Mike Zinna is feeling giddy. After years of battling Jefferson County officials, whom he's accused of everything from financial malfeasance and moral bankruptcy to bad hairdos, he figures he finally has the bastards nailed.
What he has are surveillance videotapes unmasking the people who've been sending him anonymous faxes from different commercial locations over a two-month period. The faxes are salacious, taunting and vindictive, full of nasty innuendo about half a dozen past and current county employees' alleged sexual affairs, cronyism and misconduct. Their mysterious authors signed the screeds "Pinky T," a pseudonym that's explained at the end of the second fax:
P.S. I am wearing my pink leather thong...what are you wearing?
Grainy surveillance videos aren't as conclusive as fingerprints, and the average political junkie would have had a hard time placing the faces behind Pinky T. But Zinna knows many of Jeffco's top-ranking bureaucrats all too well; his muckraking, ax-grinding, eye-poking website, JeffcoExposed.com, specializes in blistering attacks on the county's high and mighty. And he had no trouble recognizing the individuals caught on tape. The Pinky T faxers bear a striking resemblance to Jefferson County Commissioner Rick Sheehan; his wife, Sheri Sheehan, an elementary-school teacher; and Assistant County Attorney Cynthia Beyer-Ulrich. It's them, Zinna insists -- or else three clones who look astonishingly like the originals.
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"When I saw the tapes, I was stunned," Zinna says. "I knew these people were arrogant, but I never believed they would get this sloppy. These people are actually on camera transmitting these faxes, in a conspiracy to destroy the lives and reputations of other people. And I caught them red-handed."
Did he? Two sources who've worked closely with Commissioner Sheehan have identified him as the man in the white shirt sending a fax from an Arvada Albertson's on May 18. In that fax, one high-ranking county employee is referred to as "Limp Dick," while another is described as having been previously "fired from Jefferson County for sexual misconduct in the back of a county vehicle at Ken Caryl Ranch."
But Sheehan says the figure on the tape isn't him. He's produced records indicating that he was in his office, meeting with another county official, at the date and time stamped on the fax.
"I have never faxed anything to Mr. Zinna, nor will I ever," Sheehan says. "I was in a meeting at the time. There are witnesses, my calendar, and other records."
Asked about his wife's possible involvement in the faxes, Sheehan replied, "I don't know why he's bringing my family into this. I don't know if this is all campaign shenanigans. He's got a lawsuit pending here, and that's about all I feel comfortable saying about the matter."
Through her attorney, Cynthia Beyer-Ulrich also denied any involvement in the disparaging faxes. Beyer-Ulrich didn't respond to requests for an interview about Zinna's allegations, nor did her boss, county attorney William Tuthill. Sheri Sheehan couldn't be reached for comment. County spokesman John Masson says his office isn't commenting on the faxes or the videotapes, which he hasn't seen yet. "We're not responding to these allegations," Masson says. "It's a political issue, not a county issue."
Zinna has vowed to take the videos to the television stations and pursue the matter in a civil action. As he sees it, the faxes are the most outrageous move yet in an ongoing campaign by county officials to discredit him, ruin him financially and knock out his website, which has been merciless in its pursuit of Sheehan, fellow commissioner Michelle Lawrence and various associates of theirs for alleged public and private misdeeds.
"Their motivation in doing this was multi-faceted," he says. "Number one, they tried to set me up for a libel suit. They thought I would print anything anybody would send to me, which is not the case. And they were going to smear their political enemies at the same time."
No matter how the fax fracas shakes out, it's a powerful demonstration of how bruisingly effective Zinna has become in his one-man crusade -- some would say vendetta -- against the county's most powerful elected officials. Since launching JeffcoExposed late last year, the 39-year-old developer has become a magnet for controversy and vilification. Like many politics-obsessed web avengers, he's often vulgar, single-minded and downright personal in his attacks; unlike most of them, he's also been reasonably competent in his quest for exposés -- working public records like a collection agent on commission and scooping the mainstream media with searing stories about questionable county financial transactions and fractious personnel issues.
