Shelling Out

Tom Strickland's coffers bulge with funds from his law partners and their clients.

Tom Strickland has been shrugging off his connection with the law firm Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Strickland ever since he announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate last fall. But despite the campaign's efforts to distance the Democratic candidate from his livelihood, Strickland's contributions tell a different story: Money is pouring in not only from the firm but also from some of the firm's most famous--and infamous--clients.

Brownstein, Hyatt has long been associated with big political money and legislative clout. The firm's lawyers have been frontmen for such heavyweights as TCI, the Daniel Ritchie Company, United Airlines and McDonald's. In addition, back in the Eighties, members of the firm did legal work and lobbying for a number of principals and businesses--MDC Holdings, Drexel Burnham, and Silverado Savings and Loan--that were later connected to either the savings and loan crisis, the junk-bond scandal or allegations of a campaign money-laundering scheme. Strickland--a named partner in Brownstein, Hyatt who made $555,000 last year from the 6.5 percent share he controls--has tried to publicly divorce himself from the firm's activities since the race began.

"I'm running, the firm's not," Strickland said during an October interview with Westword. Norm Brownstein himself aided Strickland in his efforts. "If someone wants to make innuendo, fine," Brownstein said last fall. "But Tom isn't running as a partner in the firm."

The firm, however, has certainly honored the campaign with some hefty contributions. Attorneys employed by Brownstein, Hyatt, as well as some of their spouses, have given more than $30,000 to Strickland's campaign--a feat that caused one insider to mutter: "Those billable hours are going to be going up."

The firm's political fundraising power doesn't end with its employees. Brownstein clients including US West, TCI, Liberty Media (a TCI associate), Vestar Capital and Trillium have--through their principals, employees or political action committees--given tens of thousands of dollars more. In fact, TCI's whopping $5,000 show of support made Morrison Knudsen's levy of $1,000 look cheap. (Knudsen is the Boise, Idaho, conglomerate for which Strickland himself lobbied in 1993 and 1994--sometimes making as much as $2,700 a month from its single account.)

As of April 1, Strickland had raised over $500,000 for his campaign, dwarfing Democratic opponent Gene Nichol's total of $176,000. On the GOP side, Wayne Allard had raised $665,000 and Gale Norton had raised $387,000.

Despite Strickland's insistence that his support would come from the environmentally minded, contributors like Newmont Mining Corporation and Westmoreland Coal Company far outweigh the sprinkling of environmental dollars donated to date. Strickland's Republican opponents can barely contain their glee.

"One cannot be the environmental candidate," says Diane Rees of Norton's campaign, "and at the same time accept so much money from people who employ his firm to fight environmental regulations. He's going to have some difficulty down the road."

And in place of the traditional Democratic supporters from, say, the labor movement, is a mix of high-finance investors and, overwhelmingly, lawyers and lobbyists. Six members of the influential inside-the-beltway Washington lobbying firm Patton, Boggs & Blow have donated to the campaign; Frank "Pancho" Hays, the Denver lobbying king who won the tobacco industry's fight against cigarette taxes last year, chipped in as well. So did Denver lobbyists Karen Reinertson, William Dupree and several partners at the lobbying firm Greenberg, Baron, Simon and Miller.

In addition to heavy support from an industry Strickland has insisted should not be used to define him, donations have also been pouring in from people and places to which Strickland has specifically denied having any connection. Last fall Strickland wouldn't even entertain questions about Brownstein, Hyatt's ties to a number of the major players implicated in the Silverado collapse and the Drexel-Burnham scandal or about allegations that MDC Holding Companies had laundered campaign monies. "I had nothing to do with any of them," Strickland said at the time.

But Leon Black--the former head of mergers and acquisitions for Drexel Burnham--and his wife have given $2,000 to Strickland. Employees of his new firm, Apollo Advisors, have chipped in $5,000 more. Employees of developer Larry Mizel's MDC Holdings and its subsidiary Richmond Homes have given $4,000. In all, Strickland collected more than $10,000 from people and companies he claimed to have nothing to do with.

Strickland's campaign workers refuse to comment, and the candidate hasn't returned phone calls. But other candidates in the Senate race aren't silent on the issue.

"We've heard of limousine liberals," says Diane Rees, "but this is like reinventing government in a Ferrari."

Democratic opponent Gene Nichol's campaign staff, which has waged an aggressive campaign against the better-funded Strickland, throws in a jab about the implications inherent in Strickland's list of contributors.

"It's tough not to return phone calls of your former clients," says Charles Bedford, campaign manager for Nichol. "It's tougher still to ignore them if they've also given you money.

 
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