The Lords of Payback
In the endless muddle of battle between Mike Zinna and The Powers That Be in Jefferson County, moments of truth have been hard to find. But once in a while there's a burst of light over the benighted trenches, like a flare from heaven, that offers a glimpse of the absurdity, the outrageousness, the possibly criminal nature of what's going on.
Such a moment took place in the federal courtroom of U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch a few weeks ago, during a hearing to decide whether one of Zinna's serial lawsuits against the county could proceed to trial. A longtime critic of public officials in Jeffco who's turned to talk radio, webcasts and online muckracking to skewer his enemies, Zinna has sued the board of county commissioners and others, claiming they've used the power of their office to try to shut him up, slander him and otherwise stomp on his constitutional rights.
The case has been getting its acid test in front of Matsch, the veteran jurist who presided over the sprawling Timothy McVeigh trial. One of the most feared and respected figures in Colorado legal circles, Matsch doesn't suffer fools — or conspiracy nuts — lightly. He can get downright biblical with impudent lawyers and others who fail to observe proper protocol in his courtroom; he once threatened a police chief with contempt simply for rolling his eyes.
The Zinna hearing had barely begun when Matsch began frowning at Patrick Tooley, the attorney representing Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Congrove. Tooley was going on and on, addressing Matsch casually as Judge, instead of using the time-honored honorific Your Honor. Not a big deal in some courtrooms, perhaps, but not something you do in the kingdom of the Honorable Richard Matsch. Finally, hizzoner could stand no more.
"Stop calling me 'Judge!'" he barked. "This is a formal proceeding."
Tooley apologized. Matsch scowled. As the hearing went on, it became clear that his wrath was directed less at Tooley than at his absent client, Commissioner Congrove, whom Zinna is also suing individually. Matsch had already deemed Zinna's case against the county commissioners "pretty weak," since he hadn't seen any evidence that it was the board's policy to retaliate against its critics and try to intimidate them. (A few days later, Matsch threw out Zinna's claims against the board as a whole.) But the gadfly's case against Congrove himself, acting outside of his authority — that was something else.
Shortly before the hearing, Zinna had filed a slew of documents with the court, and Matsch had read them with great interest. One was a 21-page summary of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's probe into the use of county funds to conduct surveillance on Zinna. Another was the latest in a series of witness affidavits suggesting possible involvement of county officials in the creation of an anonymous website, now defunct, that had defamed Zinna and made use of confidential e-mails hacked from Zinna's own computer. Much of the material's connect-the-dot allegations about outrageous, vindictive conduct seemed to lead back to Jim Congrove.
"We have a broader case now," Matsch said. "This is a circumstantial-evidence case, for sure...[but] you can't use the power of government to chill the speech of a political critic."
Matsch didn't think there was any point in hearing Tooley's plea to throw out the claims against Congrove. He wasn't inclined to find that, as a government official, Congrove had any immunity from liability, either. "I think this case has to go forward," he said. "It's clear to me that Mr. Congrove needs to go in front of a jury in this room."
Matsch may be the first public official in Colorado to agree with Zinna on that point. Since Congrove and two other commissioners took office in 2005, the board and the county attorney's office have been the targets of numerous ethics complaints and law-enforcement investigations, most of them revolving around alleged retaliation against Zinna. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office spent months puzzling over the disappearance of 8,000 pages of Zinna-related documents from the county attorney's office. The Arvada Police Department and a grand jury looked at possible bank fraud after someone forged Zinna's name on documents dealing with business transactions involving Congrove. A special prosecutor and the CBI poked around the hiring of a private investigator to tail Zinna. But while the investigations have uncovered what one prosecutor calls "troubling" behavior, to date no one has been charged with doing anything illegal.
His opponents maintain that Zinna's claims of retaliation are groundless. That he's harassed a procession of public officials with litigation for years in an effort to squeeze money out of the county. That he's not a crusading journalist but a hustler with a checkered past, seeking revenge over a development deal at the county airport that went bad.
Congrove has called Zinna "a dangerous individual" and accused him of trying to extort money from the county. The commissioner has been more restrained lately, saying he doesn't want to go into details because of the pending litigation, but he laments the "waste of resources" devoted to fighting his nemesis. Zinna-related litigation has cost the county more than $430,000 since 2004 for in-house legal work and fees for outside counsel such as Tooley — and that doesn't include the cost of employee time consumed by ethics investigations and other fallout.
"I think it's very sad," Congrove says. "This whole thing just doesn't go away."
Zinna has heard all this before. Four years ago, the previous board was also calling him a nut case and dismissing his claims of corruption and dirty tricks. Then he unmasked commissioner Rick Sheehan, who resigned after being implicated in sending anonymous faxes to Zinna defaming other county employees ("Outfaxed," August 5, 2004). If county officials didn't act like thugs in their efforts to retaliate against him, Zinna says, taxpayers wouldn't be stuck with their legal bills.
"It's remarkable that no one has been charged," Zinna says. "I think they should spend the rest of their lives in prison for what they've done. Certain Jefferson County officials have committed one felony after another. They've committed federal crimes. And they've used the power of the government against its citizens. If I hadn't lived it, I wouldn't have believed it."
Whatever ax Zinna has to grind, the guys on the other side seem to have a much more impressive collection of cutlery. Recently released CBI interviews, internal county memoranda, witness affidavits and court records stemming from the Zinna litigation suggest that a culture of payback is still thriving at Jeffco's Taj Mahal, where the three elected commissioners control an annual budget of $382 million. The documents may not amount to a smoking gun — the case against Congrove, as Matsch noted, is highly circumstantial — but they do present a dismal picture of backroom deals and backstabbing intrigue, cronyism and petty vendettas, snitches and "confidential informants" and veiled threats. And running through it all is a dangerous level of Zinna obsession, something you might find in a weird little art-house film. Take your pick of opening scenes:
A county commissioner heads out to the airport with a pair of binoculars to keep an eye on Zinna. A county attorney talks about knowing people who can make problems like Zinna disappear. Zinna's sex life becomes a topic of discussion — and, apparently, surveillance — on a rogue website created by a tax protester with strong ties to Republican leaders in the county.
Confidential files vanish overnight or are leaked to the press for political leverage. Key employees are hired, promoted or fired not because of their sterling qualifications, but because of who or what they know. The county treasurer is charged with soliciting a kickback from an aide, only to claim that he was set up by a county commissioner.
"Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil," Thomas Paine wrote. "In its worst state, an intolerable one." The lords of payback in Jefferson County have boiled this down to a simple motto:
You mess with us, we mess with you.
When three new commissioners came to power in Jefferson County in 2005, no one was happier than Mike Zinna. His dealings with the old board had gone from cordial to contentious to incendiary, and he didn't see how things could get any worse.
But they did. The honeymoon lasted, at best, a few weeks.
Zinna had emerged as a self-styled "vigilante journalist" in 2003, shortly after a company he was involved in lost a costly legal battle with the county over the right to develop property adjacent to the airport. He attacked county officials relentlessly on his website, JeffcoExposed.com, with a barrage of sophomoric taunts, inside dope and old-fashioned investigative reporting. The annoying site quickly became required, if clandestine, reading in cubicles at the Taj.
His adversaries pushed back. The Evergreen Canyon Courier ran a stinging exposé that detailed Zinna's history of failed businesses, civil suits and domestic-violence charges; although almost all the material presented was available through public records, Zinna accused county officials of leaking files to the reporter. When Zinna posted a satiric graphic on his website depicting the Taj blowing up in a mushroom cloud, he was interrogated by a member of a federal terrorism task force. Then came the anonymous faxes, signed by "Pinky T," which Zinna regarded as a ploy to ruin him by getting him to publish false information.