He's also attracted quite a following. Despite officials' attempts to portray him as a marginal, self-serving crank, Zinna boasts that his website has become required (if clandestine) reading at Jeffco's government headquarters in Golden, also known as the Taj Mahal; he claims that the site receives up to 25,000 hits a day. And the peculiar bent of the Pinky T faxes suggests that their authors are avid readers of JeffcoExposed, too, who hoped to get their anonymous attacks on Zinna's site.
They just didn't expect to become the story themselves.
Mike Zinna operates out of a hangar at the Jefferson County Airport. The place is his office, command center and crash pad. In addition to a single-engine plane, it contains stacks of newspapers and public records, a well-stocked fridge, a giant inflatable Corona bottle and plenty of sprawl space for Fonzi.
Fonzi is Zinna's spirited German shepherd, whose beastly "thoughts" on Jefferson County political doings and personalities frequently grace JeffcoExposed. ("Fonzi says, ŒI'm just as qualified as Tuthill to be county attorney. I can sit. I can beg. I can lay down. And I can gleefully chase my tail all day long. However, unlike Tuthill, I don't crap where I eat.'") Zinna has called Fonzi the true brains behind the website.
Even with Fonzi providing some sense of decorum, the hangar has a tentative, frat-boyish feel, as if its occupants might pull up stakes and fly away at a moment's notice. That's probably fitting for the chief operating officer of BJC Development Corporation, who's had a number of business ventures over the years, not all of them successful.
Some of the darker episodes in Zinna's past were examined with gusto in an article in the Evergreen Canyon Courier two weeks ago. The piece reported on his "other than honorable" discharge from the Air Force eighteen years ago, various civil lawsuits stemming from failed advertising businesses in Summit County in the 1990s, a 1997 misdemeanor harassment case, and domestic-violence charges resulting from alleged altercations with an ex-girlfriend and an ex-wife.
Zinna is still seething about the article, which he had declined to be interviewed for. He calls the domestic-violence charges "bogus" -- one case was dismissed, the other resulted in a deferred judgment and probation -- and describes the piece as a preemptive strike by county politicos seeking to discredit him.
"They've pulled out all the stops to dig up as much dirt on me as they can," Zinna says. "They have threatened for years to expose my quote-unquote criminal history. Michelle Lawrence has threatened me. Rick Sheehan has threatened me. John Masson called a press conference last year to release my criminal file to reporters. They've been on a campaign to smear me for a long, long time."
Although he's made "mistakes," he adds, "I don't care what you say about me. I'm not an elected official. I don't manage taxpayer money. I don't answer to corrupt bureaucrats. I'm my own dog. I will not be blackmailed."
That the administration-friendly Courier would find Zinna worthy of such a lengthy blast is one measure of how bothersome he's become in the past nine months. He's been a player in county politics for years, but few people had heard of him before his business dealings with the county commissioners turned sour, leading to the launch of his vitriolic website.
Four years ago, BJC, which builds and leases airport hangars, embarked on a plan to develop a hotel and other ventures on 100 acres at the county airport. The county soon backed out of the deal, though, prompting BJC to file a breach-of-contract lawsuit. In court filings, Zinna claimed to have tape recordings of Sheehan and Lawrence threatening him, boasting of their power over other officials and seeking the "appropriate tribute" for their support.
But many of the tapes were never made public, and a judge dismissed Zinna's claims last fall. He started JeffcoExposed on the heels of that decision, which he's now appealing. He spends most of his time on the website and related battles with the county, leaving many aspects of running BJC to his business partner, Robert Wyler.
