With the city's attention riveted on this year's high-profile race for mayor, few are paying any heed to the five candidates vying for the auditor's job. The campaign, however, isn't the dull-as-dishwater affair it may appear to be on the surface. In fact, while nobody was looking, it got downright nasty.

Denver's auditor is the chief financial watchdog over a mayor's office that enjoys broader powers than that of almost any city in the country. The position is the second-highest in Denver city government, pays $84,000 a year and often serves as a political springboard into the mayor's chair.

That makes it one of the city's most desirable political assignments--and with the campaign in the home stretch, the mud is flying and the skeletons in the candidates' closets are starting to rattle.

It turns out, for instance, that candidate John Charles Gonce served time in jail after being charged with spousal abuse in the 1980s, according to court records. Gonce also harbors a strange, deep-seated resentment toward Mormons, whom he has accused of "devil worship," court records show.

"I have no use for Mormons," Gonce says today. "They're liars, cheats and thieves. And you can quote me."

State senator Don Mares, the apparent front-runner in the race, has vowed in campaign literature "to be sure each [tax] dollar is prudently spent." But sources at City Hall claim Mares used political connections to finagle himself a $11,500 contract with the city attorney's office last year at a time when his law firm was struggling financially. (Mares defends the contract as valid.)

Candidate Jack McCroskey, former chairman of the board of the Regional Transportation District, enjoys renown as the father of the city's new light-rail system. But McCroskey is genuinely loathed by a number of current and former members of the RTD board, some of whom claim the agency considered seeking a restraining order against him in 1992 after he began harassing RTD employees with abusive phone calls.

"Mr. McCroskey is a Jekyll and Hyde," says former RTD chairman Ken Hotard. "Jack can be as pleasant as you want him to be. You turn around and he's a monster."

The lone woman in the race, Sandy Adams, has made much of the fact that she's the only candidate with a true accounting background. But McCroskey campaign manager Ted Gleichman accuses Adams of "lying about her CPA status" and points out that she didn't obtain a Colorado accounting license until just before the auditor's campaign began. "I think it speaks to her integrity," Gleichman says.

Meanwhile, the campaign of the fifth candidate, Denver City Councilman Dave Doering, has been teetering on the verge of collapse. Doering's campaign manager, Frances "Fabby" Hillyard, a former political appointee of Mayor Wellington Webb, quit after a quiet falling-out with the councilman a few weeks ago. The wife of Doering's campaign treasurer was seriously injured in a bizarre accident in Atlanta, forcing the cancellation of an important fundraiser. And in recent weeks, Doering's opponents say, he has virtually dropped out of sight, missing almost all of the auditor candidate forums and debates.

Doering, who's also been branded a Webb lackey by his opponents, acknowledges he has considered throwing in the towel but now vows to see the campaign through to its conclusion. "I didn't get into this race to lose," he insists.

If you vote for him, John Gonce says in his campaign literature, he "will make you proud."

The 56-year-old Republican, who has never before held elective office, swears he is the only true conservative in the race. The owner of his own Denver realty company, Gonce promises he'll always be on the lookout for fraud, waste and corruption at City Hall. He labels his four opponents--including Adams, a fellow Republican--as "liberals" who wouldn't have the backbone to stand up to whoever wins the mayor's seat.

"They're full of crap up to their ears," Gonce says of the other auditor candidates. "I'm the only one that should be running."

Gonce is using more than $40,000 of his own money to pay for a newspaper adverti-sing campaign. But he hasn't advertised his controversial past.

After his second wife, Ruth, petitioned for divorce in 1991, the couple went through a nasty, drawn-out battle in Denver District Court over custody of their two daughters. According to court records, Gonce served time in jail after being convicted on a domestic-violence charge.

Police records filed in Denver County Court show that Gonce was arrested in 1989 after allegedly slapping his wife while they were arguing over money. "She told him she was going to call the police and [Gonce] said, `If you call them, it will be the last time,'" the arresting officer wrote in the wake of the incident.

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Arthur Hodges