The new boardmembers, by contrast, promised a more open, more efficient style of government. One was Kevin McCasky, the former county assessor, who'd been a target of the "Pinky T" attacks. Another was Jim Congrove — a former legislator, ex-cop, and longtime heavyweight among Jeffco conservatives. Congrove had been a serious contender for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 1998 but had lost his state senate seat two years later to Sue Windels. When Mark Paschall was elected county treasurer in 2002, he brought former Statehouse colleague Congrove with him to the Taj as an appointee. Zinna got behind Congrove's bid for the commissioner's seat and more or less campaigned for him by savaging the opposition on his website.
A few weeks after the election, Sheehan, the one holdover from the old board, resigned in disgrace, bedeviled by the "Pinky T" debacle and other controversies. He was replaced by Dave Auburn, and Zinna was now facing an entirely clean slate down at the commissioners' office. For several weeks, his website became unusually quiet while the parties tried to thrash out a settlement over various Zinna-related lawsuits and appeals.
In subsequent court filings, Zinna claims that the new regime demanded, as conditions of any settlement, that he stop filing open-records requests, showing up at board meetings and running his website. He says Congrove, the board's new chair, told him, "You need to decide if you're going to be a developer or a reporter."
"He wanted the website to go away," Zinna insists. "He said, 'We've got good people in there now.' And I said, 'Well, the good people have nothing to worry about.'"
Jeffco officials have disputed Zinna's version of events. But no settlement was ever reached, and the combatants were soon back in action. Zinna purchased airtime on KHOW for a Saturday-night talk show. And life inside the executive offices of the Taj Mahal began to get very, very strange.
On May 20, 2005, Assistant County Attorney Lily Oeffler arrived at work and found that a box of files she'd left on her desk the night before had gone missing. The materials, more than 8,000 pages in all, were part of the ongoing Zinna cases, including confidential attorney-client stuff. When an internal search failed to turn up the files, the theft was reported to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.
The sheriff's investigation yielded no shortage of theories about the heist. Some in the Taj suggested that Zinna must have done it, in an effort to cripple the county's defense — although how such a readily identifiable foe could have crept in and out of the Taj after business hours, at a time when he'd supposedly been banned from the building, was unclear. Zinna contended that it was an inside job, possibly to deep-six illegally obtained files on him that would otherwise have to be produced at trial.
But while detectives stewed over that mystery, a new round of accusations erupted between Zinna and Congrove. Zinna turned over two loan documents to the Arvada police, claiming that they were evidence of bank fraud on Congrove's part. One was a rental agreement for a property owned by Congrove, signed by a "Michael Zinnia." The second was a $5,000 bill of sale for a 1988 Dodge truck that listed Zinna as the buyer; the seller, a longtime friend of Congrove's, was seeking to show assets for a loan to purchase a house from Congrove. Zinna denied any involvement in the transactions and denounced both signatures as forgeries.
Both documents predated Congrove's election. Zinna told the cops he'd obtained them in late 2004 from his girlfriend at the time, Lori Stille, who happened to be an employee at Congrove's bank. The vigilante reporter had then apparently sat on the explosive records for months before going to the authorities ("Dog Days," November 10, 2005).
Congrove denied any knowledge of either document. He accused Stille of filling out the vehicle bill of sale for his friend. "This whole thing is a scam," he told Westword in 2005.
But whose scam? Stille acknowledged helping the truck seller with the paperwork but denied any part in the forgery. The Arvada police turned their investigation of Congrove's loan arrangements over to a grand jury, which failed to produce any indictments — but the panel didn't formally exonerate the commissioner, either. It simply failed to reach any decision at all.
