CSU: Legal troubles show its uglier side

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We’ve all known them — people who maintain a public façade of amiable thoughtfulness and civic engagement. But it’s strictly for public consumption. The real person may be very different.

Companies can be similarly two-faced. When Exxon consummates multi-billion dollar deals with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or when tobacco companies aggressively peddle their deadly products in Third World countries, their leadership teams find ways to excuse or dismiss such conduct.

But sometimes reality intervenes and the façade crumbles.

Consider Colorado Springs Utilities, our municipally owned water, electricity, natural gas and wastewater service provider.  For nearly a century, CSU has provided our growing city with affordable, reliable and responsive service. Hence the oft-repeated slogan:

“It’s how we’re all connected.”

CSU’s public face is benign and reasonable. CEO Jerry Forte is an incredibly nice person, as are the department heads and senior managers with whom I’ve interacted over the years. But in view of a couple of recent legal disputes, there’s a Mr. Hyde lurking behind Dr. Jekyll.

Chiddix Excavating, a small local contractor, sued CSU for damages after a utility employee summarily revoked the company’s licensed utility service installer certification in the middle of a job, effectively putting the company out of business.

The company contended that CSU didn’t follow its own rules and civil damages were appropriate. CSU argued it hadn’t actually revoked the license — merely suspended it — and Chiddix was at fault. Never mind all the evidence to the contrary!

At CSU’s request, the suit was heard in federal court. A jury agreed with Chiddix, awarding the company compensatory damages of $1.5 million plus attorney’s fees and other expenses, bringing the total to almost $2 million. CSU plans an appeal, and asked the trial judge for a stay of execution and a waiver of appeal bond.

So far, it sounds like an ordinary commercial dispute, albeit a particularly bitter one. The jury’s award seems disproportionately large, unless the jurors were angered and dismayed by CSU’s conduct. And parsing the careful language of Judge R. Brooke Jackson’s order regarding a post-trial motion by the defendants, that may well have been the case.

The city had requested that it be excused from posting an appeal bond, basically making the “Great and Powerful Oz” argument. Noting that it’s a stable municipal corporation, the city asserted that Chiddix “does not face the collection challenges that it would in other circumstances.”

Judge Jackson denied the motion.

“I am not convinced that a stay without bond would do no harm,” he wrote. “I assume that the City is, and will remain, capable of paying the judgment. But the City has fought Chiddix vigorously on essentially every issue, large and small, and I suspect that the presence of a bond and a bonding company might provide some motive to pay the judgment promptly if the judgment is sustained. Finally, I don’t see how the public would be harmed by requiring the City, like other litigants, to post an appropriate bond. A bond would be purchased with taxpayer funds. But the public also has an interest in upholding the constitutional rights of the citizens, including execution of judgments when those rights are violated. A jury of citizens has determined that the City did violate Chiddix’s constitutional rights.”

As if confirming Jackson’s suspicions, Colorado Springs ignored his order to post an appeal bond until Chiddix’s exasperated attorneys placed liens on city properties and garnished city bank accounts.

Meanwhile, CSU continues its quarrel with Leslie Weise, the single mom/attorney who wants CSU to release an air quality modeling study it commissioned years ago.

Through official negligence, Weise was sent an electronic copy of the study (which had been sealed by El Paso County District Court). She promptly returned it without surreptitiously forwarding it to friendly media. Based on a newspaper story, CSU is “requesting that Ms. Weise pay for the legal expenses regarding the filing of the motion to prevent her from discussing the sealed documents.”

In both cases, it’s hard to understand CSU’s decision-making process. If CSU had abided by its own rules or worked with Chiddix to mitigate supposedly faulty work, the utility wouldn’t be facing a $2 million judgment. And guys, do you really think that you’re going to gain anything by going after Leslie Weise? She’s a crusader for Truth, Justice and the American Way — and you’re the schoolyard bully.

As G.W. Bush might have said: They need a new strategery. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Steve Shepard

    Municipal utilities and co-ops have always been fertile ground for corruption and graft. That is why many, many people aspire to join these organizations and get in on the party. This most true at the management level where these folks can get a high paying job and really do very little for their pay except attend meetings and deny the public and hired help a turn at the public nipple. And at the utilities’ disposal are the marketing and legal services of the City or the district. These resources allow them paint a pretty picture across their actions and behavior. While they laugh all the way to the bank.

  2. Jacquie Ostrom

    I absolute agree with Mr. Hazlehursts critical view of CSU’s legal behavior. At the December Utility Board meeting I approached Mr. Rick Griffith, one CSU’s lead legal staff, after he gave a presentation just before the break. I extended my hand to shake hands with him and have a civil conversation about a few of the discrepancies he had just presented. He was very hesitant to shake my hand, by I insisted. After stating that I was disappointed that he’s withholding the (air quality) report, he said harshly to me “You Would!” and stormed off, without any opportunity to talk about what he left missing in his presentation. He presented only to the UB that CSU was legally seeking sanctions against Ms. Weise, and left out that they are also seeking fines and possible imprisonment.
    Further, he stated that the report was being withheld for legal privilege due to the possibility of a suit by the Sierra Club and others. If he had any knowledge about the Sierra Club he would know that they have no interest in this report, as they already commissioned their very own similar report by Wingra that showed similar Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) non-compliance and egregious violations of the Clean Air Act of 2010. And just who are the “others” he thought would go after CSU for this report that require keeping it secret? The State of Colorado (CDPHE) and the EPA have already made their ruling on the matter, (Unclassifiable) so they don’t care. The EPA could have legally called in the report but has evidently decided not to. All that’s left is for CSU under the misguided direction of attorney Rick Griffith, to hide it from the public they serve. Very sad indeed that we’ve come to this in our community. Hiding the air quality report from the very citizens they serve and after all, the citizens paid for it. Why can’t they just admit – look we have a problem and here’s what we’re doing about it. Why does CEO Jerry Forte always have to put forth a picture perfect, but false impression? It’s ok to admit you have a problem. I think we need new leadership at CSU and new legal staff.

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