With the city's attention riveted on this year's high-profile race for mayor, few are paying any heed to the five candidates vying for the auditor's job. The campaign, however, isn't the dull-as-dishwater affair it may appear to be on the surface. In fact, while nobody was looking, it got downright nasty.
Denver's auditor is the chief financial watchdog over a mayor's office that enjoys broader powers than that of almost any city in the country. The position is the second-highest in Denver city government, pays $84,000 a year and often serves as a political springboard into the mayor's chair.
That makes it one of the city's most desirable political assignments--and with the campaign in the home stretch, the mud is flying and the skeletons in the candidates' closets are starting to rattle.
It turns out, for instance, that candidate John Charles Gonce served time in jail after being charged with spousal abuse in the 1980s, according to court records. Gonce also harbors a strange, deep-seated resentment toward Mormons, whom he has accused of "devil worship," court records show.
"I have no use for Mormons," Gonce says today. "They're liars, cheats and thieves. And you can quote me."
State senator Don Mares, the apparent front-runner in the race, has vowed in campaign literature "to be sure each [tax] dollar is prudently spent." But sources at City Hall claim Mares used political connections to finagle himself a $11,500 contract with the city attorney's office last year at a time when his law firm was struggling financially. (Mares defends the contract as valid.)
Candidate Jack McCroskey, former chairman of the board of the Regional Transportation District, enjoys renown as the father of the city's new light-rail system. But McCroskey is genuinely loathed by a number of current and former members of the RTD board, some of whom claim the agency considered seeking a restraining order against him in 1992 after he began harassing RTD employees with abusive phone calls.
"Mr. McCroskey is a Jekyll and Hyde," says former RTD chairman Ken Hotard. "Jack can be as pleasant as you want him to be. You turn around and he's a monster."
The lone woman in the race, Sandy Adams, has made much of the fact that she's the only candidate with a true accounting background. But McCroskey campaign manager Ted Gleichman accuses Adams of "lying about her CPA status" and points out that she didn't obtain a Colorado accounting license until just before the auditor's campaign began. "I think it speaks to her integrity," Gleichman says.
Meanwhile, the campaign of the fifth candidate, Denver City Councilman Dave Doering, has been teetering on the verge of collapse. Doering's campaign manager, Frances "Fabby" Hillyard, a former political appointee of Mayor Wellington Webb, quit after a quiet falling-out with the councilman a few weeks ago. The wife of Doering's campaign treasurer was seriously injured in a bizarre accident in Atlanta, forcing the cancellation of an important fundraiser. And in recent weeks, Doering's opponents say, he has virtually dropped out of sight, missing almost all of the auditor candidate forums and debates.
Doering, who's also been branded a Webb lackey by his opponents, acknowledges he has considered throwing in the towel but now vows to see the campaign through to its conclusion. "I didn't get into this race to lose," he insists.
If you vote for him, John Gonce says in his campaign literature, he "will make you proud."
The 56-year-old Republican, who has never before held elective office, swears he is the only true conservative in the race. The owner of his own Denver realty company, Gonce promises he'll always be on the lookout for fraud, waste and corruption at City Hall. He labels his four opponents--including Adams, a fellow Republican--as "liberals" who wouldn't have the backbone to stand up to whoever wins the mayor's seat.
"They're full of crap up to their ears," Gonce says of the other auditor candidates. "I'm the only one that should be running."
Gonce is using more than $40,000 of his own money to pay for a newspaper adverti-sing campaign. But he hasn't advertised his controversial past.
After his second wife, Ruth, petitioned for divorce in 1991, the couple went through a nasty, drawn-out battle in Denver District Court over custody of their two daughters. According to court records, Gonce served time in jail after being convicted on a domestic-violence charge.
Police records filed in Denver County Court show that Gonce was arrested in 1989 after allegedly slapping his wife while they were arguing over money. "She told him she was going to call the police and [Gonce] said, `If you call them, it will be the last time,'" the arresting officer wrote in the wake of the incident.
