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A Loan and Friendless

Everyone knows lending money to a friend can be a dicey proposition. Dicier still is extending a loan to your boss.

Today Emerson Holliday lives in a motel on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Until last year, though, he was a high-level government administrator, answering only to Colorado's secretary of state. He has a story about lending money to his boss.

Holliday was hired in June 1994 by then-secretary of state Natalie Meyer to train other state workers on how to write publications and manuals for the state's voter-registration system. He quickly became good friends with the woman who sat across from him, a twenty-year veteran of the office named Vikki Buckley.

During work hours the two colleagues often ate lunch together. (They spent so much time with each other that some co-workers thought they were having an affair; Holliday says they weren't.) After work, they socialized. Through numerous dinners and functions at Buckley's house, Holliday became even closer to Buckley and her husband, Todd.

So when Buckley announced that she would be running for secretary of state in November 1994, Holliday was only too willing to help. Although he didn't play a large role in her campaign, he was one of her crucial foot soldiers, standing on street corners holding signs, doing whatever needed to be done.

Buckley was sworn in as Colorado's secretary of state in January 1995, the first black woman, and first black Republican of either sex, to win a statewide office. Despite the victory, however, lingering campaign debts and personal financial turmoil dogged her. Holliday learned about her money troubles because he was her friend.

"One day, while we were just talking, she was looking kind of depressed. So I asked her what was going on," he recalls. "And it just came up. It wasn't a situation where she said, 'Emerson, I need some money.'"

Holliday says he nevertheless felt compelled to help out. Although Buckley was now his boss, she was also his friend. Besides, there were larger issues at stake.

"I'm an African-American and she's an African-American," he explains. "My concern was, What will this look like--the first black secretary of state filing for personal bankruptcy? I thought that maybe I could help out the cause. I guess it was kind of an altruistic thing. Anyway, that was my thinking at the time.

"I had the money, so I lent it to her. I just went to the bank and withdrew $2,700 in cash. She said she was waiting on a settlement from an auto accident she'd been injured in. So the agreement was that she'd pay me back within a couple of months, or when the car settlement came in."

About the same time, in August 1995, Holliday saw an opportunity for a promotion. The position of state election officer had opened up, and he applied. The election officer helps county clerks and other local government employees who need information and advice from the secretary of state's office.

Holliday says that at first he and two dozen other applicants competed for the job through the state's personnel department. By November, state human resources officials had narrowed the list down to six; Holliday was one of them. A written test further tightened the field to three. Once again, Holliday made the cut. The final choice would be made by Buckley.

Certainly, Holliday appears to have been qualified for the job. A former college administrator in South Dakota and San Diego, he had extensive management experience. Only the secretary of state herself knows whether the debt she owed Holliday was in the back of her mind as she mulled over which one of the finalists would get the job. (Buckley has not responded to Westword's numerous requests for comment for this story.)

In December 1995 Holliday won the appointment. Was it payback?
"At first I didn't think so, because Vicki and I were friends," Holliday says. "But now I think that may be possible. She may have thought the debt was cleared when she promoted me."

Adding credence to that notion is a lawsuit filed in Denver District Court late last year. In it, November Associates Ltd., a political consulting firm, sued Buckley for $40,000 in unpaid fees and expenses that Buckley had allegedly incurred when she hired the company to help manage her campaign.

Some people inside and outside the secretary of state's office have speculated that Buckley considered the debt paid when she appointed one of November Associates' directors, Lynn Ellins, as deputy secretary of state in early 1995. Holliday is one of those people. "Vikki did indicate [to me] that Lynn should back off trying to get this money because she made him deputy secretary of state," Holliday says.

Now back in the consulting business, Ellins denies there was any such deal, stated or implied, when he took the job as Buckley's deputy. He describes his lawsuit against the secretary of state as a simple contract dispute. Still, according to court documents, November Associates didn't demand the remainder of its fee until just after Buckley fired Ellins in August 1995.

Buckley, who is representing herself in the lawsuit, has contested the debt. Her version of the deal is that November Associates agreed to help her campaign in exchange for some consulting fees, but mostly for the exposure that Buckley herself would generate.