That wasn't the end of the matter, though. Congrove was apparently incensed that Stille had turned over information from his loan files to Zinna. A man named Michael Murphy, who used to date Congrove associate Kathy Redmond, claims to have been present on various occasions when Redmond and Congrove talked about Stille with private investigator Daril Cinquanta. "Mr. Congrove and Mr. Cinquanta had extensive discussions regarding Ms. Stille," Murphy wrote in an affidavit, "that generally regarded the topics of 'getting her fired from the bank' and 'making her pay' and 'getting her thrown in jail.'"
Stille has since filed a lawsuit of her own against Congrove, Cinquanta and the county. She claims that Congrove harassed her daughter, made threats and even got her fired from her job — by urging County Treasurer Paschall to talk to officials at the bank where she worked about pulling the county's accounts, which amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. In a 2007 deposition, Paschall denied seeking Stille's termination but expressed his belief that Congrove "wanted to punish Lori Stille." Congrove has denied making any threats or efforts at retaliation, saying he was just concerned about the security of the county's funds. The case was scheduled to go to trial next month, but Stille's attorney recently withdrew, and no new date has been set.
Meanwhile, after months of interviews, sheriff's investigators failed to solve the case of the files missing from the county attorney's office. They did, however, uncover a few details about an assistant county attorney named Duncan Bradley that have helped to stoke Zinna's litigation efforts.
Bradley was hired shortly after Congrove took office — at the commissioner's insistence, sources inside the Taj say. The two men had worked together at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office decades earlier and had kept in touch after Bradley moved to New Mexico. He came back from Las Cruces to work for the county even before he was admitted to the Colorado bar, which left him relegated to paralegal duties for a short time. "There was a considerable amount of hostility when it was discovered I was there at the request of a commissioner," Bradley later recalled in an exit interview.
The new hire had been on the job only a few days when another employee told him to be careful about talking to Susan Johnson, the internal auditor; the staffer said she was a "snitch" for the commissioners. (Johnson, an ally of Congrove's and onetime ally of Zinna's, had her annual salary boosted from $70,000 to $96,000 in less than two years.) Bradley reported that conversation to Congrove and was soon regarded as Congrove's top "confidential informant" in the county attorney's office. The pair met frequently for breakfast, and Bradley freely admitted to doing "administrative" work at Congrove's request. Although he was assigned to do legal work for the county's Department of Human Services, he seemed to spend a fair amount of time on Zinna-related tasks for Congrove.
The sheriff's investigators discovered that on the evening the Zinna files disappeared, someone had given the office copier quite a workout. Both Congrove and Bradley had been in the executive offices after Oeffler left. Both men denied any knowledge of what happened to the files.
Much, much later, an employee of the county attorney's office contacted the investigators to report something that happened ten months after the files disappeared. The employee had encountered Bradley at the office copier one morning in the spring of 2006. Bradley seemed to be having trouble using the copier to scan documents to a disc, so she offered to help him. She ended up keeping an extra copy of the disc for herself. The disc contained roughly fifty pages of Zinna court records and police reports.
The investigators didn't think the documents had anything to do with the theft. There was some overlap between the records on the disc and the missing materials, but several of the documents on the disc referred to events that happened after the theft of the files. And these were "clean" copies — they didn't have the distinctive Bates stamp numbering used by the county attorney's office on the missing files.
But that wasn't why the employee had contacted them. A couple of months after she'd helped Bradley scan his paperwork, she'd seen some of the same documents posted on ColoradoWackoExposed.com, an anonymous website attacking Zinna. She told the cops that "the documents on the website had the same page breaks, hole punches and information that were on the CD." She was concerned about the county's liability if people in her office were providing material for a defamation campaign against Zinna.
Of course, much of the Zinna-hating scoopage posted on ColoradoWackoExposed had been widely distributed by this point. Like the mug shot of Zinna in an orange jail jumpsuit, captioned, "EXPOSED? ISN'T IT TIME FOR THE TRUTH?"
The same photo had run in the Canyon Courier at one point. The same photo had been seen in Bradley's possession. In fact, the same photo hung prominently on the wall, like a trophy, in Jim Congrove's office.
It didn't take long for the rift between Zinna and the new board to widen into an abyss. During the public-comment period offered at weekly board meetings, Zinna showed up regularly to pepper the commissioners with questions — particularly Congrove, the board's chairman. Because of the mushrooming lawsuits, Congrove declined to answer. It was a tense standoff, played out week after week for the benefit of any reporters who might be present.
The board moved the public-comment period to the bottom of the agenda so that hardly anyone would be left in the room when Zinna headed for the podium to demand his three minutes. The opportunity for comment was reduced to twice a month, then once.
The commissioners frequently closed their doors and went into executive session. On one occasion, Heath Urie, a reporter for the Columbine Courier, was ejected from the hearing room when the board declared that it was going into executive session to seek legal advice. The subsequent conversation Urie overheard from the hall was all about how to handle Zinna during the public-comment period ("Open Case," August 2, 2007).
A mute button was installed at the chairman's seat, allowing him to cut off the microphone of the speaker during public comment. Among the few people who knew of its existence, the button was known as the Zinna Switch.
After Jim Moore became the county administrator in 2006, he ordered the switch removed. Formerly the county's personnel director, Moore thought the commissioners were overly consumed with Zinna matters; they'd even asked him to consult with sheriff's deputies about beefing up security at the Taj because of the alleged threat Zinna posed. Moore expressed concern to County Attorney Frank Hutfless that Hutfless, too, was becoming "emotionally involved" in the Zinna litigation.
Hutfless had resigned years earlier over conflicts with the Sheehan board. He'd been brought back by Congrove's board, with Zinna's enthusiastic support. But mounting frustration over the renewed lawsuits, the intrigues over missing files and other matters was evident in some of the remarks the county attorney made to Moore; Moore found the comments so "creepy" that he took notes, which he later shared with CBI agents.
On March 1, 2006, Hutfless told Moore he was planning to have a professional threat assessment done of Zinna by a private firm. He said that he could make one phone call and have Zinna "relocated," that people disappeared every day, dropped out of a plane over the ocean and never seen again. "I don't think Mike Zinna has gotten to the point where I need to make a call," he said.
Moore told the agents that he didn't take the comments seriously; he considered them "hot air kind of stuff." Hutfless has characterized them as a joke. He apparently didn't pursue the threat assessment — the company he contacted wanted too much money. But he did hire someone to conduct surveillance on Zinna: private investigator Daril Cinquanta, a former Denver police officer and close friend of Jim Congrove's.
Questioned months later by the CBI about the use of county funds to follow Zinna around, Hutfless couldn't recall if Congrove had suggested hiring his buddy. Cinquanta was a logical choice, Hutfless explained, because he was familiar with the Jefferson County airport, and the assignment was to determine whether Zinna was using a hangar there as his residence, in violation of airport zoning, and whether Zinna's attorney at the time, Chris Paulsen, was also living there and operating a business.
Zinna says he made no secret of the fact that he was living in the hangar. And it's hard to see how Jeffco citizens got much value for their money as Cinquanta's operatives tailed Zinna, snapped pictures of him visiting a motorcycle dealership with a blonde — and even videotaped his rants at public county commissioner meetings, which were already being recorded for posterity. At one point Congrove himself got into the act; he was questioned by a sheriff's deputy after Zinna called in a "suspicious vehicle report." The deputy found the commissioner in his county vehicle, giving the Zinna hangar careful study through binoculars.
The full scope of Cinquanta's work for the county remains unclear. There was no contract, no public vote about hiring him, and commissioners McCasky and Auburn said they only learned of his employment after the fact. Of the close to $7,300 in invoices submitted by Cinquanta's company, one refers vaguely to "internal investigations," while another apparently dealt with an inquiry Congrove had sought regarding the Taj custodial contract. Much more was ultimately spent investigating what Cinquanta was investigating; news of the county's use of a private eye triggered an ethics complaint that was turned over to the CBI and a special prosecutor, Adams County District Attorney Don Quick.
