The Lords of Payback

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Congrove has called Zinna "a dangerous individual" and accused him of trying to extort money from the county. The commissioner has been more restrained lately, saying he doesn't want to go into details because of the pending litigation, but he laments the "waste of resources" devoted to fighting his nemesis. Zinna-related litigation has cost the county more than $430,000 since 2004 for in-house legal work and fees for outside counsel such as Tooley — and that doesn't include the cost of employee time consumed by ethics investigations and other fallout.

"I think it's very sad," Congrove says. "This whole thing just doesn't go away."

Zinna has heard all this before. Four years ago, the previous board was also calling him a nut case and dismissing his claims of corruption and dirty tricks. Then he unmasked commissioner Rick Sheehan, who resigned after being implicated in sending anonymous faxes to Zinna defaming other county employees ("Outfaxed," August 5, 2004). If county officials didn't act like thugs in their efforts to retaliate against him, Zinna says, taxpayers wouldn't be stuck with their legal bills.

"It's remarkable that no one has been charged," Zinna says. "I think they should spend the rest of their lives in prison for what they've done. Certain Jefferson County officials have committed one felony after another. They've committed federal crimes. And they've used the power of the government against its citizens. If I hadn't lived it, I wouldn't have believed it."

Whatever ax Zinna has to grind, the guys on the other side seem to have a much more impressive collection of cutlery. Recently released CBI interviews, internal county memoranda, witness affidavits and court records stemming from the Zinna litigation suggest that a culture of payback is still thriving at Jeffco's Taj Mahal, where the three elected commissioners control an annual budget of $382 million. The documents may not amount to a smoking gun — the case against Congrove, as Matsch noted, is highly circumstantial — but they do present a dismal picture of backroom deals and backstabbing intrigue, cronyism and petty vendettas, snitches and "confidential informants" and veiled threats. And running through it all is a dangerous level of Zinna obsession, something you might find in a weird little art-house film. Take your pick of opening scenes:

A county commissioner heads out to the airport with a pair of binoculars to keep an eye on Zinna. A county attorney talks about knowing people who can make problems like Zinna disappear. Zinna's sex life becomes a topic of discussion — and, apparently, surveillance — on a rogue website created by a tax protester with strong ties to Republican leaders in the county.

Confidential files vanish overnight or are leaked to the press for political leverage. Key employees are hired, promoted or fired not because of their sterling qualifications, but because of who or what they know. The county treasurer is charged with soliciting a kickback from an aide, only to claim that he was set up by a county commissioner.

"Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil," Thomas Paine wrote. "In its worst state, an intolerable one." The lords of payback in Jefferson County have boiled this down to a simple motto:

You mess with us, we mess with you.

When three new commissioners came to power in Jefferson County in 2005, no one was happier than Mike Zinna. His dealings with the old board had gone from cordial to contentious to incendiary, and he didn't see how things could get any worse.

But they did. The honeymoon lasted, at best, a few weeks.

Zinna had emerged as a self-styled "vigilante journalist" in 2003, shortly after a company he was involved in lost a costly legal battle with the county over the right to develop property adjacent to the airport. He attacked county officials relentlessly on his website, JeffcoExposed.com, with a barrage of sophomoric taunts, inside dope and old-fashioned investigative reporting. The annoying site quickly became required, if clandestine, reading in cubicles at the Taj.

His adversaries pushed back. The Evergreen Canyon Courier ran a stinging exposé that detailed Zinna's history of failed businesses, civil suits and domestic-violence charges; although almost all the material presented was available through public records, Zinna accused county officials of leaking files to the reporter. When Zinna posted a satiric graphic on his website depicting the Taj blowing up in a mushroom cloud, he was interrogated by a member of a federal terrorism task force. Then came the anonymous faxes, signed by "Pinky T," which Zinna regarded as a ploy to ruin him by getting him to publish false information.

The new boardmembers, by contrast, promised a more open, more efficient style of government. One was Kevin McCasky, the former county assessor, who'd been a target of the "Pinky T" attacks. Another was Jim Congrove — a former legislator, ex-cop, and longtime heavyweight among Jeffco conservatives. Congrove had been a serious contender for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 1998 but had lost his state senate seat two years later to Sue Windels. When Mark Paschall was elected county treasurer in 2002, he brought former Statehouse colleague Congrove with him to the Taj as an appointee. Zinna got behind Congrove's bid for the commissioner's seat and more or less campaigned for him by savaging the opposition on his website.

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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