By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
With CU and Boulder spotlighted in the news hole and with the entertainment section, assembled by Leland Rucker, preserving the paper's high standards, the Daily flourished even after Dennis Dubé turned over the publisher's job to longtimer Cindy Dziekan in 1989. But in the mid-'90s, competition from new publications such as the Boulder Weekly added external pressure to the ever-present internal sort. Debate over the notion of buying a building relatively distant from downtown Boulder caused schisms as well. "Financially, it was an excellent move," says Dziekan, a certified public accountant in Boulder, "but I felt that management wasn't comfortable with supporting me on some of the decisions that needed to be made."
Dziekan says she left the Daily on her own; others argue that she jumped before she was pushed. But what's indisputable is that in 1995, Chris Harburg, who'd joined the Daily ten years earlier as an entry-level typesetter and later moved up to production director, was handed the publisher's mantle.
Under Harburg, the Daily took possession of the building that Dziekan had coveted, at 5505 Central Avenue -- a transaction that Harburg, who now lives in Pittsburgh, defends as fiscally farsighted. But it couldn't prevent advertising revenue from dwindling over the next few years. One idea to offset this downturn was to purchase a printing press, which was done in the summer of 1998 -- and even though Harburg confirms that it wasn't kept busy enough on outside printing jobs to come close to paying for itself, she believes that the revenue stream it created helped the Daily stay afloat a year longer than it otherwise might have. But increased scrutiny was also directed at the paper's editorial side in general, and Talbot in particular. Shortly after Talbot was recognized as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series of editorials he'd written about a Boulder County gang-rape trial, Pam White, who returned to the Daily in the early '90s following a several-year absence, was put in day-to-day command of the newsroom, with Talbot receiving the new title of "executive editor" as compensation.
This gesture failed to prevent future disagreements, however, and in August 1998, Talbot quit. But just before he did so, Harburg mentioned to him that she was exploring the possibility of selling the paper. In 1999, Harburg listed the paper with a newspaper broker without informing the staff (she says she took this course because a potential buyer wouldn't tender an offer until she did) and initiated an attempt to buy back B-shares from former employees. Many ex-workers interpreted this as preparation for an impending sale, and although some took the cash (most who did got a few hundred dollars), others held onto their shares out of nostalgia or because they anticipated a windfall.
Little did they know that, because of the bankruptcy, their shares would wind up being about as valuable as Confederate money.
After becoming publisher, Harburg, who says she's "pretty weak on the financial side," knew she needed someone to do the Daily's books. So she called a Boulder temporary agency and asked that some accounting pros be sent to her office. "I didn't even know what to ask them," she confesses, but she still got the sense that of the candidates who appeared, Mark Breese was the one who most obviously knew what he was doing. In Harburg's mind, "He was just what we needed. Too bad he wasn't honest."
How Breese might respond to that depiction is an open question, since his whereabouts are unknown. But there was plenty that Harburg didn't know about him. Documents on file at the Colorado State Board of Accountancy show that on November 17, 1988, Breese was stripped of his permit to practice as a certified public accountant after admitting that in 1987 he had "converted for his personal benefit funds belonging to H.W. Joint Venture in an amount exceeding $20,000 by means of his unauthorized issuance of checks" payable to himself. The previous July, Breese also had been accused of four additional counts involving embezzlement of another $40,000-plus from other businesses.
The accountancy board order gave Breese the chance to reapply for his CPA certificate in five years, but the state board has no record of him having done so. At the time of his hiring by the Daily, he was not a licensed accountant in Colorado, yet no one at the paper knew it, because no one bothered to investigate his background. This astonishing lapse was compounded when Harburg and company let Breese, the newly christened financial director, set up a bookkeeping system in which he handled funds without any oversight whatsoever. "When we were beginning to wonder about him, I started talking to people, and they told me, 'What he's doing isn't standard accounting procedure,'" Harburg says. "And I had no clue, because I didn't even know what standard accounting procedures were." To confuse matters further, Breese had risen to become president of the Daily's board of directors, meaning that this underling of Harburg's was also, in a very real sense, her boss.
Several Daily sources say Harburg's investigation into Breese began only after he, in his role as board president, began pushing for a performance review of her. But Harburg insists that her suspicions were piqued after twenty dollars turned up missing from a cash box in late 1999 -- an account corroborated by Pamela Rodriguez, who served as office manager and classified-advertising manager during her three years at the Daily. "The only people who had access to that cash box were Mark, [accounts payable manager] Dave Fritz and me -- and I knew Dave and I didn't take it," says Rodriguez. "That's when I told Chris, 'We've got a serious problem.'" Harburg spent weeks quietly making copies of Breese's books on the weekends, when he wasn't around -- and Rodriguez says what she found during these and subsequent investigations was disquieting. "There'd be checks listed in the checkbook as being for $230, and we'd get the checks back from the bank and they'd be for $2,500, made out to Mark Breese."