Gonce won't comment on his divorce, but he adamantly denies ever abusing his ex-wife. He says Ruth Gonce falsely accused him of assaulting her and that he went to jail only because a "slime judge" wrongly took his wife's side. He says he was "exonerated" of the assault charges, though he does not elaborate on that assertion. "My record is clean," Gonce says.
According to the divorce file, Gonce once demanded that the court award him custody of his daughters (with whom he appears in his campaign ads) because his ex-wife, a Mormon, was going to allow them to have their ears pierced.
"It is [my] opinion...that the piercing of the ear is to desecrate, make ritually unclean, to profane and to corrupt morally the temple of God," Gonce wrote in one court pleading. "This being ones body of each human being, both genders [sic]."
In the same pleading, Gonce railed against "feminist Mormon women who are destroying the family unit with the help of greedy, diabolical and egregious Bishops of the church." In another court document written by Gonce, he alleged that his children "suffer because of the Petitioner and her devil worship fellow Mormons."
Gonce sued the Mormon church in 1992 and says he is not allowed to comment directly about that case. But he says on the record that Mormons are "a corrupted people."
"They want to control the world," Gonce says. "They're not unlike Hitler."
Gonce, who proclaims in campaign literature that a vote for him "is a vote for honesty and integrity in every agency," has consistently placed last in campaign polls.
If campaign funds are a measure of likely success at the voting booth, Don Mares has to be considered the man to beat.
As of March 31, city campaign disclosure records show, the Democratic state senator had raised just over $42,000--more than twice as much as Adams, McCroskey or Doering. The money is financing a fusillade of pro-Mares ads now running on cable and network television and set to continue through May 1, the day before the election.
Mares has also won the support of the Denver Post, which endorsed him outright, and the Rocky Mountain News, which picked both him and McCroskey as equally good candidates for the auditor's job. "He strikes us as having the best background to focus on overall policy problems affecting Denver's fiscal future," the Post said.
Mares, 38, has served in the state legislature since 1988, when he was elected to the House of Representatives with the backing of former Denver mayor Federico Pena. In 1991 Mares was appointed to fill a vacancy in the state Senate seat representing northwest Denver. He was re-elected the following year, when he ran unopposed.
A graduate of Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Mares worked for several years at the small law firm of McKendree & Toll, where he specialized in representing labor unions. (The unions haven't forgotten; they've contributed more than $8,000 to the Mares war chest, nearly 20 percent of his total.) Later, he and his wife founded Mares & Mares, a small, general-practice law firm.
Mares brushes off criticism that he'd merely use the auditor's job as a stepping-stone to higher office. "No matter how am-bitious someone is, what's important is how good a job they're doing once they're elected," he says.
But critics say Mares has virtually mapped out his political future. They point out that just last year Mares was angling to be appointed Denver's manager of public safety. Mayor Wellington Webb gave the job to TV station executive Fidel "Butch" Montoya instead, a move that allegedly left Mares bitterly disappointed. "His great ambition is he would like to go to Congress," says one local Democratic Party activist. "But he'd settle for mayor."
That Democratic activist, who insists on anonymity, says Mares could have walked into a job at any number of big Denver law firms after getting out of law school in 1982. One of the main reasons he didn't, the activist says, is that Mares wanted to make sure he'd have enough time to pursue his political career.
Mares's main problem over the last several years, the activist says, has been satisfying his ambitions while making enough money to support his wife and three young children. The auditor's job would give him a nice paycheck and boost his political profile at the same time.
"He's constantly balancing the two [financial security and ambition]," the activist says. "And the auditor's office gives him both."
Mares admits the salary of the auditor's position was an attraction--but says there's nothing wrong with that. "That's obviously a factor in any decision you make," he says. "And it was in mine."
During his campaign, Mares has vowed to be vigilant about waste of taxpayer funds. But he isn't so averse to government spending that he'd turn down a city contract of his own. Last summer Mares won an $11,500 contract from the office of City Attorney Dan Muse to prosecute crimes in general sessions court. According to city documents, the contract was awarded because of a temporary staff shortage and paid Mares $30 an hour.
