A former dam inspector causes trouble over gifts accepted by his boss

The fliers arrived last January, during a balmy interval between subzero cold snaps. They were tucked under windshield wipers in strip-mall parking lots in Parker and Westminster, stuck into screen doors of canyon homes above Boulder. The print was tiny and grim, and right away you could tell this was not good news.

"As you may know," the single sheet began, "you and your neighbors live downstream of a high-hazard dam. That means if the dam fails, loss of human life is expected.

"The following information may be of great interest/concern to you..."

The flier mentioned Mark Haynes, chief of the Dam Safety Branch of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, "whose charge is to safeguard the lives of Coloradoans from dam mishaps." Haynes "has admitted to accepting gifts from engineering consultants who design, construct and alter dams in our state," the flier claimed — gifts that included "tickets to sporting events, meals and golf greens fees."

Haynes was never disciplined for this, the letter continued. Instead, another state employee who reported the gifts to DNR officials "was threatened verbally and in writing" and ultimately fired by the state engineer, Dick Wolfe, "even though there were absolutely no documented problems with his performance.

"State officials apparently don't believe that the possibility of compromised high-hazard dams warrants further investigation; however, as someone whose family's lives and property could be in peril, we believe it should be your choice whether enough has been done to make you feel safe and secure living below what could be a 'ticking bomb.'"

The screed urged citizens to contact their state representatives and Governor John Hickenlooper. It wasn't signed, but it contained an e-mail address for something called Colorado Citizens for Dam Safety.

Despite its alarming tone, the flier failed to trigger a flood of angry calls to the new governor. Many recipients probably didn't bother to read the whole thing. And those who read it closely might have suspected that Colorado Citizens for Dam Safety consisted of an army of one: the fired whistleblower himself.

The fliers are, in fact, only one volley in a long and lonely campaign waged by John Redding, a former employee of the Department of Natural Resources who was fired almost two years ago. A professional engineer, Redding claims he was retaliated against and eventually canned because he was asking awkward questions about gifts accepted by Haynes and others in the Dam Safety Branch, an obscure but vital agency responsible for approving and inspecting more than 1,800 water-storage facilities across the state — including 310 dams classified as high-hazard.

Redding has told his story to lawmakers and ethics panels, to no avail. He's exhausted his savings appealing his termination, only to be rebuffed by an administrative law judge and the state personnel board. (His case is now before the Colorado Court of Appeals.) And although he has no evidence that the gifts accepted by state regulators have actually put anyone at risk, he believes it's a question worth considering.

"It probably hurts me more than it helps me to go public with this, but I think it's an important story," he says. "In my opinion, these guys have done some pretty unethical things. The consequences of a dam failure are so catastrophic that, even if there's only a small chance that [Haynes] did something wrong, I think it's worth looking into."

State officials say they have looked into the matter — repeatedly, exhaustively, ad nauseam. Redding's complaints have generated internal reviews and a blizzard of e-mails over the past three years. Wolfe, the state engineer, maintains that the Dam Safety Branch is above reproach. Haynes, a longtime employee of DNR, wasn't disciplined because he didn't violate the applicable state ethics policy at the time, Wolfe says, and the gifts involved were deemed insignificant. He also denies any retaliation against Redding and characterizes him as an unsatisfactory employee who attempted to cover up his own shortcomings by claiming whistleblower status.

"I was good friends with John for a long period of time, and I didn't take lightly that decision" for termination, Wolfe says. "But I have a responsibility to the governor and the citizens of Colorado to make sure we have competent employees working for us."

There's no reason for the public to worry about dam safety in Colorado, he insists: "I have 100 percent confidence that there's no issue out there, there's no dam that was in any way jeopardized because of any employee accepting a gift basket. Mark Haynes has a tremendous amount of integrity."

Yet the dramatic turnaround in Redding's status at the agency — he went from being a highly praised and valued employee to one who was supposedly lacking in "core competencies" in a matter of months — isn't easily explained, unless you believe (as Redding does) that there were other agendas at work. He had a rocky relationship with Haynes before the gift issue was raised, but his harping on the practice seemed to strike a raw nerve.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast