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From Locusts to Limos

By Alan Prendergast

The rise of the Tea Party

When the Tea Party first burst on the scene in Glendale five years ago -- in response to Mayor Joe Rice's effort to impose new restrictions on strip clubs -- the group was hailed in some quarters as a libertarian, grass-roots (yet well-financed) movement to keep government in its place. But as the group's core strategists have moved on to bigger challenges -- running Glendale; overseeing Central City's costly, quixotic campaign to build a more direct access road to its dwindling casinos; installing a nude-dancing-friendly city council in Sheridan -- the image of the party has changed.

The group's harshest critics tend to liken its activities to that of locusts, vultures or worse. "They bankrupted us," says Debra Krause, editor of the Weekly Register-Call in Central City, which has attacked the role attorneys Chuck Bonniwell and Brian Pinkowski and other Tea Party figures played in the access-road fiasco. "What they do isn't illegal, but it destroys lives. It's wrong."

"The Tea Party attracts two types of people," says former Glendale city manager Veggo Larsen. "Those who are easily duped, and those who are easily purchased."

Since last year's election, which gave the Tea Party a majority vote on the Glendale City Council, "All the little piggies are feeding quietly at the Glendale trough," Larsen says. The group has rewarded loyalists with appointments and pay raises. Michael Dunafon, chairman of the city planning commission, also took over Rice's council seat when the mayor's military status required him to take a leave of absence. Bonniwell has an $18,000 contract with the city to serve as special legal counsel to the planning commission. Last year Pinkowski was paid for additional consulting work -- "thrown a $5,000 bone," in Larsen's words - connected with a toxic plume that runs through Glendale ("Going With the Flow," June 10, 1999). Larsen tried to end that relationship years ago. "My statement to the council was 'Lawyers don't fix plumes,'" Larsen remembers.

The web of relationships has resulted in chronic accusations concerning possible conflicts of interest. For example, both Dunafon and Bonniwell are part-owners of prime Glendale real estate -- the Shotgun Willie's parking lot -- an investment that could be affected by the city's redevelopment plans. But Bonniwell says he doesn't see any conflict and would recuse himself from any planning-commission decisions affecting his property.

Before his termination, Larsen objected to numerous arrangements between Tea Party officials that he considered improper, but he acknowledges that the city's code of ethics allows for a broad range of interpretation. "Misconduct is defined very loosely, and the penalties aren't defined at all," he says.

City councilman Larry Harte says that the Tea Party label is "an anachronistic term" for the coalition of business leaders now active in Glendale politics. Where Larsen sees cronyism, Harte prefers to talk about "a new era of cooperation" in the town.

That so many Tea Party loyalists have become actively involved in supporting Harte and Chuck Line in their bid to join the board of the Cedar Pointe homeowners' association may be incidental, as Harte insists. It could be, as Bonniwell suggests, that "personal relationships" with people who live in Cedar Pointe are a large part of the reason that he and Pinkowski have become involved in a neighborhood dispute. But the tactics employed in the abortive board election are familiar to anyone who's followed the Tea Party's other campaigns -- particularly the use of post-dated proxies.

From its start, the party has proven skillful at mobilizing support and sewing up the vote early, to ward off any annoying change of heart that might occur late in the campaign, as opponents try to rebut the party's attacks on them. In last year's Glendale election, absentee ballots accounted for more than half of the votes cast.

"Let's face it: Glendale is not a place where voters have homes on the Mediterranean," says Larsen. "That's their strategy. They get people registered, and when the election comes up, they visit again in person, do the paperwork to request an absentee ballot, help them fill out the ballot and collect them before they're due."

The day after last spring's election, Larsen complained to Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters that more than forty of the absentee ballots submitted had been opened and resealed. Although he has no proof of tampering, Larsen suspects that "somebody was in charge of throwing away the 'bad' ones. You think the forty that were turned in were the extent of the ones that were opened?"

Peters declined to investigate the matter. But absentee ballots have also played a significant role in recent elections in Sheridan and Central City. In Sheridan, a successful recall campaign against the mayor and two city councilmembers was primarily financed by Troy Lowrie, who owns strip clubs in Glendale, Denver and Sheridan and has been a strong supporter of the Tea Party ("The Daily Grind," April 13, 2000); the recalled officials had opposed Lowrie's efforts to convert part of his All Stars Cabaret to all-nude dancing. During one recount, the recall committee brought in its legal representative: Chuck Bonniwell.