From the outset, Zinna's web venture struck a nerve with county officials. Lurching between sophomoric humor and dogged investigation, JeffcoExposed served up a bewildering onslaught of calumny, satire, gossip and startling inside dope that suggested uncomfortably high-placed sources. Officials' cell-phone and travel records, alleged extramarital affairs and bulging waistlines were scrutinized in detail. Nicknames were doled out with abandon -- "Boom Boom" Lawrence, "Slick Rick" Sheehan, "Uphill" Tuthill. Images of Jeffco political figures were Photoshopped to suggest their kinship with Hitler, Dracula, Oliver Hardy and, in one case, a blow-up doll.
"Certain Jefferson County officials are already openly threatening a lawsuit against JeffcoExposed.com and its semi-funny but mildly retarded Editor-In-Chief," reads one early entry. "Apparently, the Œpowers that be' prefer their media coverage served up nice and sweet and spun to a shiny luster. The 5th Floor Muck Shovelers just love to plant stories about their political enemies but can't stand the pungent aroma of their own crap baking in the sunlight. In case the Shovelheads didn't get the memo: In court, you will show up with your lawyers and your rhetoric, and JCX will arrive armed with the facts. Any time. Any place."
Although he's often promised "more to come" than he's actually delivered, Zinna has drawn blood on occasion. He relentlessly pursued claims of office sexual harassment that eventually led to the resignation of two county supervisors. And he's been ferocious in his support of Susan Johnson, a county CPA who supplied a memo in support of BJC's lawsuit, was fired and then quickly reinstated, and has since filed an intent to sue various county officials, claiming harassment and slander.
Last spring, Zinna earned an award from Westword for "Best Online Gadfly." But his screeds were beginning to attract heat as well as readers. When the county commissioners approved a stiff hike in the fees to research and copy public records last spring, it was no secret that Zinna's increasingly voluminous requests had triggered the move. When he placed a graphic of a mushroom cloud over the Taj Mahal, to illustrate how Johnson's lawsuit would be "carpet-bombing" Jeffco administrators, Zinna was paid a visit by a Jefferson County investigator assigned to the FBI's joint terrorism task force. (The publicity boosted his hit count.) He's also come under fire for describing Marvin Heemeyer, whose suicidal rampage through Granby in an armored bulldozer drew national headlines, as a "brutalized citizen" driven to despair by bad government.
Zinna says he's missed only five county commissioner meetings in the past six years, a better attendance record than that of any official or reporter. But when he enters the Taj Mahal these days, he's immediately joined by an escort of two sheriff's deputies, who remain nearby wherever he goes -- even though he's never threatened to get physical with any of his foes. "It was just an attempt to intimidate me," he says. "But I'm not going away."
Zinna frequently relies on anonymous sources for his broadsides, but he says he takes pains to verify information before running it. He adds that he's had his share of kooks and just plain liars trying to use his website to settle a personal score. So he was understandably wary when he received the first fax from Pinky T last May, sent from an Albertson's store in Arvada.
The fax was riddled with accusations of sexual misconduct and cronyism in the county assessor's office. It mentioned an "interesting flyer that was being circulated at the May 1st Republican Assembly" -- an anonymous cartoon that attacked County Assessor Kevin McCasky, who is running for a county commissioner's seat. It also referred to two well-known county employees as, respectively, "Limp Dick" and "Pencil Dick."
I'm so glad that you are ripping the county, especially Boom Boom, Slick Dick and Uphill Tuthill...As a former employee of the county, it is disturbing to see how a person who does nothing and knows nothing can receive this kind of salary for the past six years. When I worked there, I worked my tight ass off while [Pencil Dick] sat and read the paper...
Don't we as county taxpayers deserve to know the truth behind these hidden secrets and the unqualified people who are being paid these outrageous salaries, before other appointees are paid for their Œspecial expertise'?
Please do not disappoint me and pass up this HARD evidence! Hope that you, Fonzie [sic] and I can have ŒHappy Days' in near future.
"From the very first fax," Zinna says, "I knew this person had access to inside information. He knew these people."
