The People's Hired Gun

Nearly two years after it began, a federal lawsuit filed by a Denver police captain against Mayor Wellington Webb and other city officials has been all but buried in a blizzard of paperwork and legal maneuvering, with no end in sight. The suit, which alleges sexual discrimination and political retaliation against Miriam Reed, at one point the Denver Police Department's highest-ranking female officer, has become so complex that it may be another two years--or more--before the case goes to trial.

The protracted legal battle isn't exactly good news for Reed or for Denver taxpayers, who are footing the bill to defend Webb, Chief of Police David Michaud, Manager of Safety Butch Montoya and the city against Reed's claims. But it's been a six-figure windfall for Anne McGihon, a private attorney hired by the city to represent its interests in the suit. City records indicate that her law firm, McGihon & Associates, has been paid more than $350,000 over eighteen months for its work on the case.

In fact, McGihon's aggressive defense of the city has already exhausted the city funds budgeted for the case through the end of next year; to continue to pay McGihon's legal bills, city officials will have to amend their contract with her firm, which has already been upped from $50,000 to $70,000 to $361,965.

City Attorney Dan Muse says he's satisfied with the job McGihon is doing. "I don't care what it costs," he says. "I'm not concerned that Westword may be concerned that the bill is $350,000. I have no apologies for spending whatever I need to spend to adequately defend the city's interest."

Muse notes that his office has relied on outside attorneys in a number of cases--usually complex environmental or securities matters in which staff attorneys may lack expertise, or when his office may be shorthanded or facing a possible conflict of interest. The most notable example is probably the $4 million the city coughed up for private legal help in defusing a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the sale of bonds to finance Denver International Airport, which Muse describes as "a well-spent investment."

"My strategy in that case saved the city millions and millions of dollars," the city attorney boasts. "The media always wants to jump on these stories about outside counsel at the front end and make sensational headlines, but nobody tells what a great job we do when we win."

The decision to hire an outside firm in the Reed case--at a cost now approaching four times Muse's own annual salary--is a clear signal that the city is treating the matter quite differently from a run-of-the-mill personnel dispute. Muse says the suit was filed at a time when his office's employment-law division had just lost two of its attorneys, but the McGihon contract lists several reasons for seeking the hire, including the "sensitivity" of the case as well as short staffing.

"I know of three other lawsuits against the police department and the city by current or former female police officers," says Reed attorney Ann Frick, "and in all three, the defense is being handled by staff attorneys at the city attorney's office. This is the only one I'm aware of that has outside counsel, being paid by taxpayer dollars."

Reed's lawsuit charges that she was passed over for the job of deputy chief because Chief Michaud and others in the Webb administration disapproved of her politics, from her outspoken crusading on domestic-violence issues (at one public forum, she reportedly claimed a 40 percent rate of spouse abuse among male police officers) to her support of Mary DeGroot in the 1995 mayoral election. Shortly after Webb's re-election that year, Reed filed a civil-rights complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; the next day she was demoted from her position as division chief, a move she claims was retaliation for exercising her right of free speech. She now heads the department's records section.

City officials say Reed's claims are unfounded, and they have brought in McGihon to defend what they consider to be a crucial issue in the case: the police chief's right, under the city charter, to select his own management team. "This is not an issue about one particular female police captain," says McGihon. "This is an issue of the public safety of Denver."

A forty-year-old veteran of prestigious law firms in Florida and Washington, D.C., as well as Denver's Holland & Hart, McGihon has worked with the city on other cases involving environmental issues and affordable housing. She's also been active in Democratic Party circles as an organizer and fundraiser; last spring she finished second to Phil Perington in a bid to become the state party chair.

Although her firm's promotional materials don't claim a specific expertise in employment law, Muse says McGihon was chosen to handle the Reed case because "she's an excellent complex civil litigation attorney" with considerable federal court experience. And while the $157.50 per hour she's charging the city for her time (less for work performed by associates and law clerks) may seem steep, McGihon says it represents a substantial discount over her usual rates.

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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