NOT ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS
A partner in a law firm that has been paid more than $800,000 in fees by the city of Denver for airport legal work was censured two years ago for conduct the Colorado Supreme Court said "involved dishonesty and misrepresentation."
Darrell E. Nulan was suspended from practice for sixty days in 1992 after the high court found that he improperly diverted thousands of dollars from a trust fund to himself and members of his family.
Trimble & Nulan, a small, three-attorney practice that specializes in public finance, enjoys close political ties to Denver mayor Wellington Webb. Before Nulan's suspension in February 1992, the firm had earned more than $300,000 as counsel on a series of Denver International Airport bond issues. Since the suspension, it has billed the city for almost half a million dollars more in legal work at DIA and Stapleton International Airport, city records show.
Now the city wants to hire the firm again--to represent it in matters related to the impending closure of Stapleton. A proposed $50,000 contract would authorize the city to pay Trimble & Nulan $115 an hour for its attorneys and $50 an hour for clerks and paralegals, according to a city source who requests anonymity. Auditor Bob Crider has not yet signed the contract. On Monday Crider's office drafted a letter to City Attorney Dan Muse questioning the need to hire Trimble & Nulan. Among other things, Crider wanted to know why Muse's own staff could not perform the work at Stapleton itself.
"We need to justify why it's OK to spend $50,000 for this law firm," says Denver city councilman Ted Hackworth. "Why we didn't consider [Nulan's suspension before hiring the firm] has to be answered."
Because the proposed contract involves less than $500,000, it doesn't require city council approval. Lee Marable, Denver's assistant city attorney in charge of airport legal work, did not return return repeated phone calls from Westword.
"I don't think I ought to be punished forever," Nulan says when asked if his suspension should preclude the firm from represent-ing the city. "Needless to say, I was quite embarrassed by what happened."
Nulan's law partner, King Trimble, is a longtime political ally of the mayor. In the second half of last year, Trimble contributed $500 to Webb's re-election fund, according to a published report. Numerous other Webb contributors have been given DIA bond work, too ("Give Until It Hurts," March 30).
In addition to Nulan's work at the law firm, he is a director of a corporation called GRD&D, state records show. The company has been awarded a concession contract to open a gourmet coffee shop at DIA.
Nulan's February 1992 censure stemmed from the aborted sale six years ago of a northeast Denver restaurant partly owned by his stepbrother, according to the Supreme Court opinion that ordered his suspension.
The stepbrother, Larry Pierre, and his partners entered into an agreement to sell the Ebony Rose Restaurant & Lounge to a man named Wiley Barnes III and his wife in October 1987, the opinion says.
Nulan, representing the sellers, helped draw up the purchase agreement. It called for Barnes to give Pierre and his partners a $17,500 deposit as well as $4,000 in "earnest money" in advance of closing the deal. Barnes sent a cashier's check to Nulan, who put the money in his law firm's trust account.
A few days later, Pierre asked Nulan for a loan, the opinion says. Pierre told his stepbrother he needed to make repairs to the Ebony Rose before selling it, but he didn't have enough cash on hand.
Nulan replied that he did not have the resources to make the loan, the opinion says. Pierre then asked if he could use the funds from Wiley Barnes being held in the law firm trust account.
At first Nulan refused to lend Barnes's money to Pierre, saying he could "get into trouble" if he did so, the opinion says.
But Nulan eventually gave in. Over the next three weeks, he signed six checks totaling $17,000 on the trust account. One of the checks was made out to Nulan himself for prior legal fees not associated with the sale of the restaurant. Another, the opinion says, was made out to Nulan's stepfather for funds he previously had advanced to pay for Ebony Rose repairs.
"I got sentimental and tried to help my brother close the deal," Nulan says now. "The deal fell apart, and I got left holding the bag."
In December 1987 Barnes realized the deal was collapsing and asked for his money back. Several months later, after a period of negotiation, Nulan told Barnes's attorney that the escrowed funds had been spent on improvements to the restaurant. He did not reveal that some of the money had been spent on an unrelated matter, the opinion says.
The parties agreed to cancel the Ebony Rose purchase agreement in May 1988. In August that year Nulan returned $21,500 to Barnes, as well as $2,000 in interest and damages, the opinion says.
"The intentional misappropriation of funds held in trust for the benefit of others constitutes a serious violation of a lawyer's responsibility to the public," the high court wrote.
Nulan had a duty to inform Barnes immediately after spending the money, the court said. Instead, Nulan "failed to disclose his misappropriation until the spring of 1988, and even then did not fully describe the various uses to which the funds had been put," it said.
This was not Nulan's first time in trouble. In 1981 he received a letter of admonition from the Supreme Court Grievance Committee, the court said. Letters of admonition are secret but are imposed only for "minor misconduct," says Grievance Committee counsel James Hollaway.
In meting out its punishment the court weighed several factors in Nulan's favor. Nulan, the court said, exhibited "good character and reputation" as well as remorse. Also, the court said, Nulan spent Barnes's money only because "he was unable to withstand strong pressure from members of a close-knit family that traditionally had undertaken the responsibilities of supporting each other."
Much of Trimble & Nulan's past work for the city of Denver has been as bond counsel on debt floated for the construction of DIA. The firm worked with Davis, Graham & Stubbs, another Denver firm, on ten bond series between 1990 and 1992, records show.
It is not clear exactly what the firm would be doing at Stapleton if the proposed $50,000 contract is approved. Because it has not been signed by the auditor, the contract is not a matter of public record.
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