The Message

Vision Quest

How incestuous is the relationship between the Denver business community and the local media? Recent events in the life of one Eugene Dilbeck provide plenty of clues. On November 4, Dilbeck was sacked as president and CEO of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, following a Channel 7 package that, among other things, purported to show employees of the organization attending a mixer at the Diamond Cabaret, whose menu offers drinks, appetizers and a fulsome supply of bare breasts. In a November 6 Rocky Mountain News article co-written by business editor Rob Reuteman, Dilbeck bemoaned his dismissal and made disdainful remarks about Denver Business Journal publisher Scott Bemis, who's slated to become the bureau's next board chairman. Then, that same day, the bureau staged its annual membership meeting, emceed by none other than...Rob Reuteman.

In some ways, the meeting felt like a variation on Big Brother, with all of the principals assembled in a confined space (the Continental Ballroom at the Westin Tabor Center) after voting out one of their cohorts. Concern lurked beneath the surface, but smiles were on prominent display. So, too, was the bash's slogan, "The New Vision for Denver," which, given the role a strip club played in Dilbeck's downfall, took on a meaning that city boosters probably didn't anticipate.

Nonetheless, Tony Kovaleski, the Channel 7 investigator whose piece on the bureau set events in motion, and Byron Grandy, the station's news director, contend that their story wasn't really about naked flesh. "A lot of people are losing focus as to what the true story is," says Kovaleski. "It's about public accountability." Adds Grandy, "We had discussions about making sure we didn't overplay the strip-club portion or make that element of the story any longer than it needed to be to make the point. It was merely an example of why we felt any organization receiving the amount of public funds they do ought to be more accountable."

Mark Poutenis

Perhaps, but the offering in question, which aired October 30 on the cusp of the sweeps ratings period, frequently referred to establishments specializing in naughty bits. In their introduction, anchors Mike Landess and Anne Trujillo briefly mentioned the mission of the visitors bureau before raising issues about how the organization was spending its money. In tossing to Kovaleski, Landess said, "Accountability and a strip club -- explain that, Tony."

Instead of doing so directly, Kovaleski emphasized that the bureau "refuses our requests to open its books, to explain how it's spending your tax dollars" in advance of the taped presentation, which kicked off with the reporter sitting across from current bureau board chairman Walter Isenberg. He asked Isenberg if it would be acceptable for the bureau to buy sporting-event tickets, trips to Europe or cases of wine -- luxuries purchased by agencies in Cleveland and Dallas that were highlighted by local TV exposés in those cities. He next inquired about the propriety of "spending money in strip clubs," but before Isenberg could reply, the image froze and Kovaleski said, "Wait. First a little background."

Tourism-oriented footage followed, as did more talk about suspect expenditures in Cleveland and Dallas and comments by Denver City Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie. Afterward, the screen projected images of people with electronically distorted faces entering the Diamond Cabaret for what was described as an officially sanctioned bureau event; also seen were black-and-white, hidden-camera shots taken inside the venue. Then it was back to Isenberg, who decried the idea of staging a bureau event at a strip club. Finally, Kovaleski asked Isenberg if he was aware of the bureau visit to the Diamond. He capped an exceedingly uncomfortable performance with an especially embarrassing line: "I'm not aware of anything."

How shocking any of this was is debatable. The Diamond Cabaret is a member of the bureau; it reportedly paid for the party, meaning public funds weren't used (Kovaleski acknowledged in his report that he had no evidence tax dollars had wound up in any G-strings); and the gathering itself took place in a private room that no dancers visited. Finally, Dilbeck didn't even attend the controversial festivities, nor was he so much as mentioned in Kovaleski's initial salvo. "It wasn't about him," Kovaleski says.

Hence, Channel 7 can't be held responsible for Isenberg and company using the report as an excuse to hurry Dilbeck out the door, or for creating the impression that the Diamond Cabaret episode motivated his ejection -- a botch that might give the ousted chief fertile grounds for a wrongful-termination lawsuit. Grandy also notes that City Auditor Dennis Gallagher is conducting an audit of the bureau. "That's been more under-reported than anything else," Grandy says of the investigation, which actually began well before Kovaleski's piece ran. For Kovaleski's part, he's displeased that most articles in the Rocky and the Denver Post about the Dilbeck situation have characterized the Channel 7 story as being about strip clubs, not the public's right to know how its cash is being spent.

Acting as if the strip club was parenthetical to the report is awfully disingenuous. In a literal sense, exotic dancers sexed up what could have been a dry story in much the same way that a recent Westword feature about a proposed peel-joint ordinance in Sheridan was more interesting than the typical account of city-government doings ("Skin City," October 30). Pixilating the shots taken outside the Cabaret was grabby as well, although it may have created the perception that attendees were doing something criminal, when they were going to a perfectly legal business that's mainstream enough to rate regular blurbs in the daily papers' gossip columns. At least one insider wondered if the video was distorted because Channel 7 couldn't be sure everyone pictured worked for the bureau, but Kovaleski calls that "a moot point. It wasn't about the individuals who were there. It was about an organized event Walter Isenberg said was not acceptable."

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