Behind the harassment bombshells from the ‘dark underbelly’ of Colorado’s Capitol

If you listen to public radio in Colorado, you’ve likely heard the voice of Bente Birkeland who covers the Capitol for 15 local stations based out of KUNC in Greeley. In recent weeks she’s blown the doors off the statehouse with a series of scoops about a creepy, sexualized culture under the gold dome in Denver— a place not typically accustomed to salacious scandal.

Just as harassment allegations have drawn national headlines and rocked Congress, Hollywood, and the media biz, Birkeland’s exposés in Colorado have been consequential on a smaller, local stage. Birkeland’s stories came about organically, not based on a tip or from following up on social media postings. And she didn’t have anyone in mind before many of her interviews started pointing her in the direction of a Democratic lawmaker who also just happens to be running for state treasurer. For Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project I sat down with Birkeland to talk about the story behind her stories.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

You’ve been here for a decade. The indication is this type of behavior has been going on for a long time. Do you feel like you missed a story for 10 years? 

I told a lobbyist, “I wonder why no one has ever reported this,” and she said, “No one has ever asked us before.” I’m not out drinking with lobbyists and being part of the gossip. I’m not as tied into the lobbyist world as maybe I should be just in general. And so that’s probably not something that really would have been on my radar. But, yeah, I mean it probably should have been done earlier, when there’s people not feeling safe and quitting and [it involves] aides and interns and there’s not an objective process where you can even express a concern. Let’s say you didn’t want to file a formal complaint. A lot of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds aren’t going to be comfortable saying, “Don’t look at me that way.” I definitely didn’t realize it was as pervasive as it is, especially for the younger people in the building. And there is that power dynamic. The system is not really set up to protect them when you have to go to legislative leaders.

Birkeland is still on the beat and breaking news. But, like any reporter worth her salt, she doesn’t feel like she’s done enough. “I’m glad with the light we’ve shown on this issue so far, but I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t feel like I can sit back and say, ‘Wow, we’ve done our job,'” she says. “So that’s really tough. If I don’t get some of these stories I’m chasing, I know I will always look back and wish I had.”

Now let’s go deeper. Here’s the story behind what keeps Birkeland’s coverage coming

At the bottom of each KUNC story Birkeland files you’ll find this: “Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.”

So what is Capitol Coverage and its collaborative arrangement? Well, Meg Dalton and I recently wrote for CJR how public radio across the country is re-thinking journalism with an “eye toward more robust, coordinated local coverage.” As it turns out, there’s a homegrown effort right here in Colorado called the Rocky Mountain Community Radio coalition that’s been around for 16 years.

What began in 2001 as the High Country Community Radio Coalition with eight stations has turned into RMCR and counts 15 local public radio stations around the state as partners. Until 2009, KGNU’s Sam Fuqua, who now runs the Pop Culture Classroom, coordinated the project. Then KRCC’s Delaney Utterback, who died this year, took the helm. The project’s new president is Gavin Dahl, the station manager for KDNK in Carbondale.

So, while KUNC in Greeley, where Birkeland is an employee, has been credited with her impactful recent reporting at the Capitol, know that her work has also been made possible since 2007 because of the 14 other community stations from Crested Butte to Colorado Springs that help pay her salary with membership dues and carriage fees. Here’s a rollcall of all 15 stations with links to something cool about them, because they deserve it: KSJD in Cortez, KDUR in Durango, KDNK in Carbondale, KRCC in the Springs, KUVO in Denver, KGNU in Boulder, KUNC in Greeley, KSUT in Ignacio, KOTO in Telluride, KVNF in Paonia, KBUT in Crested Butte, KRZA in Alamosa, KRFC in Fort Collins, KAJX in Aspen, and KLZR in the Wet Mountain Valley.

A new era of student life: Interviewed by the newspaper, next interviewed by a prosecutor 

This week, The Boulder Daily Camera reported its local District Attorney’s Office determined a group called New Era Colorado “did not violate any election laws in offering rides to the polls and slices of pizza to prospective voters at the University of Colorado last month.”

Something interesting about how that complaint came about: A local citizen who opposed a local (and ultimately successful) tax-extending municipalization ballot measure for the city to form its own utility read a Nov. 11 story in The Camera about New Era’s organizing around the election and its efforts to get young people to vote. New Era, the Camera reported, is “a pro-municipalization group” that “was active on campus this fall and helped boost student turnout.” A Boulder Weekly columnist wrote after the election that “the millennial-oriented activist organization … all but single-handedly saved the muni” and “did a terrific job of identifying, persuading and turning out voters for [the] ballot issue.” But when local anti-muni citizen Patrick Murphy read in the paper about what New Era was doing with pizza and driving voters to the polls he thought it was a “huge no no.” In a Camera story, a student said he was told by New Era, “if you want to vote, we can give you a ride.”

From The Camera:

The complaint was based on a Daily Camera article that detailed the get-out-the-vote efforts by New Era, an advocacy group strongly in favor of Boulder’s municipalization effort, on the CU campus during November’s election.

And, quoting Boulder’s Chief Trial Deputy Sean Finn:

“While Mr. Murphy claims the Daily Camera article describes illegal conduct, the conduct described in the article itself does not appear in itself to be illegal in any way,” Finn wrote in the letter. “Nevertheless, investigators from this office have contacted elections judges working at the polling place in question, the student whose published interview initiated the complaint, and the representatives of New Era.

