For years, local political gadfly Seth Brigham got away with being a persistent, even belligerent, bug in the ears of city council.
But he didn’t get slapped with a restraining order until he started nosing around the undisclosed financial ties of city council members including KC Becker and George Karakehian. Brigham says he believes his questions and discoveries, which he forwarded to the city attorney and district attorney, led to the restraining order.
At the very least, he says, the timing is curious. But is he really onto something?
Some say he is crazy and out of control. After all, he loses his temper and curses at city officials, interrupting meetings. He acknowledges that he has bipolar disorder and drinks alcohol in moderation.
In 2010, he even went so far as to address city council while only wearing boxer shorts, in protest. He was kicked out for that offense, but won a $10,000 settlement after threatening to sue.
And then Brigham questioned police officers because he thought they were harassing the homeless on June 3, 2011. He was arrested, but agreed to a deferred prosecution in August. City officials sent out a surprisingly damning press release not typically issued about suspects. In addition to describing the police version of the encounter, the report stated that Brigham would undergo “court-ordered mental health treatment.”
In the release, City Attorney Tom Carr said, “What Mr. Brigham did was dangerous. His behavior put an officer at risk. It’s completely unacceptable. This plea agreement allows Mr. Brigham to get the help that he clearly needs to control his behavior.”
Brigham’s attorney at the time, Philip Bienvenu, responded to Carr via email: “Your press release was beyond self-serving spin; it was misleading and irresponsible. You should apologize publicly to Seth Brigham and admit publicly that there never was any court-ordered mental health treatment, that Mr. Brigham was only asked to show that he has in fact been under treatment and has cooperated with his treatment provider. And you should admit that there was a clear difference of opinion whether Seth did anything to obstruct officers, with other witnesses agreeing with Seth. You should admit that it was really not a 'plea agreement,' in that Seth never withdrew his plea of not guilty and it still stands.”
Most people would have backed down after that. But not Brigham. He pushed on, repeatedly airing unflattering claims about his elected officials.
According to court filings supporting the city’s restraining order against Brigham, which prohibits him from emailing city council, much less coming within 50 yards of the municipal building at 1770 Broadway, he is a threat. A city-appointed workplace violence expert, John Nicoletti, who declined an interview request from Boulder Weekly, has pored over Brigham’s writings online. He discovered some things he found disturbing in poetry and song lyrics, which Brigham says were taken out of context. (Nicoletti is described as a “drive-by psychic” by Brigham’s current attorney, David Lane.)
Granted, Brigham has had mental problems and has admitted being hospitalized for his illness. City officials have known this for a long time. So why issue a restraining order now?
Brigham thinks it’s because he got too close. He started questioning city council members about their records. Brigham began uncovering publicly available documents on the Internet that appear to show that some council members failed to accurately disclose all of the financial information required by law on their candidate disclosure forms, an offense that can, but rarely does, lead to elected officials being removed from office. He started to question councilmember Becker’s campaign image as a middle-class working mom, revealing that she has connections to wealth. Brigham also alleged that councilmember Karakehian did not disclose all of his financial ties when he filled out the necessary forms to run for re-election last fall.
The following is what the law requires to be disclosed by all those running for city council under the subhead of “Business Interests”:
“State the name, location, and nature of activity of any business entities or enterprises for profit, with holdings of real or personal property or with business dealings in the area encompassed by the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP), in which you may have any financial interest, or in which you are actively engaged as an officer, director, or partner.
“For each, state the nature of your interest or activity therewith, and state whether you have controlling interest in the entity. Business entity means any type of business: sole proprietorship, joint venture, partnership, corporation, trust holding, or investment company, professional corporation, etc. It is immaterial whether the business is making money.”
After receiving an email from Brigham, which stated that his investigation into the disclosure issues of Karakehian and others on council had been stopped by the city’s restraining order, Boulder Weekly took a look into what Brigham claimed to have found and had turned over to Carr and District Attorney Stan Garnett.
This is what Brigham wrote to Stan Garnett:
“Dear Mr. Garnett, I’m sure that you are aware of the controversy surrounding e-mails I sent to The City of Boulder.
