Power Broken

Along the way to becoming one of the city's most influential figures, politically wired attorney Willie Shepherd bullied, belittled, lied, and then some. And his fellow partners at Kamlet Shepherd & Reichert failed to stop him until two junior attorneys took a stand.

June 2010

This article was a finalist for the 2011 City and Regional Magazine Award in the reporting category. 

On the evening of August 25, 2008, the first night of the Democratic National Convention, Tamayo was the place to be. The pricey Mexican restaurant on the corner of 14th and Larimer streets, with a canopied rooftop deck and stunning view of the Pepsi Center, was the site of an exclusive convention kickoff party. It was filled with local and national VIPs: Hollywood starlets Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba mingled among the likes of MediaNews Group CEO Dean Singleton and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who would later be appointed chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And positioned in the middle of the first floor was attorney Willie E. Shepherd.

Shepherd was one of the city's most influential figures and was arguably the most powerful African-American to emerge on Denver's lily-white power scene since Mayor Wellington Webb. Only months earlier, Shepherd, just this side of 40, had been obese. Six feet tall, he'd weighed 300 pounds. But, incredibly, he'd made a considerable amount of weight disappear. He now looked trim and healthy. He wore a finely tailored suit and shoes polished to a shine that was outdone only by his brilliant smile. If you would have told Shepherd how sharp he looked, he might have responded with one of his signature expressions: "Ain't nothin' but a chicken wing."

The smile, the self-deprecating humor, the good-natured Willie: They were all Shepherd trademarks. His charm made him wonderful company and fueled his success. In the few short years since forming in August 2000, his firm, which became Kamlet Shepherd & Reichert LLP, had grown from a boutique practice of a handful of attorneys into an expanding political and business juggernaut of nearly 50 lawyers, who referred to themselves as "Young Turks." KSR had managed to recruit well-connected partners, like Ray Gifford, the stepson of Congressman Tom Tancredo, and had siphoned business, influence, and talent away from entrenched 17th Street firms like Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, in part because of Shepherd's one-of-a-kind Willie-ness.

Whereas elder statesmen of the Denver legal community, like Norman Brownstein and Steven Farber, tend to discretely draw business into them, over, say, breakfast at the Brown Palace, Shepherd wooed—hunted—clients. He networked on the political and charity circuits, but he could be at his ingratiating best over drinks at the Capital Grille, or while picking up the tab for lap dances at the Penthouse Club. It wouldn't matter to Shepherd if he were on the phone pitching his firm to a Fortune 500 company; according to two former colleagues, he wouldn't think twice about saying, "Give a brother a chance."

Shepherd and his fellow KSR founding partners, Jay Kamlet and E. Lee Reichert, cultivated the sort of client list it would take most any other startup firm decades to develop: Molson Coors Brewing Company, CBS Outdoor, Phillip Anschutz's AEG Live, Xcel Energy, and the city and county of Denver, among others. KSR had a D.C. office and was in talks to handle some work for the blue-chip conglomerate DuPont. KSR's top attorneys ascended to power-broker status, most notably Reichert and Shepherd.

Republican Governor Bill Owens appointed Reichert, a corporate attorney, to the Colorado Securities Board. Under Democratic Governor Bill Ritter, Reichert rose to chair that five-member panel. Additionally, Reichert took on the prominent philanthropic duty of vice chair of the Colorado Children's Campaign. Shepherd's portfolio of involvement was more diverse. He sat on boards of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Concern, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. In 2008, as the convention loomed, he was named one of the city's top attorneys by the Denver Business Journal and his legal peers selected him as a Colorado Super Lawyer, published annually in 5280. He was tapped to take on one of the most critical roles of the city's Convention Host Committee—finance chair—and joined the Obama Presidential National Finance Committee.

Even if you hadn't recognized Shepherd upon entering the VIP bash at Tamayo, you likely would have pegged him as a somebody, maybe the host, which would have been fine by him. Never mind that the party was cosponsored by Maker's Mark Bourbon and GQ magazine. Never mind that it was Barack Obama as a "Man of the Year" on the GQ cover poster on display. As Shepherd would make clear days later while dressing down one of his subordinates, he regarded this convention to be his moment. This was the time, he told colleagues, when he would make the jump: Maybe he would be appointed Colorado's U.S. attorney; maybe he'd get a seat in Obama's cabinet.

But there would be no lofty political appointments for Shepherd. Much of his persona, his chauffeured SUV, even his new physique were all part of a façade. Soon, two attorneys that worked with Shepherd would expose the real Willie E. Shepherd Jr. In time, the scandal would transcend the man at the center of it all. It would raise a Pandora's box of troubling questions: about the ethics of some of Shepherd's fellow KSR partners, namely Kamlet and Reichert; about how the Colorado Supreme Court polices the state's lawyers; and about the way the town's establishment does business. As one well-placed source would put it, "It's not Watergate, but it's as close as Denver's going to get."