Big Boss Lady

CRL knows how to buy friends and influence people.

Whether through luck or political savvy, Garcia Berry was directing her attention to city hall just as huge amounts of money began to be spent on bond projects. Her client Dain Rauscher was one of the chief beneficiaries of that spending, selling bonds on behalf of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and getting a big piece of the action for DIA.

Garcia Berry knew both Mayor Wellington Webb and former mayor Federico Peña from her time working in the state legislature, and she used those relationships to build up her client list. Her close ties to Webb have been especially beneficial, and Garcia Berry makes it clear that she enjoys her role of behind-the-scenes power broker.

"This work suits me," she says. "I like the complexity of what I do, the interface with government. I never get bored with my job."

Wheeling and dealing: Denver's urban landscape reflects the work of Maria Garcia Berry and her company, CRL Associates.
Wheeling and dealing: Denver's urban landscape reflects the work of Maria Garcia Berry and her company, CRL Associates.
Vanquished: Buzz Geller learned a tough lesson when he went up against CRL.
David Rehor
Vanquished: Buzz Geller learned a tough lesson when he went up against CRL.


Previous Westword articles

This State for Sale
May 13, 1999
A Westword special report on money and influence in Colorado government.

Four years ago, CRL's influence on Denver City Council prompted an outburst from councilman Ed Thomas. In a letter to then council president Debbie Ortega, Thomas said the firm's sway was "painfully obvious," and he went on to complain that CRL lobbyists routinely collected "speaker cards" -- which members of the public have to fill out before speaking at council meetings -- from the audience, summoned councilmembers from the floor for lobbying, asked council staffers for favors and moved at will through off-limits city offices and meeting rooms.

"This conduct is not acceptable and not lost on casual observers and members of the media who cover these proceedings," Thomas wrote. "Observing how that influence is publicly displayed is just painful."

Thomas doesn't regret writing the letter; he feels it pressured CRL's lobbyists to alter their behavior. "I think it had a pretty positive outcome," he says. "It changed some of the dynamics in the city council room."

At the time, Thomas was miffed at the Taubman Company, one of Garcia Berry's clients. Taubman, which owns the Cherry Creek shopping center, had angered many people in Thomas's district when it went back on a planning agreement and opted to put more retail stores on the west side of the mall.

Today Thomas says he has a much more positive relationship with CRL. He acknowledges that the firm has easy access to city council members, including himself, but he says most people who want to talk to their district council representative have no problem reaching them, either. "To me, it doesn't matter if it's Maria Garcia Berry or John Smith. If they call, I call them back," he says.

Like most of his colleagues on city council, Thomas took in large contributions for his re-election effort from firms connected to CRL. He collected $1,000 from Bruce Berger Realty Inc.; $1,000 from Forest City; $1,000 from Jim Hannifin and an additional $1,000 from his company, Ready Temporary Services; $1,000 from Mortenson; $1,000 from Post Properties; and $1,000 from CRL itself.

These same contributors ponied up equal amounts to the mayor and the other city council members. All of these companies stand out as some of the largest campaign contributors in every race.

Thomas insists that fundraising is simply a necessary evil under the present system. "As an elected official, you don't have a choice when you're trying to run a campaign. You have to raise money. One of my contributors was Maria Garcia Berry, but so were 700 other people." Thomas collected a total of $110,000 in the last election.

However, others say CRL's influence is so overwhelming that the firm is operating as a virtual shadow government at city hall.

"City council is in many respects bought and paid for by Maria," says one longtime Denver political activist who asked not to be named. "You've let a fox into the chicken coop. Before Maria, this didn't happen. All of a sudden, you had a lobbyist leave the capitol and go and create this lobbying machine in the City and County Building."

Garcia Berry's influence is directly tied to the campaign contributions she controls, says a veteran Denver lobbyist who sometimes competes with her. "Green is her favorite color, because she knows that money is the mother's milk of politics," he says. "She does a good job of spreading the money around."

City officials may be losing their ethical bearings by having such a close relationship with CRL, says another longtime city hall denizen. "You see things that are suspect, but then you get used to it and think that's the way things get done. Maria has been loyal to Wellington Webb all these years, and Webb believes in punishing his enemies and taking care of his friends."

Webb declined to comment for this story.

Garcia Berry scoffs at the idea that her influence with the mayor and city council stems from her stable of clients and their apparent penchant for making large campaign contributions. "I think it's really overblown," she says. "Just because you write somebody a $1,000 check doesn't mean you have a commitment for anything."

If the public wants money out of politics, she adds, it will have to be willing to support radical change. "Until you have public financing of all campaigns, money will be an issue. I'm not necessarily advocating public funding of campaigns, but I don't know how you get around it. You don't want the only elected officials to be people who can afford to write their own checks."

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