Last Thursday, the Independent was notified that as many as 50 of its newspapers had been removed from its regular distribution site inside the El Paso County administration building shortly after they were delivered.
A subsequent open records request turned up video images captured by surveillance cameras inside the building, at 27 E. Vermijo in downtown Colorado Springs. The images suggest that County Commissioner Jim Bensberg may have removed the entire stack of newspapers immediately after he entered the building shortly before 7:30 a.m.
Last week's Independent included a column detailing the latest in a controversy that has rocked the county for several months. The report noted that Bensberg, despite being advised to recuse himself due to conflict of interest, had cast the deciding vote absolving him and the county of any wrongdoing involving a harassment charge that had been brought against him by a county employee.
After the vote, Commissioner Wayne Williams asked District Attorney Jeanne Smith to investigate whether Bensberg's vote was legal. Smith has since said she plans to ask a special prosecutor to look into the matter.
In the past, the Independent, a free weekly newspaper, has received complaints of theft and/or tampering of its newspapers, despite a clear notification inside the newspaper that readers are restricted from picking up more than one copy per week. Local law enforcement officials have responded by claiming that, since the newspaper is free, there is little they can do to pursue any charges for theft.
However, last month, on April 13, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens signed a law making it a criminal act for people to steal five or more free newspapers "with the intent to prevent other individuals from reading that edition of the newspaper. " In addition, the law allows the victim of the theft -- whether it is the publisher, an advertiser or a reader -- to pursue civil action against anyone who steals more than five copies of a free newspaper.
State Rep. Carl Miller, a Democrat from Leadville, said he was first made aware of a widespread problem of free newspaper theft in Colorado last year. He, along with Republican state Sen. Jack Taylor of Steamboat Springs, sponsored the bill to outlaw the practice after 8,000 copies of newspapers in Aspen had been stolen in one day. He said he learned of the theft in an article that appeared last August in the Rocky Mountain News.
"The newspaper article said this is not unique, it happens pretty regularly, and the district attorney said they couldn't file any charges because as a free newspaper, it has no value," Miller said. The lawmaker disagreed, noting that in addition to potentially thousands of dollars worth of lost revenues from advertising, newspaper theft also denies the general public access to news reports, current events and public notices.
"We did it in the hopes that people would quit stealing newspapers," said Taylor.
Last Thursday, Independent newspaper deliverywoman Susan Steele, whose route includes the county office building, reported she dropped off the regular stack of 50 newspapers at approximately 6 a.m.
County Commissioner Williams reported that he was contacted that morning by another commissioner, Tom Huffman, who was out of town at the time. Huffman informed Williams that a county staffer had reported the newspapers were missing.
"I witnessed the absence of the papers," said Williams, who was at the county building for a regularly scheduled 9 a.m. board meeting.
The Independent subsequently restocked the public facility with additional copies of the newspaper and filed an open records request with the county's security department to review digitalized videotapes in an effort to determine the person responsible for removing the newspapers. Four of 32 cameras installed inside the building captured Bensberg as he entered the building, walked to the site where the Independent had been distributed shortly before and then made his way to his third-floor office. County security personnel reported first noticing the newspapers were missing by 8 a.m. and observed no additional activity on the videotape suggesting anyone else might have removed the newspapers.
The videotapes were also distributed to county administrator Terry Harris, as well as all five elected county commissioners.
The county's director of security, Don Johnson, said Bensberg reviewed the videotapes in his office the next day.
"I could see the difference when [Bensberg] walked to the right and then to the left, that he had something in his arms," Johnson said. "You can make up your mind what it is -- I'm not going to rat out the commissioner."
Williams, who also reviewed the videotapes, offered the following assessment: "It appears [Bensberg] is carrying a heavier load when he's going upstairs than when he was downstairs. The size was not inconsistent with that of the Independent.
"You've got the video -- let it speak to itself, is my view."
This Tuesday, attorneys Ray Deeny and Dawn Webber of the law firm Sherman & Howard, who are representing Bensberg, denied their client had removed the stack of newspapers -- which last week stood about seven inches high -- from its distribution site inside the public building.
The attorneys, who said they had also reviewed the videotape, maintain that Bensberg picked up four copies of last week's Independent -- one less than the new law requires to be a criminal act. They said the newspapers were intended for their client, his personal attorney, county attorney Bill Louis and one for Bensberg's cousin. In addition, they maintain that Bensberg picked up a copy of the Denver Post and the Gazette. They rejected any suggestion that their client had removed the entire stack of Independent newspapers as "outrageous," "unsubstantiated" and a "complete misreading of the videotape."
Under Colorado's new law, anyone who is found guilty of stealing five or more copies of a free newspaper faces misdemeanor charges and fines of up to $5,000. If civil charges are filed, anyone found guilty would be required to pay $10 for each newspaper, plus actual damages and attorney's fees.
This Wednesday, the Independent reported the theft of the newspapers to the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Read Colorado's new law that criminalizes the theft of five or more free newspapers, as well as giving publishers, advertisers or readers the ability to pursue civil action in such cases. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Bill Owens on April 13.