Riddle Me This
Sam Riddle is Colorado's man of the hour. The $250 hour.
Next Monday, members of the Legislative Audit Committee (who, as lawmakers, collect considerably less for their labors than Riddle does for consulting) will dissect the state auditor's report on Riddle's deal, a personal-services contract with Secretary of State Victoria Buckley that guaranteed him $10,000 a month and expired June 30.
But Riddle's already off and running--at the mouth and on the meter. "It's very likely that I'll continue with the secretary of state," he says. "How many more years does Vikki Buckley have in office? Well, how many more years do you think I have here?"
Tough question, Sam. Three--which means three? But only if Buckley, first elected secretary of state in 1994 and re-elected last fall (Riddle says he pulled her up to victory from only 27 percent in the polls), doesn't move on to greener pastures.
Say, the verdant pastures of New Hampshire--or maybe the cornfields of Iowa, just ripe for harvesting by Riddle's candidate. After all, Buckley is the highest-ranking elected black female Republican in the country--not that she believes in being categorized, as she told the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Denver this past May--and she could be a major player in the next presidential election. "You can shape a party's agenda with someone who may not technically have a shot," assures Riddle, who counts campaign work for Jesse Jackson in his very colorful past.
But right now, Colorado's green enough for Sam Riddle.
Since Buckley signed his contract on December 1, 1998, Riddle has worked an average of 53 hours a month for her office and collected over $92,000--the initial seven months at $10,000 per, with an additional $22,500 approved by the state controller just last week. "And that's not one penny of general-fund dollars," says Riddle.
Riddle, a native of Michigan who worked for this state's Joint Budget Committee in the late Seventies, resurfaced here last fall as a campaign consultant for the beleaguered Buckley. At a ludicrous press conference, Riddle managed to interject his own question about the $7 million "Madam Secretary" had returned to state coffers before reporters told him to pipe down, and Buckley abruptly terminated the interview. It was not Riddle's finest hour--but, hell, he wasn't collecting $250 per back then.
There are 168 hours in the week, Riddle points out (no charge for the math), and he can do his duty by Buckley (whatever that may entail) and still have "enough time for screwing off and volunteer activities and all that." He insists he's not being paid--except in headlines, some wanted, some not--for his work as spokesman for the Shoels family, a gig brokered by Buckley, who attends the Shoelses' church and put them in touch with Riddle shortly after the slaying of Isaiah Shoels. Riddle, in turn, connected the family to Geoffrey Fieger, the pitbull attorney who ran for governor of Michigan last year--with Riddle as his manager, until a falling-out had Fieger calling Riddle crazy and Riddle calling him worse. (They're too similar, Riddle says now, but even though he still thinks Fieger is an "asshole," he's arranged for the lawyer to meet this week with the daughter of Dave Sanders, the teacher who died at Columbine. "That's a scoop," he says helpfully.)
And then, of course, there are all those extra-curricular activities Riddle has performed for Buckley: helping with her surprise appearance and speech before the NRA, then traveling with her to Washington, D.C., where Buckley spoke before a Republican women's leadership group and Riddle got into a fight with a TV producer who accused him of cussing, which he freely admits to doing--"Hey, fuck you, man"--but only after he'd been falsely accused of cussing. Publicity over those antics inspired Senator Mike Feeley's May 28 call for an audit of Riddle's contract: He seemed to be "engaged in public relations work of a purely political nature," Feeley wrote to Senator Doug Linkhart, head of the audit committee.
Politics were at play, all right. When state auditor Dave Barba subsequently asked Buckley for documentation of Riddle's qualifications, as well as the work that had resulted from the contract, Buckley instead responded with a three-page letter dated June 22. "The request for hindsight information appears to be rooted in unfounded bias," she sniffed, "in that no other statewide elected official has had to put up with such a paternalistic action."
Then again, no other statewide elected official has been paying $250 an hour to a consultant for the past seven months--much less paying it to a consultant who, when he's not punching the Colorado clock, winds up hosting a radio blabfest and hanging up on the secretary of state's own constituents. Even as Barba was drafting his report last week, Riddle popped up behind the mike on Jay Marvin's KHOW show. He didn't have to look far for guests: He served up the Shoelses in another headline-grabbing interview. It was two, two, two jobs in one.
Buckley didn't mention his juggling skills in her defense of Riddle's qualifications. She didn't mention his work on her campaign, either. "Mr. Riddle's strengths include the ability to deal with governmental agencies and bureaucracies to achieve management objectives," she said. "He has an extensive background in troubleshooting where adverse working conditions, tight deadlines and low budgets dominate situations."
And conditions don't get much more adverse than they are at the secretary of state's office, where disgruntled employees who complained bitterly last year about Buckley's bad management now have added Riddle's bad performance to their laments. He's a whiz on computer solitaire, says one worker who pulled him off a game to ask a question--but that doesn't mean he's remotely qualified to do computer work for the state. "Some employees just don't want to give a full day's work for a full day's pay," Riddle responds. "I can justify my existence for every hour I've been there."
Even though his committee will be reviewing Barba's audit, Linkhart says there's not much they can do now, since elected officials are allowed to issue sole-source contracts. "We may look at legislative changes to stop this excessive flexibility," he adds. "I don't think elected officials should have different standards from other officials." Appointed officials can't issue such contracts unless their recipients are uniquely qualified.
Riddle certainly qualifies as unique. He's as profane as a sailor on shore leave, as volatile as those plutonium triggers they once made at Rocky Flats. And his half-life at the secretary of state's office promises to be almost as long.
Maybe he'll finally find the time (at $4 per minute) to return calls from Civic, the "Boulder technogeeks" (as Riddle terms them) who were so frustrated by the secretary of state's slow pace in putting up campaign-finance information that they set up their own Web site--beating Riddle's amateurish effort by almost a year.
Maybe he'll find the time to update Buckley's "happy surfing" Web site on other developments in the office. For example, it still lists Bill Compton as head of the elections division--but Compton was one of many employees who fled the office over the past few years. (He's now with the Denver Election Commission.)
Maybe Riddle will even get a minute to chat with Mike Shea, director of the Central Indexing System, the database financial information that was once part of the secretary of state's office--until the legislature got so fed up with Buckley that the CIS became its own agency in July 1996. In a harsh audit of her office issued last summer, Buckley's work with the CIS came in for particular criticism. Her solution? Assign Riddle to review the external and internal needs of the CIS system.
He completed that task without ever contacting the head of the CIS. "I have not talked to Mr. Riddle except for maybe two minutes in early May in Biloxi, Mississippi," says Shea, who was there for the International Association of Corporation Administrators convention when Buckley, who hadn't attended before, showed up with Riddle. "I introduced myself. He seemed surprised to see me--almost as surprised as I was to see them."
That's Sam Riddle--the man of the hour.