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.
In the nine months I spent reporting this story, I interviewed more than 20 sources, and talked to or otherwise communicated with many others. Jay Kamlet agreed to speak with me, then declined and sent me this e-mail: "There isn't an event that I attend where someone doesn't come up to me to let me know that you have contacted and/or spoke with them. I am sure your inquiries have yielded more than enough information about the situation. Any attempt to put my perspective on the story at this point will only come off as defensive."
Lee Reichert declined to speak with me via e-mail: "Our firm's ability to answer questions or comment with regard to the potential story you are working on is limited by the ethical rules that apply to all Colorado attorneys, the confidential nature of the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel process and various agreements we have entered into, all of which we intend to honor. In light of these obligations and our firm policies regarding former employees, we do not believe we can sit down with you at this time. Kamlet Reichert, LLP can provide the following statement: Once our firm received notice of the specific and formal allegations concerning Willie Shepherd, we took immediate action and a thorough and independent third party investigation was immediately commenced and conducted regarding all of the allegations. Following the completion of the independent investigation, it is our understanding that the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel similarly conducted a comprehensive, many months long investigation into all matters, which resulted in the public censure."
One of the very first sources I contacted for this story was Willie Shepherd. I called him on his cell phone last summer and explained to him that, in the wake of the news reports of him leaving his firm and the investigation then under way by the Attorney Regulation Counsel, I was going to do a story on him and the investigation. Shepherd said the investigation was much ado about nothing; he said we were "friends;" and he asked me not to do the story.
My "relationship" with Shepherd consisted of running into him socially three times over a period of five years. On the phone, during that first call, I shared my opinion with Shepherd that we were not friends, and I told him I was going to report the story, and I hoped he would cooperate. Shepherd said he wanted to think about it, and a day or two later we spoke again by phone. He said that if I held off on my story until after the OARC had completed its investigation he would sit down and grant me an interview. I specifically asked him if he would honor that promise regardless of the OARC's findings, and he said yes. Nine months later, after the OARC completed its investigation, I called and e-mailed Shepherd to follow up on his earlier offer to sit down and talk. In an e-mail, he wrote, "I do remember our conversation last year but circumstances have certainly changed since that time. I'm not comfortable getting together to 'talk' with you."
During the OARC process, Shepherd left a good bit of the talking to his attorney, Patrick Burke, who submitted to the OARC a biography of his client as a way of presenting mitigating circumstances for Shepherd's misconduct. Whatever Shepherd did, the biography says, he did for others, and the sacrifice and hard work caused tremendous stress: "For example, as the first African-American board member for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Willie helped implement an outreach program to the Denver Public Schools. Under the program, students who normally had no exposure to classical music were able to enjoy a symphony experience." He believed he served as a model for younger African-Americans. "Without him, [KSR] would not have achieved anything close to the level of success that it attained."
Shepherd felt "tremendous pressure" to build and sustain his firm, and this created "pressure for him to succeed" even more with each passing year. He "was instrumental" in bringing the 2008 convention to town. The "pressure to raise money was ever-present." 2007 and 2008 were "extra-ordinarily time-consuming and stressful for Willie." Shepherd's mother developed medical problems—blood vessels in her head were leaking. The pressures "exacerbated his weight problems. He also smoked and drank too much alcohol." He suffered from sleep apnea, and he had high blood pressure, hypercholesterolemia, and significant joint pain. Shepherd was "quite literally killing himself," the bio submitted to the OARC reads. Having "exhausted all other options," he saw a surgeon and was scheduled for gastric bypass surgery on January 15, 2008. "That Willie accomplished so much under the circumstances is a testament to his innate abilities and the fundamental soundness of his character."
Many of the sources I spoke with were terrified of Shepherd's character. Two of his former employees broke down in tears during my interviews with them. At least three said they had gone for counseling, in no small part because of working for Shepherd. They asked for anonymity because they feared what might happen if they ran into Shepherd in town after this story. Other sources did not want to go on the record because they were concerned that Reichert, Kamlet, and their nexus of relationships in the legal community would make it difficult for them to keep their current jobs or prevent them from getting new ones in the small fishpond of the Denver legal community. This was why some of my sources who were not contacted by the OARC did not reach out to investigators. Gleason scoffed at the notion that witnesses and potential witnesses were reticent to speak because they feared such things. He said it was "baloney."