Asked about the contract last week, Mares first said that accepting the job was a "tremendous financial sacrifice" on his part, since his normal fee for legal services is $100 an hour. Asked why he agreed to do the work, Mares acknowledged that his firm was going through "tough times" and that he needed the business.
But Mares says the city was "desperate" for help because of the staff shortage and that he won convictions in more than 85 percent of the trials he handled. "It was a mutual benefit," Mares says. "Good for them, good for me."
City Hall insiders claim it was no accident that Mares won the work over the hundreds of other competent lawyers in Denver. One city staffer who signed the contract, Assistant City Attorney Vicky Ortega, is both a friend of Mares and a strong political supporter of Webb.
Mares has other ties to Webb. Two years ago the mayor appointed Mares's mother, Priscilla, to the board of Denver's Career Service Authority. And after Webb passed over Mares for the safety manager job, one source says, the mayor tried to make amends by offering him the chance to head the city's Community Development Agency. By then, however, Mares had decided to run for auditor, and he turned the job down. Mares declines comment on the CDA job.
The repeated overtures from the mayor may have been an effort by Webb to settle lingering bad blood with Mares's family. Schley has been a fervent foe of the Webb administration ever since her unsuccessful attempt to unseat Webb ally Bill Scheitler from his northwest Denver city council seat in 1991. Schley, who was Scheitler's aide before splitting with the councilman, lost that bare-knuckled campaign by fewer than 300 votes.
And unlike Doering, McCroskey and Adams, all of whom say the auditor's office has become overly politicized in recent years, Mares says it's all right for the auditor to demonstrate "appropriate aggression" toward the city's chief executive.
"It is almost, by nature, an office that's watching over the mayor," Mares says. "You're going to be accused of being political, when maybe what you're doing is your job."
Mares says he's taken "great pains" to stay out of the current mayoral race, in which three challengers are trying to unseat Webb. "Politics is a take-it-a-race-at-a-time kind of thing," Mares says. "You never know who's going to be your friend the next day."
Whenever Jack McCroskey gets up in front of a crowd of voters these days, he makes one thing perfectly clear: He'll never run for the mayor's job. That promise, he says, gets a consistently positive reaction--laughs, nods of approval and a smattering of applause.
"People like that," he says. "That is a winner with the public."
McCroskey, who at 69 is the oldest candidate in the race, says the auditor's post has lost credibility with Denver residents because so many who have held the job in the past have used it as a platform to attack the mayoral incumbent. Current auditor Bob Crider, for instance, has been a thorn in Webb's side ever since Crider decided he wanted to run for mayor himself. Webb, who preceded Crider as auditor, likewise used the office to attack Pena.
McCroskey acknowledges that the auditor should be "a watchdog rather than a lapdog," but he says the public won't pay attention to the auditor if everything he or she says appears tainted by political motives.
With the possible exception of Doering, McCroskey may have the best name recognition of the five candidates for auditor. A former economist at the University of Denver, McCroskey served for eight years in the Colorado House of Representatives before being elected to the RTD board in 1982. More than any other person in Denver, McCroskey was responsible for turning the city's light-rail system from a vision into a reality.
"The difference between making promises and actually doing something," McCroskey says, "is the difference between night and day."
"Jack was pleasant up until the point he saw defeat," says Ken Hotard, who succeeded McCroskey as chairman of the agency. "Then it was vicious, then it was manipulative, then it was Machiavellian. That's the way he played the game."
In 1992, McCroskey was soundly defeated in his attempt to be re-elected to the RTD board. Instead of accepting the loss graciously, Hotard says, he took the loss as a personal insult. Having worked steadfastly to bring light rail to Denver, McCroskey allegedly embarked on a crusade to prevent its expansion beyond the 5.3-mile downtown link that opened last October.
