Off Limits

Belly up to the barbecue: Three years after local uranium magnate turned po' boy Oren Benton first filed for bankruptcy, lawyers and accountants still have their snouts buried in his estate. And, man, is the eatin' good. Featuring hundreds of millions of dollars in debts and an international cast of creditors that includes Russian and Chinese uranium traders and the Union Bank of Switzerland, Benton's collapse is the largest and most complex bankruptcy ever filed in Colorado. And the leftovers have proven irresistible to American professionals who specialize in sorting out other people's economic woes--and then taking their cut off the top. A while back, the feeding frenzy in the Benton case got so out of hand that chief bankruptcy judge Charles Matheson actually hired the silk-stocking law firm of Holland & Hart (the Fat Man) and assigned it to keep its fellow carnivores from completely devouring the estate (the Buffet). Records show the Fat Man (and other members of the fee review committee) already have reduced raids on the Buffet by approximately $689,000. But at last word, roughly half that savings had been wiped out by the fee police billing at least $350,000 for their own services. And according to the latest fee-application report filed last week at U.S. Bankruptcy Court, despite the Fat Man's best efforts, the Buffet is still open for business.

Leading the pack of ravenous customers is the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse, which in the latest reporting period asked for $1,002,692 in fees and costs, bringing its grand total for three years of work to a staggering $6,558,518. That breaks down to an incredible $6,000 per day for the accounting firm, which hired on to be the "financial advisor" to the creditors committee--also known as people owed money by Benton. Of course, Price Waterhouse was good enough to voluntarily knock off 33 percent of its travel charges between Chicago and Denver, and geez, Judge Matheson, that ought to count for something. Next in line are the lip-smackin' lawyers at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Green & MacRae, who serve as legal counsel to the creditors committee. The LeBoeuf boys are demanding $570,000 for their latest three months' worth of work, and a total of $4.8 million for all the blood, sweat and tears they've poured into the case. And, gosh, Judge, the Fat Man has already made them put back that extra $9,136 they asked for because of "billing errors." Rounding out the Salivatin' Three is the law firm of Lindquist, Vennum & Christensen, attorneys for Benton himself. Their order: a mere $1,960,000, waiter, and bring us an extra lobster bib, would you, my good man?

The deadline for parties in the Benton case to object to the latest round of fees is March 9, but don't expect to hear many storms of protest amidst all the slurping and snorting. So far about the only person who's raised a peep about the communal pig-out is Benton himself, who last April tried to pitch a deal under which he'd borrow money and buy his own assets out of bankruptcy in order to funnel more money directly to creditors. That plan got shot down because of doubts about Benton's ability to come up with the cash, though he's already working on making his next billion with a new company. Having more luck are Price Waterhouse and LeBoeuf, Lamb, who last August successfully sold a plan under which the accounting firm will liquidate Benton's remaining assets and the law firm will represent the liquidating trust. Translation: Keep that grill fired up, Judge--there'll be more good eatin' in the months to come.

Speaking of friends of bills, Patton Boggs, the high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm where former commerce secretary and Clinton pal Ron Brown once got big bucks to blow Denver's horn as a paid lobbyist, continues to perform faithful service for city taxpayers. According to records on file at the city auditor's office, the city council's vote last month to fork over another $790,000 to Patton Boggs for its work on the Shattuck Chemical suit (and countersuit) brings the law firm's grand total in city business over the past six years to more than $7 million. That includes payments for work on the Lowry landfill and the Shattuck mess, as well as plenty of D.C. power-lobbying back in the go-go years of the Pena administration. But it doesn't take into account a $200,000 contract approved last summer to help guide DIA officials through the maze of environmental regulations necessary to build such projects as sixth runways, air trains and terminal hotels.

The firm (previously Patton, Boggs & Blow, but he blew) once was known around these parts for its rich tastes. For example, a billing statement from 1994 shows that the attorneys charged up to $200 per hour for such work as meeting with the city officials who'd hired them and for reviewing newspaper articles. (Our favorite: an April 8, 1994, entry demanding $175 for a meeting with City Attorney Dan Muse "regarding confidentiality and what Lowry information to provide to the press.") But the firm's gone on a diet since then, says Assistant City Attorney Lee Marable, who's overseeing the new DIA contract. Marable notes that, unlike past contracts, the airport job includes strict limits on charges for travel and meals; it even forces the firm to pay for its own faxes. Not only that, but Marable says the unexpected derailing of the Air Train in the recent Guide the Ride vote has led him to scale back the amount of work Patton Boggs is likely to do at DIA, leading to a corresponding decrease in billable hours. Says Marable of the firm's $200,000 deal: "I'd be real surprised if it exceeded $50,000."

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