Cinquanta denounced the probe as a "witch hunt" and refused to be interviewed by investigators. "I received no assignments to 'spy' on county employees or citizens from any commissioner or county attorney," he wrote in a letter to the CBI. "I am tired of this ridiculous circus...I do not intend to comment further as to this situation, verbal or written."
McCasky told the agents he didn't learn that Cinquanta was working for the county until the fall of 2006 — seven months after the Zinna billings began. He then told Hut-fless he wouldn't support such expenditures. Auburn didn't find out until around the same time, when he ran into Cinquanta while putting up yard signs for his re-election campaign.
"He said he was so thankful that we had hired him to do work because he didn't know if he would have made it had he not had that income," Auburn recalled in a deposition. "I was in shock. I had no knowledge of this, and I was surprised that we would hire a private investigator without the commissioners knowing."
The CBI agents interviewed dozens of county employees and found much that was perplexing. They discovered that internal auditor Susan Johnson had free use of a condo in Dillon, courtesy of Daril Cinquanta, and that Johnson didn't see any potential conflict of interest in the arrangement. They learned that, in the midst of being investigated over the possible misuse of county funds in the employment of his friend Cinquanta, Commissioner Congrove was considering donating an additional $33,000 in county funds to a non-profit organization that listed Cinquanta as its officer and registered agent. The money was part of a $100,000 gift to the county from the Kaiser-Hill Legacy Foundation; each commissioner was allowed to allocate a third to nonprofits of their choice, and Congrove had indicated he might designate his share to the Rocky Mountain Aviation Center, a proposed confluence of aviation-related charities and service organizations at the Jeffco airport. (Congrove recently told Westword that he hasn't yet donated the funds but still intends to give them to the center.)
The agents got an earful from staffers about the hiring of Duncan Bradley, the rabid intrigues inside the Taj, and what one investigator summed up as "office mistrust, fear and discomfort regarding Congrove's management style and decision-making."
But none of this added up to a crime, Quick concluded. Still, the DA was troubled by the sort of ethical vacuum that seemed to surround the whole matter. That Congrove, a former cop, could tell the agents who visited his office that Hutfless had control of the files produced by Cinquanta's investigation, when they were in Congrove's possession the whole time — it defied understanding, like the files themselves, which seemed to disappear and reappear in a rolling file cabinet at whim.
For his part, Congrove didn't think he had anything to apologize for. Hutfless had hired Cinquanta, not him. He conducted his own inquiries into whatever county business required his attention, and he wasn't going to stop doing that.
Congrove's investigations, like his confidential informants, were very much a part of his management style. McCasky told the agents that he didn't share everything he knew with Congrove and vice versa, that "it is the nature of the business to not share all information."
Asked if he ever thought the commissioners themselves had been investigated, Auburn recalled a particular conversation with Congrove: "Jim walked into my office one day and told me he was investigating Frank [Hutfless] and he was investigating Jim Moore. I thought later on that he's probably investigating me. I had a conversation with Kevin McCasky shortly after that...and Kevin made the comment that he felt that Jim Congrove was probably investigating him. Did I think he was investigating me? Yeah."
Zinna has depositions. Zinna has affidavits.
One affidavit comes courtesy of Robert Laidley, who leases a hangar at the Jefferson County airport and knows fellow airport denizens Zinna and Cinquanta. According to Laidley, Cinquanta interviewed him in the summer of 2006 in the course of his investigation on behalf of the county. Cinquanta let him know that Mike Zinna was not his favorite person.
"Mr. Cinquanta stated to me, in relation to Mr. Zinna's journalistic activities, 'What comes around, goes around,'" Laidley recalled. "Mr. Cinquanta also stated that he and Commissioner Congrove were 'messing with Mike because Mike had messed with us.'"