The timing of the fax was curious. Just five days earlier, McCasky had confronted Rick Sheehan at a public meeting over Sheehan's criticism of salaries and appointees in McCasky's office. According to Zinna's account of the showdown, posted on JeffcoExposed, Sheehan had been verbally thumped in the exchange: "It's clear that McCasky does not take kindly to attacks on his loyal staff and his office's stellar performance. Sheehan made a serious miscalculation by targeting McCasky in public, and Sheehan was later seen to be nursing a nasty ass-chewing that Coroner Carl Blesch quickly verified matched the Assessor's dental records."
Zinna was eager to hear more from Pinky T -- but not, he says, because he planned to report on the alleged crimes of Pencil Dick and Limp Dick.
"My goal was to draw this person out," he says. "I wanted to find out as much about this person as I possibly could. I had no intention from day one of printing those faxes, but I did want to know the identity of the person. I had a strong suspicion that he was up to no good."
Zinna replied to the fax in the "Back At You" section of the website, his only means of responding to his anonymous tipsters. "Pinky T: Only the first page of your fax came through," he wrote. "Would you like to meet Fonzi for coffee?"
Six days after the Albertson's fax, Pinky T struck again -- this time from a Kinko's in Lakewood. This fax attacked new targets, including county commissioner Pat Holloway, who was frequently at odds with Lawrence and Sheehan on board issues. And once again, there were allegations of sexual hijinks (and impotence) in high places:
I'm back -- I've been out of town the past six days. I must say that I am still looking for that information I provided you a week ago...
It is well known around the county circles that [name deleted] and "still can't get it up" have been having an affair for years...For that matter, no one on that fifth floor can keep their little heads where they belong.
If your goal is to expose all of Jeffco's crooks and corruption, then you must be unbiased in your reporting and report ALL the facts.
Glad that you moved the picture of you and Fonzi up to a more prominent place on your website. YUMMY!
Zinna responded on his web page with another plea to meet in person. "If you want us to run that story on Limpy and Pencil, we need docs to prove it," he wrote. "If it checks out, it's front page. Trust us, no one gets spared."
After a two-week silence, Pinky T responded with another harangue. This one came from the Lakewood Kinko's, too. But this time the bile was directed entirely at Zinna himself:
I have waited and waited for you to produce something other than the same OLD news. You have failed miserably. Connections I know do not even read your corny website anymore...
You are a huge disappointment to me and others. I gave you great scoop on Limp and Pencil and you insult me with the request for docs to prove the information. Get a life little boy! You and I know damn well that you have written story after story citing all kinds of mis-truths...There is a reason why the REAL newspapers don't publish some of the lies you print.
Sorry to hurt your feelings, but Pinky T. won't be meeting Fonzi and his little partner for coffee anytime soon. You are all dried up little friend. Your website needs to be more exciting or it, too, will dry up with your little part! You are boring the few readers you have left...
I gave you great scoop and you shriveled up and whimped [sic] out in the printing department...You are a coward and a fake!
Pinky T. is moving on. Potsy and Ritchie [sic] are looking better than Fonzi and his little friend everyday!
Zinna had had enough. Quite apart from the belittling of his manhood six times in five paragraphs, the fax had a bizarre undercurrent of menace that was creeping him out. And it was accompanied by a copy of the anonymous flier attacking McCasky. He knew he had to get to the bottom of this.
He fired off another "Back At You" response, promising results and urging Pinky T to chill. "There's blood in the water on your story," he wrote. "We tracked down all we need, so it's on the shelf right now." At the moment, he added, he was giving priority to stories about Lawrence, Sheehan and Wally Pulliam, who's running for Lawrence's seat on the board.
Zinna had reason to sound cocky. By this point he'd visited the Kinko's in Lakewood and noted the surveillance camera. He realized that Pinky T had been caught on tape, thong or no thong.
To get the tapes, Zinna filed a lawsuit -- two, actually -- alleging harassment by unknown parties. He obtained subpoenas and had them served on Albertson's and Kinko's. He received hours of surveillance video and scanned them until he found the parties who were at the counter at the times the faxes were sent.
