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Big Boss Lady

CRL knows how to buy friends and influence people.

For his most recent fight, Hannifin says CRL mainly provided him with advice on how to frame his arguments during public forums and helped him set up meetings where he could make his pitch to planning officials and councilmembers. "I didn't even know who was on the zoning committee," says Hannifin. "It's a whole realm that a lot of people are unaware of."

City planning officials deny that their opposition to rezoning Colfax had anything to do with CRL. "I never had any contact with Maria Garcia Berry about this issue," says planning-program manager Ellen Ittelson. Ittelson thinks Colfax on the Hill misinterpreted her staff's effort to be helpful as an endorsement of the proposal and adds that the city won't support a rezoning unless there's overwhelming support for such a change.

Instead, Geller believes that CRL created an illusion of widespread opposition to the rezoning by having employees of Ready Temporary Services gather hundreds of signatures against it. "They convinced the council there was a lot of controversy over this, when in reality, there are only two or three property owners resisting this," he insists. "It was spin-doctored to death."

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.

But CRL hasn't won all of its battles. Garcia Berry represented Diamond Cabaret owner Bobby Rifkin in an effort to lower the minimum age for strippers in Denver from 21 to 18. That bill was passed by city council but vetoed by the mayor. The firm also failed to stop the council from approving new restrictions on the sale of spray paint in Denver, an anti-graffiti ordinance that was opposed by local paint stores.

The firm has declined to represent several companies that asked it to lobby on their behalf, says Garcia Berry, including a for-profit chain of juvenile detention facilities. One source claims that Garcia Berry frequently tells potential clients she won't be able to take them on unless Mayor Webb gives his okay, but Garcia Berry says that's nonsense.

"We've never done that," she insists.

Still, her power is unprecedented, and it's spreading. Garcia Berry is now taking on issues in Aurora, Lakewood and Colorado Springs, where she is working on behalf of the school district.

While some might view her as a poster girl for the American dream -- a Cuban-born woman from a modest background who has established a formidable presence in city government -- others believe she is corrupting civic life in Denver, bringing wealthy clients to closed-door meetings in city hall and blurring the divide between public and private interests.

"What I find so terrible is that a firm like CRL can flip on both sides, working for the city and for private industry as well," says Geller. "These people are way too close to city council and way too close to the administration. It's very dangerous. We can't afford to have a lobbying group running the city."

But Garcia Berry claims that much of the carping about her influence is simply coming from envious competitors. She says few people are willing to work as hard as CRL does to win, and that's the real source of her success.

"Most of the people who criticize me are people I've beaten," she says with a smile.

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