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Go Tell It on the Mountain

For accused con man Christian Lawless Harper, a mine is a terrible thing to waste.

The Harpers' luxurious lifestyle has apparently ended, at least for the time being. They had to leave the Pagoda House and are living a more modest lifestyle in Denver, awaiting Harper's next trial date. In January Harper will be back in court, and his attorney, Chris Cross, will ask a Jefferson County judge to dismiss the two securities-fraud charges for lack of evidence. In the meantime, Harper's entrepreneurial zeal shows no signs of letting up. He's since cut a deal to sell the assets of his company to a Canadian firm that's directing a sales pitch to many of the same people who contacted him after he advertised the Argo Tunnel project. That firm plans to buy the assets of an abandoned Idaho Springs gold mill and tunnel with a familiar name: Argo.

Idaho Springs city council meetings aren't usually noted for their theatrical nature. But the show Harper put on for the council in 1994 was a four-star event, complete with a promoter flown in from Las Vegas.

"They scheduled a meeting in city hall," recalls Idaho Springs mayor Bill Macy. "They spent some money on it. There were suits from everywhere."

The presentation even included a computer-generated video showing the 1893 Argo Tunnel reborn as a mass transit system. To top it all off, legendary Las Vegas high roller Clifford Perlman, the onetime owner of the Caesars Palace casino, put in an appearance. A self-styled deal-maker who got his start selling beer-steamed hot dogs on the beach in Miami, Perlman apparently met Harper in Las Vegas and agreed to lend his name and prestige to the Argo proposal, claiming Nattem USA Inc., a company he controls, would be a major investor.

Since the proposal called for Idaho Springs to issue up to $45 million in municipal revenue bonds to fund the $50 million venture, the position of the city was critical. Macy says the council decided to take a wait-and-see attitude toward the idea.

"We're a small community without much staff," says the mayor. "We sent Harper a letter saying, 'We need proof of ownership, and you have to provide the impact study.'" Idaho Springs also told the promoters they would have to pay a $5,000 application fee.

The town never got the $5,000. Macy says the council didn't take an official position on the venture and never held public hearings. "We didn't say no and we didn't say yes," adds Macy. "We never even voted on anything."

But that didn't stop Harper from claiming that the city had made an initial commitment to issue the bonds. That claim is what led to Harper's indictment for securities fraud. Brown says his investigation into the Argo Tunnel scheme was prompted by a call from former Idaho Springs police chief Stu Nay in July 1995--about the same time Harper and his cohorts began advertising the project in the media.

"He contacted the CBI and said, 'We're concerned because they're suggesting Idaho Springs is supportive of this project and we're in some way going to assist with the project,'" recalls Brown.

Idaho Springs residents have seen hustlers come and go for more than a century, and their initial caution toward the project proved to be justified. Just a few months after Perlman made his splashy appearance, the gaming king, who sold his shares in Caesars Palace in the early 1980s after New Jersey gaming regulators issued a report suggesting he did business with reputed mobsters, was dropped from the Argo project. Harper told the news media he jettisoned Perlman after the flamboyant executive failed to come through with promised financing, a claim Perlman denied. (Perlman could not be reached for comment.)

The Argo Mine's status as a Superfund site also raised eyebrows in the old mining town. The 4.2-mile tunnel was built in 1893 to serve several mines that crisscross the rugged mountain range between Idaho Springs and Central City. A small electric ore train ran the length of the tunnel, collecting ore from a half-dozen mines that intersected the tunnel and moving it to the Argo Mill for processing. The tunnel also drained the mines of thousands of gallons of water contaminated with toxic chemicals that leached off mine tailings.

Those dangerous chemicals--including copper, manganese, zinc, arsenic and cadmium--spew out of the mine into Clear Creek in water that's flowing at a rate of 200 gallons a minute. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is now building a water-processing plant to filter the water before it contaminates Clear Creek, but the outflow would have complicated any serious effort to run a passenger train through the old tunnel.

"What you've really got is a hole in the ground with massive environmental problems," says the CBI's Brown. "But what sells is an 1893 mining tunnel--it's sexier than hell. People think the tunnel is already there and all you've got to do is put in a gondola. Harper was selling the sizzle, not the steak."

But however improbable the Argo Tunnel may seem as a site for mass transit, Harper certainly managed to get the proposal into the news. The charming promoter knew how to spin a story, and the Denver news media quickly latched on to his bizarre investment scheme. Harper has refused to talk to Westword for this story. But the suddenly mute businessman wasn't always media shy.

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