The May 18 fax from Albertson's, urging him to investigate Limp Dick and Pencil Dick, matched up with a video of a man in a white shirt who appears to have borrowed Rick Sheehan's hairline. The May 24 fax from Kinko's, attacking Commissioner Holloway and others, was sent by a dead ringer for Assistant County Attorney Beyer-Ulrich, who's been Zinna's nemesis in many county dealings concerning the airport.
Zinna hasn't released the video that corresponds to the June 14 "get a life little boy" fax and declines to say who's on the tape. "I'm keeping a little powder dry," he says. "If they try to cover up, I've got a few surprises for them."
His quarry didn't know he'd obtained video evidence of their identities. A few days later, he received yet another communiqué from Pinky T, responding to his earlier assurances:
Trust me, I will chill when the "blood in the water" story comes to fruition...People are SICK of you rehashing the same old BORING stories. Where are YOUR docs? MOVE ON, MAN!
Here is another tidbit that you probably don't even know about. [Name deleted] is NOT the altar boy you think he is. Use your investigative skills to unleash the torrid affair he has had (still having?) with a hot little brunette...and then we'll decide who owes who coffee.
P.S. I've been studying your picture nightly...the 25,000 hits are from me, little boy...I think you'd be much sexier if you'd take off all that unsightly hair from your face...Just what is it that you are trying to hide?
The fax came from a Kinko's in the Denver Tech Center. Zinna fired off another subpoena and was provided with a tape of a third faxer, whom he readily identified as Sheri Sheehan, the commissioner's wife.
Three days after that fax was sent, Zinna cornered Rick Sheehan at a Republican breakfast gathering in south Jeffco. Tape recorder in hand, he peppered the commissioner with questions:
"Are you the Pinky T faxer?" he demanded.
"Absolutely not," Sheehan shot back.
"You never sent any faxes from Albertson's to JeffcoExposed.com?"
"Terrific. Thank you very much. Do you know who did? Somebody who looked exactly like you on surveillance tape."
"That person kind of looks like me?"
"Exactly like you," Zinna insisted. "Could it be you?"
"No? It's not you?"
"Let me see the surveillance tape."
"I asked you a question. Is it you on the surveillance tape, sending disparaging trash about certain people in this room to JeffcoExposed.com?"
"What surveillance tape?"
"The surveillance tapes I procured via subpoena from Albertson's."
"Can I see them?"
"No, you cannot."
"Then I can't answer your question," Sheehan said.
"Yes or no," Zinna said. "Do you need to see it to know if you've ever -- "
"I have never faxed anything from Albertson's, never in my life," Sheehan said.
"Excellent. I appreciate it. Thank you."
Later, when he listened to the tape of the conversation, the first part of the exchange struck Zinna as particularly odd. Most people, he reasoned, when asked if they were the Pinky T faxer, would want to know what the hell he was talking about. If they'd never heard of such a thing, they'd want to know what it was.
Commissioner Sheehan simply denied it, without hesitation.
Zinna says he's spoken with every one of the six people named in the Pinky T faxes, whom he describes as "victims" of a botched defamation campaign.
"They're outraged," he says. "By the language, the allegations, by who it came from. Every one categorically denied every allegation made against them."
The perps are "going to answer for this under oath," Zinna vows, "in a civil case, whether it's mine or one of the victims'. Rick and Sheri Sheehan and Cynthia Beyer-Ulrich are facing a posse of individuals who want them to answer for this. If they try to dispute that they're responsible for these faxes, there's a mountain of evidence to contradict them. They're cold busted."
But the people Zinna accuses of being the Pinky T faxers do dispute it. Commissioner Sheehan's calendar for the day of the Albertson's fax indicates he was in a public meeting all morning and met with Jim Moore, the county's human resources director, at one o'clock. Moore confirms that the meeting took place in Sheehan's office on that date, within a few minutes of one o'clock; Moore had a meeting with another commissioner right after that, at 1:30. The time stamped on the fax, which was sent from a location seven miles from Sheehan's office, is 12:58 pm.
