Sprinting through a light agenda in a matter of minutes, the Jefferson County Board of County Commissioners seems eager to adjourn its weekly meeting. But first there's the pesky matter of public comment -- now restricted to the first Tuesday of every month, the better to keep a certain loudmouth in his place.
Mike Zinna, the loudmouth in question, wants his three minutes. There are actually two members of the public signed up to speak. After some fencing over who will go first -- Zinna prefers the last word -- board chairman Jim Congrove declares that Zinna will speak now or he won't speak at all.
Frowning, the blogger and radio talk-show host walks to the microphone. He waves a letter he posted months ago on his website, www.coloradoexposed.com, a release form that authorizes the county to do a rectum-deep background check on the undersigned, including access to confidential employment and bank records, even attorney-client files. Although the letter is on Jefferson County Sheriff's Office letterhead, law-enforcement officials deny ever having prepared such a document; but Zinna claims it was used fraudulently by bureaucrats at the Jefferson County Airport to "intimidate" citizens doing business with the county. He demands that the commissioners tell him what they know about the form.
"I'm not here to answer your questions, Mr. Zinna," Congrove says. "As I've told you in court, if you have any questions for me, have your attorney contact my attorney."
"So you're not making any comments whatsoever," Zinna responds.
"This is a time for you to make a comment," Congrove snaps.
"Okay, I'd like to know why -- "
"We're not answering your questions, Mr. Zinna. What part of that don't you understand?"
"I don't understand why you won't answer questions, since you're a county commissioner. Why don't you tell us why?"
"Well," Congrove says, deciding to answer one teeny-weeny question, "because you currently have a lawsuit against us."
"I'm not asking you anything about the lawsuit," Zinna fumes. "Shortly after I exposed this [form], you confiscated all the records at the Jefferson County Airport office. I'd like to know what happened. Anybody want to tell me?"
"Do you have anything further?" Congrove asks.
"I just want to know where it came from."
"Do you have anything further?"
The verbal duel continues in the almost-deserted room until Zinna's three minutes are up. The second speaker, Daril Cinquanta -- former Denver cop, private investigator, president of the Jeffco Aviation Association and good friend of Jim Congrove's -- launches into a rebuttal of Zinna. He praises the three commissioners for "doing more in less than one year than your predecessors did in the whole terms they were in office."
As for Zinna, he says, "I have known this individual for a long time. I can only describe him as a Napoleonic type of general who always has to have a battle to fight. He's relentless."
Relentless, implacable -- and ineradicable, like cat pee on a beige carpet. His critics consider Zinna a sideshow at best, but he keeps bouncing back to the main stage of Jeffco politics. Attempts to rein him in or shut him up only seem to give him more ammo for his endless salvos against the county commissioners. It's a lesson the former board learned too late and the current crop is only now discovering, amid a tangle of Zinna-generated criminal investigations and civil claims alleging missing files, fake financial documents, witness-bullying and fraud.
Before last November's election, Zinna had been a strong supporter of candidate Congrove, a former state legislator and sheriff's deputy who'd run as a reformer. Back then, Zinna's prime target was commissioner Rick Sheehan, who resigned after being implicated in sending anonymous faxes to Zinna defaming other county employees ("Outfaxed," August 5, 2004).
Zinna was remarkably quiet about the new regime during its first few months in office. In a lawsuit he's since filed against Congrove and other officials, he indicates that's because he and his business partner, Robert Wyler, were trying to reach a settlement with the county over an airport land deal gone sour -- the same deal that prompted Zinna to launch his scandal-mongering website two years ago. Zinna's suit claims that as conditions of the settlement, the commissioners wanted him to stop filing open-records requests, showing up at board meetings and running his website. Congrove says Zinna was trying to "extort money" from the county in return for going away, a claim Zinna hotly denies.
The negotiations collapsed last spring, and before long, Zinna was back with a vengeance -- and a Saturday-night talk show on KHOW. He was soon hollering about the disappearance of several boxes of legal files from the county attorney's office last May. The files may amount to as much as 12,000 pages of what Zinna calls "critical evidence" dealing with (you guessed it) his ongoing legal battles over the airport deal. A special prosecutor from Denver is still investigating the case.
In his lawsuit, filed in June, Zinna accuses a host of current and former county officials of engaging in a conspiracy to violate his rights. The most disturbing allegations, though, concern loan documents relating to properties owned by Congrove that were supposedly signed by Zinna, which he's denounced as fraudulent.
Zinna learned of the documents late last year through his girlfriend at the time, Lori Stille, an employee at Washington Mutual Bank who'd processed other loans for Congrove; in fact, Congrove introduced the two to each other. One of the documents lists a "Michael Zinnia" as a tenant of a rental property owned by Congrove. The second is a $5,000 bill of sale for a 1988 Dodge truck that lists Zinna as the buyer; the seller is a longtime friend of Congrove's who was seeking to show assets for a loan to purchase a house from Congrove. Zinna has denied any knowledge of either transaction. He complained to the Arvada Police Department, which is now investigating the matter.
Congrove denies any wrongdoing. Although the rental agreement purportedly bears his signature as well, he suggests Zinna and Stille concocted the document. "This whole thing is a scam," he says. "I don't know what they did. I've never seen the document. Mike Zinna did talk to me about renting one of my apartments."
Zinna responds that he never talked to Congrove about renting from him and had nothing to gain by the forgery. "I wouldn't rent from him, because the places he owns are dumps," he says. "I wouldn't put my dog Fonzi in there."
Richard Lopez, who supposedly sold the truck to Zinna, has known Congrove for more than forty years, since Congrove mentored him in the Big Brothers program. He met Zinna during Congrove's campaign for county commissioner.
"I never sold my truck to Mike Zinna," Lopez says. "I purchased a house from Jim Congrove, and I signed a lot of paperwork. But I don't remember signing paperwork saying that I sold my truck. My truck is not worth $5,000. I don't know how this came about, but Jim Congrove and I did not do this."
Both Lopez and Congrove say that the idea of selling the truck was Stille's idea. "There's no victim here," Congrove insists.
Stille acknowledges that she did discuss a possible sale of Lopez's vehicles as a way for him to meet the loan requirements. She says she helped him fill out the VIN number but was unaware that Zinna was listed as the buyer until she saw the completed package of documents. She also denies any part in the forgery.
Last week, Stille's attorney notified the county commissioners of her intent to sue them for harassment. Stille claims Congrove repeatedly ordered her to "shred all of his bank records," made subtle threats, and accused her of "stealing" loan documents, going so far as to talk to county treasurer Mark Paschall about pulling the county's funds from the bank where she works. Stille also claims that Congrove showed up with Cinquanta at the restaurant where her sixteen-year-old daughter worked and "approached, confronted, and intimidated...and basically scared the hell out of her."
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Paschall and Cinquanta didn't respond to requests for comment. Congrove says he "may have had conversations" with Paschall about changing banks, out of security concerns. As for Stille's other claims, "Everything in it is a lie, except for the spelling of my name. I might have said hello [to her daughter], but she didn't even wait on us. It's very sad that Lori is doing this."
Congrove says Zinna's accusations haven't interfered with the board's ability to wrestle with other business, including a major overhaul of the county's accounting system following several embarrassing disclosures about missing inventory, sloppy records and unsupervised purchases dating back to the previous board. But the personal attacks have made him think hard about the hazards of his job.
"This is what I get for running for office," he says. "He won't go away until we get some resolution through the courts. Why people give him an ounce of credibility -- I do not understand it."
Zinna says he's less interested in a settlement than in getting the truth out. "If I was in it for the money, I would have just kept my mouth shut," he says. "I'm in it for the justice."