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."
II. HAPPY BIRTHDAY
Lukas Staks is a bespectacled, serious-minded young attorney from Utah. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Utah and finished in the top 10 percent of his class at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. Staks is not the type of guy inclined to think he's having an out-of-body experience. But on the morning of February 27, 2009—six months after the convention left town—as the associate attorney stood in Willie Shepherd's office, it occurred to Staks that this must be what people meant when they talked about such a phenomenon. Physically, Staks was in Shepherd's expansive corner office, with its custom wood walls, flat-panel TV, bar, and bank of windows that provided a breathtaking view of downtown. He was there with the other associate in the firm's environmental division; Willie's assistant, Stephanie Wilson; and the boss himself. It was, as Staks had just been reminded, Shepherd's birthday, and like the rest of his colleagues the associate was now eating a slice of the birthday cake Wilson had baked and making the obligatory chitchat. Mentally, though, he was in another place: All he could think about was what his colleague, Rebecca Almon, was doing at that very moment elsewhere in the KSR offices.
Almon was a non-equity partner. She reported directly to Shepherd, oversaw the environmental associates, and served as a liaison for the group's clients. A mother of three little girls, she had managed to become one of KSR's top billers. While Staks was milling about Shepherd's birthday celebration, Almon was delivering a scathing memo about Shepherd to two of the firm's equity partners. Staks and Almon had been up late into the night the previous two evenings preparing the document, bolstering each other's resolve, reading the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct, telling each other it had to be done. The memo read like a multicharge indictment. Upon delivering the document, Almon would quit, effective immediately.
Staks heard someone in Shepherd's office wish him a "Happy Birthday," and Shepherd said something about not feeling so happy. Shepherd's melancholy stunned Staks. No matter what he and Almon had conveyed to senior partners in the previous months about Shepherd's conduct, it didn't seem to matter. Shepherd seemed gleefully oblivious. If anything, he'd become more unethical, more egomaniacal, and more volatile, capriciously dismissing three widely respected staffers. Only days earlier, when legal administrative assistant Robin Bissantz informed Shepherd she did not have time to take notes in a meeting for him because, as she told him, she was working on a time-sensitive motion for another partner, Shepherd had canned her within the hour. He personally escorted Bissantz to the human resources administrator's office. Bissantz told Shepherd what many KSR employees were aching to say: "You have a big-ass ego. If you don't stop treating this company like your own personal piggy bank, you're going run this place into the ground."
The tepid birthday celebration dissipated. Shepherd remained in his office, and the group adjourned to the interior of the 16th floor. Staks sensed a strange mood in the air. The associate heard the elevator doors opening and closing. It occurred to Staks that the distinct ping-pinging of the elevators was happening with a feverish frequency. Within a few minutes, Staks watched Shepherd emerge from his office with a look of concern and ask the receptionist to page Kamlet. Mr. Kamlet was not responding. Try Reichert, Staks heard Shepherd say. Mr. Reichert was not responding either. He had the receptionist try them again, and, again, nothing. Staks saw the look on Shepherd's face morph into what appeared to be angst. The strange mood, the ping-pinging of the elevators, the unanswered calls—Staks surmised that Almon had done as the two of them had planned, and the senior partners were leaving the building to decide what, if anything, to do about Shepherd.
Within the hour Staks' cell phone rang. He raced into an empty conference room and answered. During the previous week, as he and Almon had been crafting their memo, the two attorneys had been interviewing with a handful of Denver firms. The day before, Almon had accepted an offer from Ireland Stapleton Pryor & Pascoe, and she'd told Staks that it looked like the firm would also hire him. The call confirmed that. Without discussing salary, he accepted. On that Friday morning, the only question the 29-year-old associate asked was when he could start.
Staks had cleared his casework in anticipation of this very moment, though he was never quite sure it would arrive. KSR's human resources director was not in her office, and he couldn't find a senior partner. Staks walked the halls until he finally found an attorney. Staks informed the attorney that he was quitting. Never again, he thought, would he have to abide a lawyer who engaged in the activities he and Almon had witnessed. While Staks phoned his wife and shared the news, Kamlet and Reichert, along with most of KSR's top partners, gathered off-site and finally summoned Shepherd.