One such source, who was not contacted by OARC, worked for Shepherd. "I don't want my name mentioned," the source said. "I don't want my name linked. I fear retaliation. I did have him tell me to go into his calendar and find 30 hours. Next month, he said, 'Wow, you did well, let's find 60 hours.' I would try to find as much valid time as possible. Then there were other times he had me put in as many as 90 hours per month that were not valid. Let's say an associate had a time entry for work on a piece of a project; Willie would claim that he did that work, too, and I know he didn't work on it. He was even out of the office. Not even in the country sometimes. I knew it wasn't right. But this was the kind of man who would fire you if there wasn't enough ice in his glass." (According to two sources, Shepherd tried to fire members of the firm's catering staff when there wasn't enough ice in the pitcher on his desk.)
Another source, whom we'll call Pat Smith, was a high-ranking employee at KSR for more than three years. Smith was so concerned about potential retaliation for speaking with me that the source not only insisted on anonymity, but also on concealing anything that would hint at the source's gender. According to Smith, Smith not only had witnessed the sort of misconduct described in the Staks and Almon complaint—fraudulent billing and misuse of firm funds—Smith also had felt pressure to facilitate such misconduct. Smith facilitated the misconduct every month for years. All the while, Smith pleaded with senior management to do something about it, and when they did not, in Smith's view, Smith left the firm. This source had specific, detailed information about Shepherd boosting his monthly "register" from 40 hours to 153 hours in a matter of minutes, with the PCLaw software, which kept track of all the attorneys' billable hours. Shepherd, the source said, would "make it so." Smith had information about specific misuse of firm funds, in which Shepherd would withdraw from the firm's coffers as much as five-figure dollar amounts without so much as a piece of paper to note the "transaction." After I began talking to Smith, Smith decided to contact the OARC this past February.
The first time Smith called the OARC with information on the Shepherd matter, the source says, an OARC staffer declined to acknowledge the investigation. The next day, an OARC attorney called Smith, according to the source, took some information, and said someone would be in touch. A little more than a week later, investigator Janet Layne called Smith. Smith told her all of what the source told me, and more, and, Smith says, Layne gave Smith the option of submitting a new complaint. Smith declined. Shortly thereafter, according to Smith, Layne informed the source the information was not germane to the investigation and/or was dated.
Smith was unwilling to file a complaint for the same reason the source is unwilling to be identified here: Smith feared retaliation. Further, Smith doesn't believe that the OARC is truly interested in investigating and prosecuting unethical attorneys; that it doesn't want to know the truth about the likes of Shepherd. When I informed Smith of the OARC's decision in the Shepherd case, the source's reaction was, "It's a sham."
Since Staks and Almon presented the partners of KSR with the memo, the new Kamlet Reichert has hemorrhaged attorneys. From a high of 48 lawyers, the firm has shrunk to less than half that size. Among the attorneys who have left are former equity partners Fred Winocur and Ray Gifford. Kamlet Reichert has moved into a much smaller office, and for months has been trying to merge with another firm.
Rebecca Almon and Lukas Staks remain at Ireland Stapleton, representing Ginn Resorts, along with a handful of clients they brought with them, and a few new ones. Their law office is not far from Willie Shepherd's new law practice, Shepherd Law Group P.C. Occasionally, they pass by Shepherd on the 16th Street Mall. Back at KSR, they used to cower in his presence. Now they look him in the eye and keep going.
When I asked Gleason why his office turned away Pat Smith, he responded in an e-mail: "It didn't happen that way at all. The allegations that [Smith] stated were much different in time and conduct and it was our decision that because of due process concerns we could not include them in the investigation underway."
Referring to Shepherd, I asked Gleason who was advocating for the public; I said Shepherd was publicly censured, but he is still practicing law. "Yes. I 100 percent agree with you. People make mistakes. The discipline rules have various levels of mental intent. We discipline lawyers who engage in minor mistakes with private discipline. Lawyers like Mr. Shepherd who lie are disciplined publicly. And sometimes lawyers are more severely disciplined than Mr. Shepherd because their facts are more aggravated than Mr. Shepherd's. That doesn't make you or the public feel any better about it. I understand that."
Maximillian Potter is executive editor of 5280. E-mail him at email@example.com.