By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
At sentencing, Handley attempted to object to what he considered an improper, off-the-record meeting between judge and prosecutor, with no defense counsel present. Hufnagel cut him off.
"This is my case, Mr. Handley," she snapped. "Please tell me if you have any additions or corrections."
Hufnagel gave Gurle thirty years. Handley concedes that it was Hufnagel's prerogative to keep the case and that the sentence fell within the guidelines for the offense. "She's right, it was her case," he says. "But I can't imagine being able to approach Judge Hufnagel and say, 'Can I talk to you in private about this case?' No way. I told her I was real concerned about this ex parte [one-sided] communication. Unfortunately, I was shouted down."
The Gurle case is now on appeal.
A trial judge hears hundreds of cases a year, and even the best of them suffer their share of reversals. But certain controversial decisions have a way of haunting a judge long after the matters at hand have dropped out of the headlines. Lance Ito will always be known as the judge who let the O.J. Simpson case careen out of control. Richard Matsch's stock will rise or fall depending on what happens in the Oklahoma City bombing trial. And Lynne Hufnagel may ultimately be remembered, not for giving Quintin Wortham 376 years, but for sentencing Denver's Yellow Cab company to almost three years in the custody of attorney Karen Mathis.
Her critics point to the Yellow Cab debacle as Exhibit A in the case against Hufnagel. No other matter before her has prompted such a wide range of charges leveled at the judge--charges of abuse of authority, bias, secret communications, unconscionable delays, high-handed and ruinous decision-making--or stirred up such a staggering array of lawsuits and unresolved questions in its wake. Hufnagel's handling of the civil case, which began as a relatively minor dispute over seating a board of directors, earned her the lasting enmity of hundreds of Denver cabbies and stinging rebukes from two federal judges, and the aftershocks of her decisions are still being felt in the city's legal community.
"It was like a kangaroo court," says Alan Cowley, a Yellow Cab driver who was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "We went to court over an election dispute, and we lost the company. I feel terribly robbed."
In 1991 Cowley and other drivers for the Yellow Cab Cooperative Association filed suit against a rival faction, claiming fraud and improper conduct in the election of YCCA's board of directors. The company, which had been purchased by the drivers and operated as a cooperative since 1978, had a long history of financial mismanagement and political infighting among various groups within the organization. By the luck of the draw, the case was assigned to Judge Hufnagel's courtroom.
After several days of tense, packed hearings, the parties still hadn't reached agreement as to who was going to run the company. Hufnagel's way of settling the argument was to appoint a temporary receiver to manage YCCA's assets. The person she chose for the job was Denver attorney Karen Mathis, who'd overseen dozens of other receiverships and had worked as an officer of Hufnagel's court before in a guardian ad litem proceeding.
Several drivers say they were "shocked" by Hufnagel's decision. Receiverships are usually instituted in foreclosure actions, to protect a secured creditor's interest and pay off debts in an equitable manner. YCCA had a mountain of debt, but no creditor had requested a receiver; nor had the drivers. Yet none of the parties formally objected to Mathis's appointment at the time, since they figured she would only be around long enough to conduct a fair election of a new board of directors.
They were mistaken. Although the receiver had never run a cab company before, Hufnagel's order gave Mathis extremely broad powers to manage YCCA, including the ability to hire and fire, to sell assets and to pay creditors or leave them hanging. It also allowed her to hire her own law firm to assist her in running the business. With Mathis's personal legal meter ticking at $170 an hour and a bevy of other attorneys on board to help the beleaguered cabbies through their crisis, it wasn't long before the Mathis Law Firm was extracting an average of $10,000 a week from the financially strapped company. And nothing could stop the hemorrhaging but another order from Judge Hufnagel--an order that was never issued.
The drivers soon figured out that their company no longer belonged to them. Under Mathis's supervision, a new board of directors was elected in July 1991, three months into the receivership, but they were allowed to serve only in an advisory capacity; Judge Hufnagel refused to seat them, saying they weren't "ready" yet. At the same time, Mathis set about implementing a new driver's contract that many YCCA members considered ruinous; those who refused to sign were fired, including one of the new boardmembers. Most of the fired drivers owned their own cabs and took their business to competing taxi companies, a move that had a significant impact on the size of YCCA's fleet and its revenues.