III. THE BEGINNING
It started out small, and it was easy enough for Staks to rationalize it away. In the fall of 2007, Staks had been at KSR for about a year when he was asked to write client-bill cover letters. It is a common practice for lawyers to prepare letters explaining charges to clients. Going over the tally for the municipality of Kansas City, for matters in which he had been involved, Staks noticed "a lot of activity on Shepherd's bill that I just didn't see occur." Staks saw that his own time had been accurately recorded: a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there, at his hourly rate of $175, spent preparing documents. But according to Shepherd's hours, it appeared to Staks that it had taken Shepherd far longer than it should have to review related documents. Staks was new to the real world, but he wasn't naive. Attorneys make mistakes tallying their registers. In the end, it all balances out. The first-year associate wrote the letter and went about his business.
Over the course of the next few months, however, Staks paid closer attention to Shepherd's bills. In virtually every statement Staks inspected, he spotted charges that seemed excessive or unwarranted, discrepancies that only a lawyer privy to the casework could easily detect. For review of routine one-paragraph documents, Shepherd would bill for a quarter of an hour. For three such documents that each would require most lawyers, especially seasoned ones, just minutes to review, Shepherd clocked up three-quarters of an hour, and so on, bill after bill. For one client, Shepherd charged billable hours for meetings that Staks was certain Shepherd had not attended, and, as far as the associate could see, added time for business that had nothing to do with another client.
"Bill the shit out of it" was a mantra Shepherd repeated to the attorneys in his environmental division. Having reviewed months of Shepherd's statements, Staks became convinced that what Shepherd meant was to fabricate hours. By early 2008, Staks believed what he had seen added up to a systemic pattern that could not be accidental, or, given Shepherd's hourly rate of about $450, financially negligible. The associate believed he had to present his concerns to his superior in the environmental division.
Rebecca Almon is a tall, fast-moving, fast-talking 42-year-old, with a freckled face and reddish-colored hair. She attended the Chicago-Kent College of Law on scholarship. After graduating on the dean's list, she worked in private practice and then joined the Illinois Attorney General's Environmental Enforcement/Asbestos Litigation Division. She loved the work, but six years into her career the Almons had their first child, and Almon opted to be a full-time mom. Soon the couple had three girls, and in 2002 they moved to Denver seeking a better quality of life for the family. Almon's husband, Joe, had recently started a new business, and with a decrease in earnings and an increase in expenses, he looked his wife's way and said, "Hey, didn't I marry a lawyer?"
After eight years away from practicing law Almon took the bar review class. A neighbor arranged her first interview in Denver, with Willie Shepherd. She so impressed Shepherd that the very same day he extended the offer. As an associate, Almon was assigned to Ginn Resorts. Edward Ginn was attempting to turn the defunct Eagle Mine, just southwest of Vail, into a ski resort. Because the mine was a Superfund site, the matter was complex and high-profile. By 2007, Almon's efforts had so impressed Ginn that the client demanded she be made the lead attorney on the matter. That same year, Almon earned non-equity partner status and became one of the top billers at KSR.
Part of the reason she had been handed such a nuanced case and was able to so quickly distinguish herself, according to several former KSR partners and employees, was because Almon knew more about environmental law than Shepherd. He was not a particularly skilled practicing attorney: When it came to actual casework, according to staffers who worked with Shepherd, he was the managing partner with no clothes. Almon and her associates didn't much care if Shepherd wasn't a big help when it came to casework. He was extremely skilled at wooing clients. Now, though, in early 2008, Staks was telling Almon that Shepherd appeared to be stealing from their clients. Almon ran her hands through her hair and in a tone that conveyed billable hours isn't the half of it, she shared something she had been keeping to herself, something she'd been hoping was an anomaly and would go away.
Almon informed Staks that Shepherd had lied to a Fortune 500 company in order to get business, going so far as to ask her to create what she remembered him calling a "dummy corporation." Delaware-based DuPont was shopping for minority-owned firms to handle some of its business. KSR had not been minority-owned since 2001, when Shepherd and Kamlet recruited Reichert and divided the firm equally among themselves. Nevertheless, Shepherd informed DuPont that KSR qualified for the "diverse-legal supplier network" and instructed Almon to create the dummy corporation, in which he would be the majority shareholder. Almon told Staks that Shepherd had said simply, "Make it so."