After more than two months of Open records requests, I was finally given some Financial Disclosures of Boulder City Council that I found to be insufficient.
I asked several times for the records department to clarify the requirements in regard to local and state law, as I felt the disclosures did not meet the requirements.
I asked The City Attorney, Tom Carr, to clarify. No one would respond to these questions.
I began to investigate on my own and found businesses and financial partnership that were not disclosed.
Though I only began to investigate KC Becker and George K, I did find some financial interests that were questionable and/or not disclosed as required by law.
George M. Karakehian Insurance, 1237 Pearl Street, Boulder, CO 80302, Sales: $5-10 Million, Employees: 10 – 24 As well, Mr. Karakehian has several partnership LLCs with Stephen Tebo that have never been disclosed on any financial disclosure form.
I found some possible conflicts of interest in regard to KC Becker.
But, that’s when I stopped my investigation because of this Restraining Order put upon me by The City of Boulder.”
As to the claim that Karakehian failed to disclose his insurance company, it appears that the councilmember has not been in that business for nearly two decades. His only income from his old insurance business at this point, according to Karakehian, is about $170 a year in old renewal income which, being less than $1,000 per year, is not required to be disclosed. As for the “several partnership LLCs with Stephen Tebo,” as Brigham describes it, there appears to be something to it.
Two separate business entities, Tebo/Karakehian LLC and Mall/Kar LLC, are not listed on Karakehian’s Candidate Financial Disclosure Statement (CFDS). The first does appear to be an LLC owned by Karakehian and Boulder developer and businessman Stephen Tebo. The second appears to be held by Karakehian and John R. Mehaffy. Both LLCs are blind, meaning that all of the parties involved are not disclosed. Mehaffy also does business with Tebo, but it is unclear if Tebo is, in fact, part of the Mall/Kar LLC.
Together, the two LLCs that the councilman did not mention on his CFDS own three properties valued by the Boulder County assessor at $6,497,500, which are located at 1243 Pearl Street, 1237 Pearl Street and 2017 13th Street, all in Boulder.
Karakehian told Boulder Weekly that he didn’t believe that he was required to disclose his ownership in the LLCs because they are owned in the name of his business, Art Source International, which he does list on the form as his employer. He initially told Boulder Weekly that he didn’t believe he needed to report the ownership in the LLCs because they are owned by his employee profit-sharing plan. In a subsequent phone conversation, he further defined his interest in the LLCs as his retirement fund. Karakehian says he thought that since the LLCs were not generating income at this time, he was not required to disclose them.
Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett confirmed on Wednesday, May 16, that he had received Brigham’s complaint about Karakehian’s incomplete financial disclosure statement, and that his election division was investigating the matter. At that time, he said it would probably be a couple of weeks before the inquiry was completed.
But when informed of the DA’s investigation, Karakehian told Boulder Weekly that it was news to him. “Tom Carr told me yesterday [May 15] that he had just gotten off the phone with Stan Garnett, and Stan told him there was nothing to investigate,” Karakehian said, adding that he planned to make a phone call to clarify the matter. Karakehian later said that he telephoned Carr, not Garnett.
Nonetheless, shortly after Karakehian says he called Carr on the morning of the 16th, Garnett called Boulder Weekly for a second time, and said that after checking with the staff member who was investigating the case, that instead of taking two weeks, the case was being closed immediately because there was no merit to the allegations. He acknowledged telling Carr the day before that there was likely no grounds for a violation, but that it was under investigation. He said he had not talked to Carr or Karakehian the morning of the 16th before closing the investigation. Apparently, the timing of the sudden conclusion of the Karakehian investigation, like the Brigham restraining order, was only a coincidence.
Carr acknowledges that the city’s campaign disclosure law is not clear, and that Mayor Matt Appelbaum has previously asked him to examine it for possible changes.
He says that after examining Karakehian’s situation, he became convinced that the councilmember did not omit anything intentionally. He explained that Art Source, not Karakehian, owns the LLCs, and Karakehian did list Art Source on the form.
“The language is broad, but not clear,” Carr said of the law. “It’s clear to me it’s not a knowing violation. He doesn’t believe he has to report it. If the language were clearer and it said it included retirement benefits, then maybe there would be a problem.”
