Mike Zinna: Jeffco on hook for legal fees in costly court battle

When developer-turned-muckraker Mike Zinna won a modest $1,791 judgement against a former Jefferson County commissioner in 2009, after years of convoluted intrigues and litigation, his supporters hailed the decision as an important, if largely symbolic, victory for the rights of online government critics. But this week, an appeals court ruled that the verdict should carry a substantial financial impact, too.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that Zinna is entitled to reimbursement of his legal fees in his civil-rights battle against county officials who, he claimed, tried to silence and intimidate him. And while the sum involved will probably be somewhat less than the $503,000 bill Zinna submitted, it's likely to be hundreds of thousands dollars more than the $8,000 U.S. District Senior Judge Richard Matsch awarded him.

"The law's pretty clear that when you prevail in a First Amendment case against the government, the government picks up the tab," Zinna says. "When you consider what they spent defending this case, the taxpayers are probably on the hook for millions -- and all because these people wouldn't apologize. At one point I offered to settle the case for one dollar and an apology."

Zinna's long-running battle with the county (the subject of several Westword articles, including this 2008 cover story) began after a real-estate deal with Jeffco went sour, and the self-appointed gadfly launched a website devoted to exposing official misconduct. County commissioners -- including Jim Congrove, a one-time Zinna ally -- responded by using sheriff's officers and a private investigator to shadow him and research his background, and by interfering with his ability to comment and ask questions at public meetings.

Zinna also accused Congrove (who passed away during the course of the lawsuit) and other officials of being involved in an anonymous website, ColoradoWackoExposed, that posted various criminal and civil court documents relating to Zinna and contained personal attacks.

A federal jury awarded Zinna $1,791 for his trouble, a figure derived from the year of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Judge Matsch ruled that Zinna's victory was a "technical" one at best and awarded him only $8,000 in legal fees -- a thousand dollars for each day of trial. Zinna, who now lives in San Francisco, appealed that decision.

The Tenth Circuit ruling is a stiff rebuke of the well-respected Matsch. While Matsch saw Zinna's suit as motivated to a great degree by "personal animosity" for Congrove, the appeals panel describes the blogger as a legitimate journalist: "Although his reporting was somewhat hyperbolic, Zinna uncovered several public scandals, including an incident of sexual harassment that resulted in the resignation of two county officials.... Zinna may not have been engaged in high journalism, but we do not agree that his tone undermined the value of his work."

The ruling (read it in its entirety here) directs Matsch to recalculate and award reasonable fees for work done by Zinna's attorneys on his First Amendment claim -- which should come to significantly more than a dollar and an apology.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Revenge of the gadflies: Douglas Bruce and Mike Zinna win free-speech verdicts."

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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