Cinquanta boasted that he'd had a long conversation with Zinna's ex-wife in Florida, and that the information he'd gleaned was going to be posted on the ColoradoWackoExposed website. He wanted Laidley to let Zinna know that this was a direct result of his own actions. "Let him know that this is what happens when you screw with us," Cinquanta allegedly told him.
Another affidavit is signed by Margaret Purnell, who identifies herself as a former Cinquanta client. Purnell states that she's now involved in a legal dispute with Cinquanta over her mountain condo — the same condo the private investigator was loaning out to certain county employees. Purnell also states that in the summer of 2006, after learning that she was a fan of Zinna's radio show, Cinquanta directed her to the ColoradoWackoExposed website. He told her, "My friends and I are exposing him. We're going to destroy him."
Purnell claims that Cinquanta called her several times to urge her to check out new documents posted on the site: "Mr. Cinquanta stated that his friend had lots more documents and Zinna will be finished."
Michael Murphy, the former boyfriend of Congrove associate Kathy Redmond, declares in his affidavit: "Ms. Redmond told me that it was Mr. Congrove who had arranged to set up the 'spoof' website attacking Mr. Zinna...Mr. Congrove had informed her that he arranged for posting on the 'wacko' website material from Jefferson County's files on Mr. Zinna."
Former county commissioner Auburn recalls that Congrove was looking for someone with web savvy shortly before ColoradoWackoExposed appeared. "A suggestion had been made on several occasions by Mr. Congrove that we needed to find someone to put that site up," Auburn said in a deposition. "He had given me the entire criminal record of Mr. Zinna and would hold it up and say, 'We need all those documents posted on the website.' I scoffed it off, because in no way was I ever going to be a party to such activity."
At some point after that conversation, Auburn added, he saw an anonymous e-mail announcing that the site was now live. Other county employees saw the same message.
Congrove has steadfastly denied any involvement in creating or developing ColoradoWackoExposed. He says Auburn's account is dead wrong: "Dave is badly mistaken. He must be a little upset about losing that election." (Auburn lost his bid for re-election in 2006 and says Congrove actively campaigned against him.)
To this day no one has taken responsibility for the content of ColoradoWackoExposed, which was online for only a few weeks in 2006. If the site had merely posted public-records materials about Zinna, that wouldn't be much of a concern. But Zinna claims that the people behind the site violated federal wiretapping statutes in their efforts to ruin him financially and otherwise. "The organization ColoradoWackoExposed," he says, "is a criminal enterprise."
On June 14, 2006, Zinna was working on his e-mail at home when he saw an unfamiliar sedan outside, loaded with electronic equipment. The next day, ColoradoWacko posted "a public WARNING for those considering doing business with Michael Zinna." The page dished about potential radio projects and sponsors, a proposed meeting with the editor of Westword, bars Zinna liked to frequent — even some messy allegations about his sex life. Much of the material had been derived from the e-mails Zinna had been writing a few hours earlier; someone had evidently hacked into his wi-fi network and intercepted them. Around the same time, packages of Zinna-trashing documents were anonymously mailed or e-mailed to several local media outlets.
Zinna went after every scrap of information he could find about the site. It was supposedly registered to a "Michael Randolph" in Belize, but he ultimately tracked the site back to Robert Cook of Lakewood — a man who, years earlier, had helped set up the official website of the Jefferson County Republican Party.
Cook was a familiar figure around the Taj. He showed up at commissioners' meetings to complain about county taxes, made the circuit of GOP breakfast get-togethers and had even met with Congrove in his office. This was significant, in Zinna's view; in addition to attacking him, ColoradoWacko also made a point of praising Congrove: "If you had to leave the country for a year, or longer, you could trust Jim with your life savings and your wife. Upon your return they would all be in tact [sic]."