"The parties agreed that Buckley's [campaign] committee would pay consulting fees to November to the extent that incoming campaign contributions would allow," Buckley wrote in a December 1996 court filing. "November was also to have, if Buckley won, the business benefits accruing from the successful management of the campaign of a high-profile Black Republican candidate."

A settlement conference on the case is scheduled for April 10.
At the same time that Ellins was leaving behind government service, Holliday's life seemed to be on the upswing. He'd just stepped into his new job and, soon after, had begun to look for a house to buy. In preparation, he started rounding up all his cash for a down payment. One anticipated source was the $2,700 he'd lent Buckley.

"But when I asked her for it," he recalls, "she just said, 'I wish I had it, but I don't.'" That put Holliday in a difficult position. "When someone's your boss, you just don't want to push it," he points out, "even if she is your friend."

That is exactly the sort of problem envisioned by a Colorado state law that prohibits a supervisor in a state agency from "engag[ing] in a substantial financial transaction for his private business purposes with a person he inspects, regulates or supervises." Although rarely used as the basis for prosecution, the statute surfaced last year when El Paso County Treasurer Sharon Shipley was charged with official misconduct for accepting $16,500 in personal loans from a county pension-fund administrator she supervised. Last spring she pleaded no contest to the charge and was fined $1,000.

Holliday says Buckley's immediate reaction to his request for repayment was to avoid him. It was a dramatic departure from their earlier days as close friends. "She would just walk past me at work without saying anything," he recalls.

It wasn't too long after that that Holliday and his boss began butting heads over his performance. In early 1996, he says, Buckley stripped him of most of his duties; during one three-week period that spring, Holliday says, he was acting as little more than a receptionist, answering phone calls that came into the secretary of state's office.

Deeply unhappy with his position, Holliday filed a grievance with the state's personnel department. He says it was during a subsequent hearing on his complaint that he first learned of specific reasons for his demotion. One of them was that he'd given out incorrect information to county clerks, "although no one ever told me what that incorrect information was," he says.

In addition, he recalls, "I was told that I was 'making off-the-cuff remarks.'" While he says he was never given specifics, he has in retrospect formulated a theory.

"Because we were friends at the time, I might have said things that I normally wouldn't have," he says. "Something like, 'Vikki, you're crazy.' And I think after a while, she started seeing that as being somehow against her." In March 1996 Holliday was fired.

Holliday says the possibility that the sudden tension between he and Buckley might have been connected to the debt didn't occur to him until later. As part of the paperwork accumulated in his grievance against the secretary of state, Holliday mentioned the loan he'd extended to Buckley, although he claims that he revealed the transaction for no particular reason. In addition, he says, "I began to share my story with other people. That's when I learned the loan had been illegal."

Whether Buckley reached a similar conclusion is unknown. For whatever reason, on April 1, 1996, Holliday says, he received two cashier's checks from the secretary of state. The first was for $2,700--repayment of the principal on the loan. The second was for just over $300, which represented interest due.

Holliday says that while he is convinced he could have won reinstatement to his position, he chose to leave state government. "It was one of those things where I said, 'Is it really worth it to fight for my job? Or should I just take the money and go?'"

In the time since he left the secretary of state's office, Holliday has been trying to build a communications consulting business, advising municipalities, small businesses and nonprofit corporations how to get their messages out to their customers and workers. He recently decided to move to Nevada to take advantage of that state's phenomenal growth and the potential for new business. "It's just starting to take off," he says of his new company.

Buckley, however, has been having a rough time. Some of those who have worked for her say that she has gone through a marked transformation since she was elected, becoming increasingly isolated, defensive and insistent on complete loyalty. The result has been a workplace filled with rumor, low morale and anger. A performance audit ordered by the legislature in 1995 and released late last year found the secretary of state's office to be in turmoil. Since January 1995, when Buckley took her oath of office, eleven employees in the elections division alone have quit, been reassigned or sacked. "It all began when she went from being Vikki to Victoria," says one worker.

Holliday says he occasionally thinks of his lost friendship with Colorado's secretary of state and feels sorry that she has been criticized. "But," he says, "Vikki knows that people are not going to touch her. She once said to me, 'Nobody's going to touch me, because I'm a black female Republican.'"

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