers with a less tangible service than fire protection or garbage pickup. But she says it's valuable nonetheless. "As hard as I work," says Robert, who earns $48,700 per year, "the city gets a bargain for its money."
Lance Allrunner, the man the city sent to the Cheyenne reservations in Oklahoma and Montana earlier this year, says the value of his own HRCR-funded travel was demonstrated by what happened afterward.
Allrunner says that during his travels, he asked tribal representatives in both states to come to DIA to bless the new airport and calm any spirits disturbed during construction. The Oklahoma Cheyenne, still angry about the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, refused, Allrunner says, but leaders of the Montana Cheyenne agreed.
(Allrunner says it would have violated Native American sensibilities to call the tribes and make the request by phone. "It's not proper," he says. "It's not our way." Etiquette, he says, required that the request be made in person and be accompanied with a gift of cloth or tobacco.)
One night in April, Allrunner says, representatives of the Montana tribe quietly went out to the airport and performed a secret ceremony. (A DIA spokeswoman says the Indian leaders' trip was also financed by taxpayers, though with money from the airport budget, not HRCR.) Allrunner won't say exactly what the group did or saw, but he says it became clear that the ritual was absolutely necessary. "There were certain things that happened that let [the tribal leaders] know that whatever they did had to be done," Allrunner says. "I don't want to go too far into detail about it."
And Allrunner says he is much more at peace now that the ceremony has taken place. "I might be coming in and out of the airport one of these times," he says. "I don't want anything bad to happen.