Congrove had encouraged Cook to apply for the job of county information technology director, but he didn't get the position. Cook described himself as a "sovereign American" and claimed that the court system didn't have authority over him. Zinna sued him anyway.
Cook claimed not to know who had hired him to set up the website. In a deposition, he described finding a package at his door one evening that contained $200 in cash, documents about Zinna and a request to launch ColoradoWackoExposed. He said he created the website, then returned the original documents to the source and handed over control of the site through the same second-rate-spy-thriller means of communication.
Zinna has yet to make a criminal complaint about the raid on his e-mails two years ago. "It's coming," he says. "I just don't want to see another investigation result in no charges."
Ironically, Zinna's daily webcast (on zinna.com) no longer deals with county or even state issues. He says he prefers to talk about national issues and doesn't want to further complicate the ongoing litigation. Several other players in the Taj intrigues of the past few years have changed their focus, too.
In November 2006, Duncan Bradley was informed by his supervisor that he had fifteen minutes to clean out his office. He gave an exit interview that blasted various staffers in the county attorney's office and questioned their competence. "They consider the elected officials to be short-timers," he said. "Then they had a county commissioner show up who did not want the job to begin with but got talked into it. So he starts asking questions about how money is spent and what is it spent on. They see him as an enemy.... Guys like Jim Congrove and me are not motivated by money or position."
The commissioners authorized an audit of the county attorney's office, which some regarded as payback for Bradley's departure. (Congrove denies this.) County Attorney Hutfless protested the audit, calling it a waste of time and money. When Congrove supplied Hutfless's confidential memo to the press, Hutfless resigned — but not before a heated confrontation with Congrove at a final board meeting, during which each man called the other a liar. Months later, Hutfless told the CBI agents that he was "sick of Congrove not doing the right thing" and had resigned because the stress of the relationship was overwhelming.
Treasurer Paschall lost his bid for re-election in 2006. Shortly before leaving office, he approved a $25,000 bonus for his aide, Kathy Redmond — and was promptly indicted for allegedly telling Redmond to split the money with him. At his trial for attempted theft last February, Paschall unveiled a peculiar defense: He was only kidding around about a kickback, see, but Redmond went to her good friend Congrove, who went to the police, who arranged for Redmond to tape incriminating conversations with Paschall.
"We are here because Jim Congrove hates Mark Paschall with an undying passion," Paschall attorney David Lane told the jury. The enmity, he suggested, had to do with Paschall's refusal to cooperate when Congrove demanded to know what he'd told the grand jury that was looking into Congrove's loan arrangements.
The jury acquitted Paschall of the theft charge but failed to reach a verdict on a charge of improper compensation. A new trial on that charge is scheduled for next month. Congrove, who's accustomed to being blamed for all sorts of things in Jefferson County, has expressed utter bafflement at the notion that he's somehow responsible for Paschall's predicament. But the defense theory of a setup is one Zinna readily embraces. "I believe every word of it," he says.
Last January, Congrove announced that he won't be seeking a second term as commissioner. He's backing Faye Griffin, the county treasurer who unseated Paschall. Assessing his legacy will be no easy task — in part because Congrove himself declines to talk about how the battles with Zinna affected his job. "Ask me about that after I've left office," he says.
Zinna himself tried to explore the Congrove legacy in a deposition of the commissioner a few months ago. The room was packed with lawyers paid for by the county, the air filled with objections. Little of substance emerged, other than Congrove's repeated profession of the things he did not know.
Asked if he had memory problems, Congrove replied that he didn't know. Asked if was an honest person, he replied that he didn't know. Asked to name his accomplishments as county commissioner, he replied that he couldn't think of any. Asked if he believed in freedom of speech, he paused as the seconds ticked away — then asked if that was part of the First Amendment.
But there was one area of inquiry that required no fencing, one question that the commissioner could answer without hesitation.
"You don't like me, do you?" Zinna asked.
"I think you're as phony as they come," Congrove said.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.