Longform

The Lords of Payback

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The board moved the public-comment period to the bottom of the agenda so that hardly anyone would be left in the room when Zinna headed for the podium to demand his three minutes. The opportunity for comment was reduced to twice a month, then once.

The commissioners frequently closed their doors and went into executive session. On one occasion, Heath Urie, a reporter for the Columbine Courier, was ejected from the hearing room when the board declared that it was going into executive session to seek legal advice. The subsequent conversation Urie overheard from the hall was all about how to handle Zinna during the public-comment period ("Open Case," August 2, 2007).

A mute button was installed at the chairman's seat, allowing him to cut off the microphone of the speaker during public comment. Among the few people who knew of its existence, the button was known as the Zinna Switch.

After Jim Moore became the county administrator in 2006, he ordered the switch removed. Formerly the county's personnel director, Moore thought the commissioners were overly consumed with Zinna matters; they'd even asked him to consult with sheriff's deputies about beefing up security at the Taj because of the alleged threat Zinna posed. Moore expressed concern to County Attorney Frank Hutfless that Hutfless, too, was becoming "emotionally involved" in the Zinna litigation.

Hutfless had resigned years earlier over conflicts with the Sheehan board. He'd been brought back by Congrove's board, with Zinna's enthusiastic support. But mounting frustration over the renewed lawsuits, the intrigues over missing files and other matters was evident in some of the remarks the county attorney made to Moore; Moore found the comments so "creepy" that he took notes, which he later shared with CBI agents.

On March 1, 2006, Hutfless told Moore he was planning to have a professional threat assessment done of Zinna by a private firm. He said that he could make one phone call and have Zinna "relocated," that people disappeared every day, dropped out of a plane over the ocean and never seen again. "I don't think Mike Zinna has gotten to the point where I need to make a call," he said.

Moore told the agents that he didn't take the comments seriously; he considered them "hot air kind of stuff." Hutfless has characterized them as a joke. He apparently didn't pursue the threat assessment — the company he contacted wanted too much money. But he did hire someone to conduct surveillance on Zinna: private investigator Daril Cinquanta, a former Denver police officer and close friend of Jim Congrove's.

Questioned months later by the CBI about the use of county funds to follow Zinna around, Hutfless couldn't recall if Congrove had suggested hiring his buddy. Cinquanta was a logical choice, Hutfless explained, because he was familiar with the Jefferson County airport, and the assignment was to determine whether Zinna was using a hangar there as his residence, in violation of airport zoning, and whether Zinna's attorney at the time, Chris Paulsen, was also living there and operating a business.

Zinna says he made no secret of the fact that he was living in the hangar. And it's hard to see how Jeffco citizens got much value for their money as Cinquanta's operatives tailed Zinna, snapped pictures of him visiting a motorcycle dealership with a blonde — and even videotaped his rants at public county commissioner meetings, which were already being recorded for posterity. At one point Congrove himself got into the act; he was questioned by a sheriff's deputy after Zinna called in a "suspicious vehicle report." The deputy found the commissioner in his county vehicle, giving the Zinna hangar careful study through binoculars.

The full scope of Cinquanta's work for the county remains unclear. There was no contract, no public vote about hiring him, and commissioners McCasky and Auburn said they only learned of his employment after the fact. Of the close to $7,300 in invoices submitted by Cinquanta's company, one refers vaguely to "internal investigations," while another apparently dealt with an inquiry Congrove had sought regarding the Taj custodial contract. Much more was ultimately spent investigating what Cinquanta was investigating; news of the county's use of a private eye triggered an ethics complaint that was turned over to the CBI and a special prosecutor, Adams County District Attorney Don Quick.

Cinquanta denounced the probe as a "witch hunt" and refused to be interviewed by investigators. "I received no assignments to 'spy' on county employees or citizens from any commissioner or county attorney," he wrote in a letter to the CBI. "I am tired of this ridiculous circus...I do not intend to comment further as to this situation, verbal or written."

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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