Yellowbelly (aka Campbell) cooks up ethical stew

It’s get-back time.

Retiring U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who prides himself on his Native American heritage, once called me a racist because I ridiculed his position on using Indian monikers for sports teams. You know, like the Washington Redskins, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Lamar, Co., Savages – huh, the Lamar Savages?

Then-U.S. Rep. Campbell, in a 1988 Pueblo Chieftain newspaper article about the propriety of Native American team mascots, had made a fine distinction between the Savages and the Redskins, maintaining that the Lamar high-school football team’s use of an Indian-caricature mascot was inappropriate, while the Redskins, who have a red-Indian-like feathered head gracing their helmets, used the name with “dignity and respect.” In my mind it was a distinction without a difference – other than it being much easier game for him to pick on a rural high-school than a Super Bowl championship team – and I said so in a satirical column.

It sounded like total bushwa to me, I wrote, since the term “redskin” had been used almost exclusively in derogatory ways, like “The only good redskin is a dead redskin,” particularly in the B-Western movies of that earlier, less-sensitive time. (In fact, Campbell later changed positions on the issue and attempted to get the Redskins to change their name.)

At any rate, I ended the column in that phony redskin movie-speak, “Me thinkum Big Chief Nighthorse speak with forked tongue.” It was published in my college newspaper.

Campbell responded with an angry, spiteful letter to the editor in which he engaged solely in an ad hominem attack upon yours truly rather than addressing the substance of my remarks. I never responded to his harsh words, even though I pride myself on judging people solely by “the content of their character,” as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently put it.

But I can be silent no longer. In the time-honored spirit of “kick them when they’re down,” I loudly call the honorable (as they say in Washington) senator a crook and a coward.

Campbell, who announced out of the blue earlier this spring that he wouldn’t run for re-election, is presently under investigation by the Justice Department for trying to get special treatment for some big contributors in the form of a no-bid federal contract for Thinkstream, a software company co-owned by Michael Smith, a rich and generous supporter of the senator who was Campbell’s campaign-finance chairman during his first bid for the Senate. (One palm greases the other, don’t you know?)

Also, members of the Denver law firm Brownstein, Hyatt and Farber, which until last spring was paid by Thinkstream to lobby for the deal, were the largest group of contributors to Campbell’s last re-election campaign, according to a political watchdog group. So those shady circumstances are the basis of my crook charge.

The cowardly part comes from his trying to place the blame for this conniving, complicated scheme on Ginny Kontnik, his former chief of staff, who herself resigned after taking a $2,000 kick-back from another Campbell staffer for getting him a raise.

“ Unfortunately, a member of my staff (Kontnik) may have unintentionally lobbied on behalf of the vendor (Thinkstream) who initially presented the concept,” Campbell said in a letter after the leader of the drug task force and several others balked at the smelly proposal. “I was unaware of the final letter and would not attempt to use my influence on behalf of a specific vendor.”

Unfortunately for him, however, documents uncovered recently by the Denver Post make it clear Campbell himself was the chief advocate of getting his good buddy a million-dollar-plus contract to supply software intended to centralize data and make it easier for the federal Rocky Mountain drug task force to bust dealers.

For instance, he wrote to Tom Gorman, director of the of the task force last November, pressing him to sign the contract with Thinkstream: “I would appreciate you moving expeditiously and release this funding to move forward with this project without further delay.”

And the process actually started to move until Campbell was warned the sole-source contract could get him into hot water; then he turned tail and wrote Gorman that “I owe you and (the drug task force) an apology,” claiming that Kontnik wrote the previous letter without his knowledge.

But, according to Barry Bellue, the other co-owner of Thinkstream, “liar” could be added to my attack on Campbell.

“For him to say he knew nothing about this is total crap,” Bellue told the Post. “He knew damn well what was going on.”

Campbell had successfully lobbied the White House to get the money awarded to Thinkstream without a bidding process. And even after one of Bush’s lawyers and other federal officials resisted, saying it looked like a tainted deal, Campbell insisted the contract be signed immediately.

“We got this money and I made it happen, and I expect it to be followed through,” Aaron Kennard, the sheriff of Salt Lake County who chaired the task-force board, recalled Campbell saying when swift action wasn’t taken.

In the end, too many people involved objected to doing business this way, so the deal was scotched and more recently a federal probe into the convoluted process was initiated.

So apparently the senator’s self-imposed two-term limit was inspired by the prospect of having all this dirty laundry aired in public during the upcoming campaign, although he claimed the traditional reasons of declining health and wanting to spend more time with his family.

But not all of Campbell’s constituents feel as I do.

There is even a movement afoot to have the Ridges Basin Reservior, part of the Animas-La Plata project which he played a major role in funding, be renamed after him.
Let’s see — would Lake Yellow Wampum-getter Forktongue (Nighthorse) be too harsh?
I think not.

David Long writes from Cortez.


From David Long, July 2004.