So, from being interviewed by the local paper to being interviewed by a prosecutor. Bet that was fun.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado 

The Greeley Tribune had a big takeout on the evolution of retail and its effect on local stores and city coffersThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel fronted a piece about area sanctuary churchesThe Longmont Times-Call reported how local police want a database of private security camera locationsThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered how the city is fighting the state’s Independent Ethics CommissionThe Steamboat Pilot reported on an animals-in-the-classroom programSummit Daily covered ground zero of ski mountaineeringThe Boulder Daily Camera had a piece about local high school students trying to curb booze use. “Coal’s Energy Dynasty Nears End,” read the cover story in The Coloradoan in Fort Collins. The Gazette fronted a story about a Colorado College dorm named after a “tainted leader” accused of harassing women, while The Durango Herald reported on a survey showing how common sexual assault isThe Denver Post reported people are leaving Colorado because of traffic, housing costs, and jobs that don’t pay enough.

The Denver Post/Deke Digital industrial complex

In August, this newsletter reported that Greg Moore, who spent 14 years as editor of The Denver Post, took on a new job as editor in chief of a Colorado online marketing company called Deke Digital. Now, guess who the latest Deke Digital hire is? Linda Shapley, who just resigned as managing editor of The Denver Post amid the latest round of layoffs. Shapley spent 21 years at the Post, the last six in senior management. She will be Deke Digital’s customer service director working with clients.

She credits landing her new job to “something I always tell new people in the business: Keep in contact and don’t burn bridges,” she told me. “When I told Greg my news, I asked about a position I saw advertised by Deke Digital on LinkedIn. He connected me to the right person and the rest is history.” She noted many of her future fellow Dekers are also news expats.

I asked Shapley how she might describe Deke when it comes up at a holiday party and she said the company “works with business leaders to help them put what they know out there in the form of op-eds or other commentary.” (For a better idea, here are some examples of how the firm got some of its clients placed in media.)

And why did Shapley bolt the Post anyway? “The circumstances of my leaving are complicated, as most situations are in the news business today,” she says, adding that the last half-dozen years have been tumultuous ones for the newspaper biz. “The fact that the industry is struggling to come up with a successful, sustaining revenue model makes it difficult for not just the newsroom, but every department at the Post. And truthfully, that struggle has been hard on me.”

And that sounds familiar.

Speaking of ex-journalists moving on to content marketing…

Ricardo Baca, former pioneering marijuana editor of The Denver Post got a recent profile in MG Magazine, which chronicled his reinvention as the founder of the Grasslands content agency. The mag asked Baca what made him want to get into marketing.

“I’d never worked outside of daily newspapers, so the jump was thrilling. And while many people are freaking out about cannabis journalists leaving news organizations to work with the industry, this is actually a normal trajectory for writers,” he said. “Going into the industry you’ve been covering has been happening for decades, especially as newspapers are struggling economically.”

Baca calls Grasslands “a journalism-minded content agency that helps businesses where they need it most,” noting all of its employees came from journalism. “Emily Gray Brosious was the lead cannabis writer at the Chicago Sun-Times until July. Previous to her joining Grasslands, Nora Olabi was the editor of a community news website in Houston. All of us have journalism degrees. That, in addition to our thirty-plus years of combined experience in newsrooms, informs everything we do.”

Why The Colorado Independent is fighting in court to unseal death penalty records

The Colorado Independent is going to court to try and pry loose records about prosecutorial misconduct in a death penalty case against a man convicted of murdering a state senator’s son. A judge in the case against Sir Mario Owens found instances where “prosecutors withheld some evidence that could have been favorable to Owens’ side.” But documents in the case are under seal. The Colorado Independent thinks the public should know what led a judge to rule prosecutors improperly withheld evidence in the case.

From The Independent:

Court records show that one of those witnesses was promised and later given a DA’s office car. Some were given gift cards for local businesses. One received $3,400 in benefits, including cash for Christmas presents in the months prior to testifying for the prosecution. If he didn’t cooperate, court records show, one of the main prosecution witnesses was threatened with being charged for the murders Owens was accused of and with receiving two life sentences. Another witness received a suspension of his jail sentence on the condition that he help prosecutors in Owens’ case. People working for the prosecution would appear at informant witnesses’ court hearings and ask for lesser sentences on the condition that they testify against Owens, records indicate. Records also show that informants who had been convicted of crimes were allowed to violate probation and commit future crimes without consequences so long as they cooperated. Owens’ appeal argued that by failing to disclose these deals to Owens’ lawyers before trial, the prosecution rendered them unable to cast doubt on those witnesses’ testimonies and put their credibility in dispute. As a result, Owens’ appeals counsel argued, Owens was denied a fair trial.

“A man’s life is on the line here,” says The Colorado Independent’s editor, Susan Greene. “The public has a right to know in detail how, as a judge has ruled, these public officials mishandled a death penalty prosecution. This is exactly the kind of case that warrants the most public scrutiny.”

The 18th Judicial District Attorney’s office prosecuted the case under DA Carol Chambers and her successor, George Brauchler, who is currently running for attorney general. His office is opposing the unsealing of court papers related to misconduct. “The District Attorney believes that the court in this case has, and can continue to, limit access to portions of its file that may become the vehicle for an improper purpose, namely for the court file to improperly serve as a reservoir of libelous statements for press consumption,” Brauchler’s deputy, Rich Orman, wrote.

First Amendment attorneys Steve Zansberg and Gregory Szewczyk are representing The Colorado Independent pro-bono. Read their motion to unseal the documents here.

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Photo by Corey Hutchins