When Mayor Wellington Webb's stepson Keith Thomas clipped a parked car March 31 and kept on driving, it wasn't the first time he'd "hit and run," says a former business associate. In fact, claims bar owner Chester Johnson, after he fired Thomas for alleged misuse of funds last fall, Thomas harassed him and tried on numerous occasions to have liquor authorities raid his saloon. It was only after he had an attorney warn Thomas to back off, Johnson says, that the harassment eased.
"The mayor and his wife are always telling people to take care of their children," says Johnson. "Hell, they're the ones who needed to do it with their own kids."
Several years ago it seemed that the 35-year-old Thomas--Wilma Webb's son by a previous marriage--could prove to be a political asset to his stepdad. Once the owner of the Southtown Lumber Company, Thomas, who is openly gay and lives with the Webbs, is often credited with helping Webb capture the support of many in the city's gay community. (Webb's son Allen, on the other hand, has been a political liability. He was arrested for possession of crack last year, and his father has tried to force him into drug rehabilitation.)
Thomas's own star began to lose some of its luster in 1992 when the city seized his bar for nonpayment of almost $3,000 in back taxes. Thomas declared bankruptcy not long after the bar was closed. The mayor, who declines to speak to Westword about his stepson, reportedly was furious with Thomas over that incident. Thomas has not returned phone calls for this story.
Chester Johnson says he can sympathize with Thomas's business problems; running a bar is difficult, and bankruptcy isn't all that rare. Johnson himself bought the Triangle, a well-known gay bar, from the state tax department three years ago, after the previous owner lost the business. And, as Johnson discovered last summer, there are some things that even an infusion of cash can't help.
The Triangle's liquor license was summarily suspended July 21 following a raid by Denver vice cops. The detectives, who'd received an anonymous complaint regarding possible violations of state laws and the liquor code, found it a virtual Sodom and Gomorrah. According to police reports of the incident, detectives spotted two men on the bar's patio "with their pants to the ground and their penises in each other's hands."
Two other men were discovered engaging in anal sex in the dimly lit basement as a dozen others looked on, detectives reported, but before police could nab the couple, bar employees warned them of the police presence and attempted to physically restrain the officers from making an arrest. The two men subsequently faded into the crowd.
The Triangle was forced to close for fifteen days after the raid. Police demanded that the bar be shut down for ninety days, but Johnson and his attorney, Mary Sylvester, negotiated a fine in lieu of a second two-week closure and received a suspended sentence for the other sixty days. Johnson also agreed to close the Triangle's basement to the public.
Johnson was relieved by the outcome--it could have been worse--and he had Keith Thomas to thank for it. After all, it was Thomas who'd recommended that Sylvester, a former director of the Department of Excise and Licenses and a political ally of Webb's, negotiate the settlement.
Johnson was so grateful to Thomas that he hired him to help out at the bar. "He was to get people to come to the Triangle and circulate among the customers, general duties like that," Johnson says. "Our general manager at that time was not really P.R.-oriented."
Johnson felt that Thomas's presence might prove beneficial in other ways as well. "[Thomas] said that he could keep the vice squad out of here and that we'd never be bothered," Johnson says. "There was a lot of B.S. that we believed. It turned out to be wrong."
The men's business arrangement was short-lived. A month or so after hiring Thomas, Johnson says, he discovered that Thomas had used the corporate credit card to charge about $1,000 worth of unauthorized items, including dinners, computer equipment and five pagers. "Why he bought five pagers is beyond us," Johnson says. "He also signed up with a pager company for about $200 to $300 a year."
Johnson says Thomas showed no concern or remorse when confronted with the accusations. "He did not deny it in any way," Johnson says. "He just doesn't care."
Sylvester chooses her words carefully when discussing Johnson's accusations, but she agrees that Thomas may have stepped over the line in his dealings with the bar. "I have receipts that would indicate [his making unauthorized purchases]," she says. "But that has not been proven in any hearing, and Chester never filed any charges."
Johnson says he didn't bring a criminal complaint against Thomas out of a sense of self-preservation: "One reason I didn't is because I'm afraid of this political bunch in Denver. I figured I'd just get more police and more vice squads in here. When you get three or four squad cars pulled beside the building and on the sidewalk, the customers don't want to come in."
As it turned out, however, that's just what he got anyway.
After he fired Thomas, Johnson says, Thomas began making "continual calls" to the state liquor board and the city's Department of Excise and Licenses to complain about the Triangle.
Jenny Morris, a specialty clerk with Excise and Licenses, concedes that she personally took three calls from Thomas regarding the Triangle and that she's heard another clerk speak with him, too.
"He would call and say things like they're staying open later than they should," says Morris. "I think he was working for them as a manager and they had a falling out. You get that a lot in the bar business. Sour grapes."
But Johnson's bar continued to attract state liquor agents. On December 10, Johnson says, he was raided again.
"The only violation they could find was that one of our customers was pouring beer into the cup of another customer who was visibly inebriated," Johnson says. Sylvester adds that the bar was found innocent of any wrongdoing in that incident.
Johnson then asked Sylvester to step in. She did so, after spotting Thomas at Mayor Webb's Christmas party. "I put my arm around him and I told him to stop, to leave Chester alone," Sylvester recalls. "He said he wasn't going to. And I said, 'Chester is my client, and you can't be phoning him--that's harassment.'"
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Since then, Johnson says, things have quieted down.
"I think he's over it now," Morris agrees.
But Thomas hasn't managed to stay out of the limelight.
He was apparently driving home at about 7:30 p.m. March 31, when he struck a parked car near East 23rd Avenue and Race Street. He did not stop his car, although he reportedly phoned Denver police chief David Michaud a short time later to report the accident.
Police who responded to the mayor's home gave Thomas a ticket for careless driving.