The Answer to a Riddle

Last Friday night was not Sam Riddle's finest hour--on or off the clock. But his arrest for disobeying a lawful order and mouthing off at a pair of Denver police officers--followed by a sobering night in the slammer--was just the capper on what had been a truly lousy week for Riddle, once Colorado's $250-an-hour man.

On Monday, he'd gotten a public spanking--although you had to listen closely to hear the whacks--from state auditor David Barba, who at the behest of the Legislative Audit Committee had checked into Riddle's seven-month, personal-services contract with Secretary of State Victoria Buckley. The contract was quite legal, Barba had determined: State law allows elected officials to enter into sole-source contracts, even if they're as ludicrous and lucrative as Riddle's $10,000-a-month, $250-hour deal with Buckley.

But was it a good deal for the state?
"A deputy director's position has been vacant in the secretary of state's office for some time," Barba noted in his report to the committee. "It is possible that filling this position would have been the most economical means to accomplish the tasks assigned to Mr. Riddle."

It would also mean that there would be someone in charge of the secretary of state's office right now.

Someone who could sign the papers that require the secretary of state's signature. As it is, anyone walking into that office needing an official name on the dotted line--on incorporation papers, on extradition papers, on adoption papers--is being told to return next week. "Try next Monday," suggested a clerk to one astonished would-be mother.

Because last Tuesday, the day after the audit committee met, Buckley suffered a heart attack that would prove fatal 24 hours later.

By then, of course, Riddle's $250-an-hour skills had been on prominent display. First, he'd made the bizarre suggestion that the police look into whether Buckley's formerly estranged husband had done everything he could to save his stricken wife. Then he'd suggested that if Buckley's spouse wasn't responsible for her condition, the blame lay with the media and Buckley's political enemies, whose criticism of her job performance had put an unbearable strain on her already failing heart.

Riddle conveniently ignored the fact that much of that criticism had focused on Buckley's contract with him--a man whose primary qualification for the consulting job was getting Buckley re-elected last November (over a Democratic challenger so uniformly detested for his role in campaign-finance reform that members of his own party happily voted for Buckley). But while Riddle's other alleged qualifications for the contract screamed for closer scrutiny, he managed to stay out of the spotlight--and in the money--until he picked up another, unpaid job.

It was Riddle's work as spokesman for Isaiah Shoels's family--and his related efforts pushing Buckley as a pitchwoman for the National Rifle Association and as a possible presidential candidate--that suddenly began drawing fire. (It didn't help when he introduced the Shoelses to pit bull attorney Geoffrey Fieger, Jack Kevorkian's onetime lawyer, whose Michigan gubernatorial campaign had been managed by Riddle--until the two got into a very public falling-out that left Riddle free to come to the beleaguered Buckley's rescue.)

By last Thursday, Riddle was suggesting that it was this very important outside work that had prevented him from taking the deputy director's job--which Buckley recently had offered him, he assured us. As a consolation prize, she'd then promised to extend his contract for another year--and another $90,000, which was considerably more than Buckley herself earned for full-time work. But surprise! No evidence of this new contract existed with either the state controller or attorney general--both of whom would have to sign off on it to make sure the contract was as perfectly legal, as perfectly laughable, as the one in force from December 1 through June 30.

Told that the contract was missing (if not outright mythic), Riddle at first hinted at lawsuits--hey, if Fieger can ask for $250,000,000 for the Shoelses, what would an insult to Sam Riddle be worth?--but then decided it wasn't a big deal: "The big deal to me is the loss of the Secretary of State."

But by week's end, the big deal was Bill Owens's snub. The governor had refused--refused!--to reschedule a child-welfare task-force meeting set for Friday so that its chair, Lieutenant Governor Joe Rogers, could help plan the funeral for Buckley (who left behind three grown sons, a husband, a sister, parents, assorted friends and Riddle, all of whom presumedly could pitch in). Rogers had gone public with his displeasure on Thursday (in the process losing his chief aide, who resigned in protest); on Friday, he somehow found enough time to hold an hour-long press conference at which he and Riddle both beat the press.

From there, Rogers went on to the task-force meeting; Riddle apparently had a date with a handy bottle. "I wasn't feeling too much pain," he admits. Late that evening, another driver saw him weaving his way to the house in north Denver where he's been living; when the cops showed up, Riddle popped off. In short, he says, he was a "jerk."

After a week like that, you can hardly blame Riddle for wanting to get out of town once he made bail (at $200 an hour, less than he made for the state). He went clear to Virginia, where on Tuesday he was fielding phone calls from a friend's semi (he's doing some consulting with the trucking industry, he says). The cross-country jaunt prevented him from seeing his friend and patron lie in state Tuesday, and from attending her funeral. But Riddle says he'd already said his goodbyes to Buckley at the hospital.

And anyway, he'll be back. Not at the secretary of state's office--he swears he's done with that--but there's other work to be done, work that cries out for the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer Riddle touch. Work with the Shoelses, and on such crusades as the unpaid task he took on last year for Suzanne Sigona, head of the Denver County Probation Department who'd been named "World's Worst Boss" by the National Enquirer. Sigona's still employed by the city; one by one her critics have been dropped from Denver's payroll. "She simply demanded accountability," Riddle says.

Not unlike the audit committee.
But when the auditor asked Buckley to supply him with Riddle's credentials, as well as any work product he'd completed for her office, she provided just a sketchy outline of his background and duties. "Without such documentation," Barba told the committee, "there is no evidence that the State has received sufficient value for the money spent on this contract."

Or if it got any value at all.
Owens has promised to name Buckley's successor this week. If he's smart, he'll get down on his knees and beg former Secretary of State Natalie Meyer, whose efficiency and early embrace of the computer earned the office praise around the country, to take back her old job. The secretary of state's office can use some tender, loving care--it's been battered from both within and without.

But Sam Riddle keeps on swinging. "I'm not Richard Nixon," he says. "I'll be back to kick around.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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