But the law, as shown earlier in this article, is actually extremely clear. It requires all business interests of any kind and size to be disclosed. Presumably this would include $6.5 million in business interests with some of the city’s largest developers. The very purpose of disclosure laws for candidates is to give voters the opportunity to know who is in bed with whom before they mark their ballot. It also makes sure that successful candidates recuse themselves from votes that could enrich themselves or business partners once they are elected.
If Carr’s interpretation of Boulder’s disclosure laws is allowed to stand, then he is in effect creating a loophole whereby every candidate running for office in Boulder in the future can easily hide all of their business connections and real estate holdings. They would simply need to put their assets into the name of a company they own and then mention in the disclosure statement that they own the company.
In the mean time, their company could be in partnerships and doing substantial business deals with every powerful player in town and even with fellow city council members, and the candidate would not, under Carr’s interpretation of the disclosure law, be required to list any such business interests and connections that the company has. This is clearly not the intention of Boulder’s disclosure requirements.
George Karakehian’s oversight may well have been an innocent mistake. He has told Boulder Weekly that he is happy to amend his statement if he is indeed required to provide the additional information. The problem is that it is impossible to determine at this point if the new information would have made a difference in his being elected, or at least in gaining a four year term instead of two years, due to being among the highest vote-getters. While such a different outcome may seem unlikely, being tied to big developers in Boulder is certainly important information to many area voters.
Carr denies that there is any connection between Brigham’s restraining order and his questions about the financial dealings of Becker, Karakehian and others.
“That’s not true,” he told Boulder Weekly. “That would be absurd, that we would go for protective order for something like that.”
He said Brigham has every right to scrutinize their financial interests, but he crossed the line when he made it personal with Becker by involving her husband, father, child, even emailing a photo of her home. The other straw that broke the camel’s back, he said, was an April 19 city meeting that Brigham interrupted.
“He has that right [to raise questions about Becker’s finances],” Carr said. “He doesn’t have a right to come screaming into a meeting. … We all have listened to Seth’s criticism, and he’s welcome to make criticism. That’s completely different than coming in really angry and disrupting a meeting and nobody being able to control him. That’s what scared folks.”
But the timing is curious, especially considering Carr’s background.
In his previous job as Seattle city attorney, he has been described in media reports as being heavy-handed and resistant to attempts by the public and press to examine city business.
Carr successfully argued to the state’s supreme court that public agencies should not be required to disclose any communication with their attorneys, according to Seattle Weekly.
Similarly, when Boulder Weekly requested a memo sent to city council this spring regarding the Valmont Butte cleanup, Carr deemed it attorney-client privilege. But he acknowledges that if the communication does not contain legal advice, it is a public record.
“We do lots of things that are open,” Carr said.
City councilmember Ken Wilson told Boulder Weekly in 2010, at the time of Carr’s hiring, that he was impressed by the attorney’s ability to defend the anti-camping ordinance. But Carr doesn’t seem to have succeeded in doing that on at least one front, since this week a judge struck down the city’s decision to remove violators’ right to a jury trial.
Carr was city attorney during Boulder’s effort to close public parks after 11 p.m., an initiative that some say was an effort to crack down on the homeless and the Occupy Movement. Then there was city council’s decision to back the University of Colorado’s unprecedented response to the 4/20 celebration, dedicating city cops to turning the campus into a police state.
There is little doubt that Seth Brigham is very often a pain in the city’s backside. And looking at the evidence that the city has provided in support of its decision to seek and be granted a restraining order against its biggest critic, it would be easy to say that it does have an argument.
What seems unusual is that the vast majority of the examples of what the city claims is behavior that threatens violence took place in the past, sometimes the distant past. So why didn’t the city act to silence and restrain Brigham’s movements back then? Why did it wait until his emails started pointing out credible problems with council’s adherence to disclosure laws? Is it just more coincidental timing like the phone calls between Carr, Garnett and Karakehian and the instant end of the disclosure investigation?
It looks bad, but Carr insists there is no connection.
“Do you really think, in your own mind, that the city would do something like that?” he asks. When told it raises a valid question, Carr replies, “It absolutely does not raise a valid question.”