Five great Colorado whistleblowers
This week's cover story, "A Dam Shame," looks into the controversy generated by a state dam inspector named John Redding, who raised concerns about ethical violations inside the Colorado Department of Natural Resources--and ended up paying a high price for his concern. People who speak out about possible wrongdoing in high places are often subject to vilification and retaliation--even if they emerge triumphant at the end.
Yet, for all the personal grief involved, Colorado has had many notable whisteblowers determined to stand up to corruption and vice, no matter how powerful the conspiracy of silence surrounding such goings-on. Here are five worth remembering.
5. Philip Van Cise: Before he became one of Denver's most courageous district attorneys -- the "Scourge of the Underworld" who battled the Ku Klux Klan and brought down a huge con operation in downtown Denver that had cops and politicians on its payroll -- Van Cise was a squeaky-clean captain of the Colorado National Guard. In 1914, he was named to a review board that was supposed to investigate the Ludlow Massacre, during which state troops fired on striking miners and killed twenty people. Van Cise pushed for court-martial proceedings; his fellow board members tried to sweep the tragedy under a very big rug. Van Cise denounced the exercise as a whitewash, leading to major reforms of the Guard and the launch of his own turbulent political career.
4. Fidel Ramos: A heroin addict and armed robber, Ramos found his true calling inside prison walls, where he became an activist for better health care and inmates' rights. He was the lead plaintiff in a decades-long lawsuit by the ACLU that ended up closing one of Colorado's most despicable prisons and directing millions into improvements throughout the system. He remained a defiant adversary of bureaucratic cruelty and ineptitude right up until his his death last fall at the age of 63.
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3. Michael Howard: As a promising young editor (and Scripps-Howard heir) at the Rocky Mountain News in the 1970s, Howard championed many important stories exposing corruption and bad public policy and was a key player in the defeat of developers' push to bring the 1976 Winter Olympics to Colorado. But one of his strangest feats was blowing the whistle on himself. In the early 1980s, before it was fashionable to do such a thing, he went public with his struggles with alcohol and cocaine addiction -- and gave interviews to the rival Denver Post that indicated he'd hired seasoned Denver vice cops as his bodyguards and hangers-on while on binges. His revelations prompted a state legislative investigation that didn't lead anywhere in particular, but it sure made things tense down at the cop shop for a while.
2. Bobby Maxwell: Well before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and before the lurid sex-and-drug scandals at the Lakewood office, federal auditor Maxwell was telling Westword and other good listeners that the Minerals Management Service of the Department of the Interior was a lousy watchdog, riddled with corruption and conflicts of interest -- and that the office was costing taxpayers millions, possibly billions, in lost royalties from energy companies. Fired for pursuing some of the missing cash, Maxwell went on to sue Kerr-McGee for underreported royalties and won a $7.5 million judgment. The verdict was thrown out on technical grounds, then reinstated by a higher court -- proof that sometimes whistleblowers can have the last laugh.
1. The Rocky Flats Grand Jury: The average citizens tapped to serve on a federal grand jury looking into alleged environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant took their duty seriously. So seriously that when prosecutors cut a deal with the plant and told them to go home, the jurors decided to prepare their own report of criminal findings. Although the report was promptly sealed by Judge Sherman Finesilver, excerpts leaked (like toxic waste, only more efficiently) into the pages of Westword in 1992, embarrassing the hell out of the government and presenting a vivid case that justice had been denied. Two decades later, jurors are still waiting for official permission to speak about the case -- but their report, and the guts it took to prepare it, already speaks volumes.