It was Friday afternoon, and the wheels of justice were turning more slowly than your average wastewater worker drinks his coffee on an unauthorized break.

During a lull in the inaction, Dave Lougee, news director at Channel 9, made a call back to the office and then sprinted down the halls of Denver County Court. "They've lost O.J.," he said. "I'm not kidding."

But neither was Mike Musgrave, manager of the Denver Department of Public Works. It was because of Musgrave that Lougee had been pulled away from his real work in order to sit in a courtroom while lawyers argued over whether the station should be compelled to surrender the unedited tapes of Paula Woodward's latest investigation of the department.

Musgrave had demanded those tapes by issuing his own subpoenas, employing a power that the voters of Denver unwittingly gave him the last time Woodward pulled the same stunt. Although amendments to the city charter often are billed as mere "housekeeping" matters, the measure approved in 1990 came close to a clean sweep of the First Amendment. It gave all cabinet-level city officials the right to subpoena documents when the "honesty, competency and integrity" of their employees is questioned. And not only do these appointed managers have subpoena power, but their requests take precedence over everything else on the crowded court dockets.

For this hearing before Judge Ray Satter, however, Denver wasn't about to rely on do-it-yourself legal work. Although city attorney Darlene Ebert had led the charge when public works had gone up against Channel 9 on two previous occasions, on Friday she was sitting in the back of the courtroom. The city attorney's office was hauling out the big guns. The hired guns.

The law firm of Musgrave & Theis has worked with the city before--in fact, it's contracted to do almost a quarter million dollars' worth of airport-related tasks. But this time it brought another credential to the table: Earlier this year, the firm had wrested a reputed settlement of $75,000 from the state for Lisa Gilford, the deposed director of the Colorado Film Commission. That situation, too, involved allegations that a public employee wasn't doing his job--although in Gilford's case, they came in the form of quotes to Westword from Larry Kallenberger, Gilford's supervisor.

Now here was Larry Theis arguing the city's case--and, as one of the law firm's partners, charging Denver $125 an hour to do so. Some of the wastewater division employees pictured in Woodward's May series "Keep on Truckin'" had "unblemished records," he told the judge. Channel 9's unedited tapes were "critical" to establish, and possibly dispute, the charges against these men.

To understand how a worker's illicit burrito break could occupy the afternoons of a half-dozen top-level city employees, not to mention a judge and a couple of lawyers from a billing-by-the-hour firm , you have to remember that Woodward has caught public works crews goofing off three times.

Back in 1988 Channel 9 voluntarily surrendered the unedited tapes of Woodward's "Caution: Frequent Stops." But that was before the state's shield law protected the work product of reporters and, not incidentally, before the city used 9's tapes to not only investigate its workers but to compile a report questioning the accuracy of Woodward's work as well. Mike Musgrave, then a deputy manager, led the effort.

In 1989 Woodward documented public works employees making still more frequent stops. This time, though, the station kept the tapes to itself. Musgrave again was assigned the investigation; he somehow managed to discipline the workers in question without scrutinizing the videos. And now, after being publicly embarrassed a third time, Musgrave has subpoena power.

Continually caught napping, the city has yet to wake up to the real message in the Channel 9 reports: The management of public works needs to get a grip. And a grip on the entire department, not just the hapless individuals caught by the cameras.

It's ludicrous that Paula Woodward is doing more supervising of public works employees than is their manager, particularly since the department is in the midst of the country's largest public works project: a $3.7 billion (and counting) airport.

"They view Channel 9 as an investigatory arm of the city," Andrew Low, 9's lawyer, argued. "But the purpose of the press is to gather news and report to the public."

Which, of course, Lougee wasn't doing while he was tied up in court. For that matter, Musgrave, too, was missing business far more crucial to this city's future: a status meeting on the botched-up baggage system.

Instead, he was sitting on the witness stand, telling the court that his department's investigation of the workers had gone as far as it could without Channel 9's tapes. And how far had it gone? Musgrave couldn't say. He couldn't say whether the clerk at Chubbies, where one fellow picked up lunch, had been contacted. He couldn't say if the staff at Dutch Boy Donuts or Burger King, other stops on that same hungry crew's routes, had been questioned. In depositions with Low, Musgrave had maintained he couldn't divulge such details because his lawyers had determined they were "confidential." But now that they were in court, Theis changed his position and advised Musgrave he could discuss the investigation--not, it turned out, that Musgrave had the answers to Low's questions.

The legal about-face had 9's attorney on his feet, claiming he'd been "sandbagged" and demanding a continuance. He got it. Barring some unforeseen action--such as the city coming to its senses and dropping the subpoenas--the complete cast of characters will be back in Satter's courtroom in August. And in the meantime, the meter will be ticking, adding thousands of dollars to the taxpayers' tab.

Coffee, anyone?


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