To make matters worse, says Hotard, McCroskey began harassing members of the RTD staff with abusive and profane phone calls. "It was clearly disrupting our staff and affecting their ability to do their jobs," Hotard says. On several occasions, says Hotard, top officials from the agency considered going to court to get a restraining order instructing McCroskey to stop calling the agency. Eventually, Hotard says, the RTD decided against the idea, concluding that it was "not in the interest of the agency to make this public."
RTD boardmember Loren Sloane confirms the story about the restraining order. Sloane (whose day job is as an analyst in the city auditor's office) says McCroskey appeared to be so wrapped up in the idea of himself as the city's light-rail guru that he went through a kind of identity crisis when he lost the 1992 election. "It sort of unbalanced him a little bit," Sloane says.
McCroskey scoffs at such claims. He says he criticized the expansion of the light-rail system because he and other RTD directors had promised voters that the downtown link would be a "demonstration line" and that it would not be extended until the agency and the public had a chance to see how it worked. In the spring of 1994, however, the RTD voted to forge ahead with a new light-rail line to Littleton--six months before the downtown link even opened. "That made a liar out of me," McCroskey says.
McCroskey denies making harassing phone calls. He admits he exchanged words with RTD staffers on a few occasions, but only, he says, because his requests for public information were being denied.
"They are really out to get me," McCroskey says. "They're knifing me in the back. I deny that I ever did anything to those people."
As part of her plan to win the auditor's race, Sandy Adams has purchased huge bundles of sample ballots from the Denver Election Commission. Before handing them out to voters, Adams has circled her name with red marker and added the words: "The only CPA!"
The 46-year-old Adams constantly cites her status as an accountant as the most important thing distinguishing her from the other candidates. "This job pays $84,000," she says. "Don't you think it deserves a professional?"
But Adams's professional aspirations have long been linked more closely to politics than accounting. She has been on the periphery of state and city government for more than fifteen years. In 1979 she was named a "government affairs manager" with Mountain Bell, a job that entailed lobbying the Colorado Legislature on behalf of the phone company. Adams jumped over to a management position with Public Service Company of Colorado in 1990, the year before she was elected to a four-year term on the Denver Election Commission. A longtime Republican activist, Adams last year sought her party's nomination for secretary of state but lost out to Vikki Buckley. She resigned from Public Service in January to run for auditor.
Adams has spent much of the campaign emphasizing the mundane aspects of the auditor's job--things like "fixed asset inventories" and "audit control mechanisms." Like McCroskey, she decries the politicization of the auditor's role in city government.
"With the mayor and auditor both running for mayor of Denver, how do I know who to believe?" Adams asks. "I guess it's a matter of credibility and agendas and motives."
But Adams's own credibility has been questioned during the campaign. In February the Denver Post reported that she had been improperly representing herself as a CPA when she did not actually hold an accounting license in the state. Adams had passed the CPA exam in her native New York in the mid-1970s but had never bothered to transfer the license to Colorado. State regulations require accountants to obtain a Colorado license before holding themselves out as CPAs here.
McCroskey in particular has made a stink about Adams's CPA status. He calls her claims "a disservice to the Colorado accounting profession." Adams brushes off the criticisms. Since the Post story ran, she has obtained her Colorado license. "That's no big deal," she says.
One of Adams's biggest assets may be her gender, says Denver political consultant Steve Welchert. "I give Sandy Adams lots of points for being the only woman in the race," Welchert says. Her affiliation with the Republican Party may prove a boon as well; the party has paid for a mailer urging voters to support her. Pollster Floyd Ciruli, though, points out that Republicans often find themselves in "deep trouble" running citywide in heavily Democratic Denver.
One Republican Party activist says Adams's biggest drawback may be a sheer lack of charisma. When she was angling for the secretary of state job last year, the activist points out, Adams failed to garner enough party support to even get her name on the ballot.
"I don't think she's got the political winsmanship," the activist says. "She's kind of like eating grits. Just bland."
Though he's a two-term city councilman who presumably should enjoy considerable name recognition, Dave Doering has been the ghost candidate of the auditor's race. Misfortune--some of it of his own making, some not--has cast a black cloud over his campaign.