In Central City, backers of a "southern access" road to I-70 enlisted the aid of Bonniwell, Pinkowski and other Tea Party regulars. The road was supposed to be a way of bypassing Black Hawk and its stranglehold on the casino business. But the hiring of Pinkowski as interim city attorney and Bonniwell as "senior legal advisor" was so irregular that it soon prompted a lawsuit by the publisher of the Weekly Register-Call, contending that the pair was hired in violation of the city charter. Disputes over how the road campaign was handled also led to two attempts in 2001 to recall the attorneys' chief supporters on the city council. Bonniwell, an expert at thwarting recall elections as well as running them, spearheaded the effort to retain Mayor Don Mattivi and Alderman Marvin Skagerberg, and the recall was narrowly defeated.

"I thought that was quite unusual," says Ivan Widom, Central City's former city manager. "Bonniwell was an employee of the city, but he was actively supporting these people to keep them in office because that's where his support was."

Widom lost his job last May, after too many run-ins with the Tea Party faction over his criticisms concerning the costs of the southern road project. Lawsuits, lobbying fees and the thousands of dollars shelled out to Bonniwell and Pinkowski have left the revenue-strapped city with a staggering deficit, while the road remains a glimmering idea rather than a reality.

"Bonniwell told me numerous times that I wasn't a team player, that I wasn't going along with the program," Widom says. "Pinkowski was absent most of the time. He hardly ever showed up at meetings or was involved in government activities when I was there."

Mattivi and Skagerberg left office at the end of last year. Before that, Krause says, their supporters had relied heavily on absentee ballots to keep the pair in power: "I spent the last two elections and recall elections zipping up and down the street, catching them taking down signs, having people sign [ballots] on the back of Chuck's car. We've never had stuff like that before."

The group concentrated its efforts on Central City's one apartment complex. "They'd saturate that building with their newspaper and knock on every single door," Krause says. "They'd throw parties up there. They know where the votes are."

Does the Tea Party have similar designs on Cedar Pointe? Larsen offers several possible reasons that the group would devote so much energy to a lowly homeowners' association. "They want to exercise their ability to dominate small groups," he says. "Two, they want to solidify the voter base at Cedar Pointe before next April, to make sure the Tea Party candidates prevail [in the municipal election]. And, conveniently, there's a $450,000 treasury they want to get their claws into. It's chump change compared to what they did in Central City, but there's no meat left on the carcass there."

But the homeowners backing Harte and Line say that Larsen is wrong, if not delusional. "They want to make it look like there's this evil empire trying to take over the association," says Dunafon. "That's nonsense. I've told Larry and Chuck that if they get on the board, they run a bigger risk of being hated for their actions than they do of being liked. If you ask me, it's a dumb political move, especially for Larry Harte."

Why, then, bother to run at all? "Because Larry is so pissed off at [board president] Sharon Kratze for not keeping her word," Dunafon says. "It was Larry who got her elected. This is a personal issue for him."

Councilman Dunafon, usually among the most vocal and colorful of the Tea Party stalwarts, hasn't played an active role in the Cedar Pointe dispute; he has more pressing matters on his plate. In February federal agents searched a house in Castle Rock owned by Dunafon's domestic/business/political partner, Deborah Matthews, the owner of Shotgun Willie's. The search was in connection with a multi-state drug task force investigation of Rodney and Ruben Mirabal, two Aurora brothers who've been indicted in Virginia for their alleged role in distributing more than $35 million in cocaine and marijuana in cities across the country.

The Castle Rock house is the business address for Mr. Limos, a limousine service. Dunafon owns 50 percent of the business; Rodney Mirabal owns 40 percent. Drug Enforcement Administration agents suspect that Mirabal used the company as a money-laundering enterprise.

Tipsters in the industry told investigators that Mr. Limos used cash to purchase its custom stretch limos -- among them a Range Rover, a Navigator and a Mercedes, worth between $70,000 and $130,000 each. DEA surveillance of the Mr. Limos garage on various days, including nights and weekends, indicated that "rarely, if ever, were any limousines observed leaving the business." Another source in the limo business says the company was trying to cultivate trade among pro athletes, including Denver Broncos and Avalanche players, by offering them trips for rates that were well below industry standards.

Court records indicate that Ruben Mirabal and Rodney's wife, Elizabeth, were both employed by Shotgun Willie's parent company, the Bavarian Inn, at one point or another.

The investigation has caused little commotion in Glendale -- less, certainly, than last week's apparent suicide of city councilman Mike Barrett, a longtime Tea Party activist. Still, the Mr. Limos controversy has surfaced in the Cedar Pointe dispute: Recently, someone began distributing fliers in the condo complex asking residents if they want "drug dealers" to run their homeowners' association. (One version of the anonymous flier has Veggo Larsen's name on it, but Larsen denies any knowledge of the screed.)

But the Mirabals aren't running for the Cedar Pointe board. Neither is Dunafon, who hasn't even been charged in the investigation. He refers questions about Mr. Limos to his attorney, Harvey Steinberg, who says Dunafon was unaware of any cocaine ring, had no knowledge of Mr. Limos' day-to-day operations, and simply made a "bad investment decision."

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