An electronic log of Sheehan's comings and goings from the Taj Mahal that day, based on a magnetic card reader in the Taj Mahal garage, indicates that he left the building at 11:20 that morning and returned at 12:47. County spokesman Masson says the card reader is "extremely accurate" and corresponds closely to real time, which gives Sheehan a comfortable margin of time and distance from the offending fax.
Still, the alibi is hardly ironclad. In studying the tapes and the faxes, Zinna discovered numerous discrepancies between the time indicated on the surveillance tapes and the time stamped on the faxes. When he visited the fax outlets, he discovered that the machines were often out of sync. In one case, there was a full 24 hours' difference in the two readouts. And both video and fax records could be at odds with the actual time by several minutes, due to power surges, machines unplugged and then reset, or any number of other factors.
Whether a jury is more inclined to believe the alibi evidence or the images on tape is an open question. But it's not clear what kind of case could be brought against the Pinky T faxers, even if Zinna's identification of them is accurate. There's no evidence that they disseminated confidential personnel information, for example, or that Colorado's seldom-used criminal-libel statute could be successfully applied to people venting their spleen at government employees.
But expect Zinna and his allies to pressure the county to take some kind of action. "I think the faxes are slanderous," says Frank Hutfless, a former county attorney who's named in one of them. "There is an element of payback here, and an element of ego and uncontrollable temper and immaturity."
Hutfless resigned abruptly as county attorney in 2001 after tangling with Rick Sheehan and Michelle Lawrence on several matters. He has seen the surveillance tapes and says he has "no doubt" that the faxers are the Sheehans and Beyer-Ulrich. He's no longer active in Jeffco politics and doesn't know why he was singled out for attack. One possible motive, he suggests, is that the faxers believe he's a key source for JeffcoExposed.
"The suspicion over there is that I am in the middle of perpetuating what Mike writes about, and that's absolutely not true," he says. "But I've never seen anything that Mike has done that's been a lie. They'll do anything they can to get rid of him. It's amazing how far they have gone."
Hutfless notes that, since all three of the alleged faxers work for public agencies, violations of standards of conduct could be involved -- particularly in the case of Beyer-Ulrich, whom Zinna has accused of sending the fax attacking Hutfless and Commissioner Holloway.
"If I was county attorney," Hutfless says, "and I was convinced that someone who worked for me did this, I'd fire her immediately -- not only for insubordination, but for ethical violations. One of the people she made comments about was one of her employers. You don't go around badmouthing the person you work for. You don't subject your boss to public ridicule. Totally irrespective of whether the statements are true or false, you don't tolerate this kind of action."
He sighs. "There is so much history underlying all this stuff," he says. "It's a Machiavellian political realm over there. Mike has been a terrible thorn in their sides. They've been violating the law for some time, and no one, especially [Jefferson County District Attorney] Dave Thomas, has held them accountable. As a consequence, they keep doing more, until they get to the point where doing slanderous activity is just second nature to these people.
"It doesn't surprise me that they've hung themselves out like this. The only thing that surprises me is that it's taken this long."
Rick Sheehan is in the middle of his second term as Jefferson County commissioner. Both Michelle Lawrence and Pat Holloway are facing term limits, so two seats on the board -- and the leadership of the county -- are up for grabs this fall. Zinna is looking forward to covering the election as well as the fallout of the Pinky T faxes. How will Jeffco's GOP-leaning citizenry react to the spectacle of high-ranking Republicans being slimed from the shadows, allegedly by other prominent party members?
"The Republicans need to take a hard look at this and clean their own house," Zinna declares. "I've been shouting from the mountaintop about Tuthill and Cynthia, Rick and Michelle for years. Now the chickens are coming home to roost at the worst possible time."
He chuckles. "And it's their own damn fault," he says.
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