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.