Doering, for instance, was lucky enough to get Richard Tucker, president of Denver's Tri-State Bank, to serve as his campaign treasurer. The well-connected Tucker, Doering assumed, would prove a major fundraising asset.
But on April 8, Tucker and his wife, Pat, were in Atlanta attending a Salvation Army National Board meeting. An evening barbecue took place at the luxurious home of B. Franklin Skinner, former president and chief executive officer of the Southern Bell phone company.
During the evening, more than 100 of Skinner's guests, including Pat Tucker, crowded onto a wooden deck attached to the house. The deck collapsed, plummeting fifteen feet onto a concrete patio below. Pat Tucker had to be hospitalized for several days in Atlanta, Doering says.
The accident couldn't have come at a worse time for Doering. Richard Tucker remained in Georgia with his wife, Doering says, and the candidate was forced to cancel an important fundraiser for his campaign.
Doering says his campaign research shows he has an excellent shot at winning the auditor's race--if he can raise enough money to get his message out. Otherwise, he concedes, the strongly bankrolled Mares has a huge advantage over him. "To know the dollars are the obstacle is extremely frustrating," Doering says.
The 43-year-old Doering says he's the only one of the five candidates who understands the inner workings of Denver city government. A lawyer by training, he says his eight years representing west Denver on the city council, including a stint as council president, give him the best credentials for the auditor's job.
Unlike any of the other candidates, Doering openly disavows the "watchdog" function of the auditor's post, saying it's a "managerial" position, not a "policy-making" one.
"As auditor, you shouldn't be involved in whether an expenditure is appropriate," Doering says. Instead, he says, the auditor should confine himself to making sure that the office runs smoothly and that city contractors are paid on time. Doering does say "performance audits"--reviews of how well various city departments are functioning--are legitimate and would become a regular feature of his administration. But he is adamant that it is not the auditor's job "to launch smoke grenades and stink bombs at the mayor's office across the street."
Doering's reticence about attacking the mayor doesn't surprise his critics. During his tenure on the city council, they say, Doering has been one of Webb's staunchest allies, frequently lambasting Crider and anyone else who questioned the mayor's policies or spending habits. City councilman Ted Hackworth, a longtime Webb foe, describes Doering as "a very, very close associate of Mayor Webb's" and says if Doering and Webb were both elected, "you would not see any kind of dispute between the two."
Jack McCroskey agrees. "He's in the mayor's pocket," McCroskey says. "I don't think there's any question about that."
Doering bristles at the charge. "That's an unfair characterization of me," he says. As proof, Doering notes that he opposed Webb's highly controversial plan to sell off the Winter Park ski area in the summer of 1993--one of the most important initiatives of Webb's first term.
Doering says the perception that he is a shill for the Webb administration stems from his nonconfrontational style. If he disagrees with the mayor on an issue, he says, he'll call Webb and work the dispute out, rather than pick up the phone to call a newspaper reporter. "I communicate before I criticize," Doering says.
But Doering apparently wasn't able to smooth over differences that arose recently between him and Frances Hillyard, a former deputy director at the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture & Film who initially agreed to work as his campaign manager. Hillyard quit the campaign earlier this month.
Hillyard declines to specify why she abandoned Doering. "There were some issues that came to light that made me decide that the best decision would be to step back," Hillyard says. Doering is only slightly less vague, but he implies that Hillyard expected him to run a "grassroots campaign," whereas "political reality" forced him to concentrate on raising money. Doering donors include Webb fundraiser and city financial consultant Rita Kahn; Hensel Phelps, the giant construction concern that got millions of dollars in city contracts at Denver International Airport; and Logplan, the German company that built the city's "backup" baggage system at the new airport.
After Hillyard left, Doering admits, he considered dropping out of the race. For weeks, his opponents say, he was a virtual phantom, failing to show up for candidate forums and debates. Doering, however, says he's changed his mind about giving up and is now back in the campaign. He even attended a candidate's forum last week.
"I'm in the race through the end," he says.
The Denver municipal election takes place May 2.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.