Denver lawyer accused of charity fraud by former Supreme Court justices

Two former Colorado Supreme Court justices have asked state investigators to look into what they claim are the fraudulent actions of a prominent Denver lawyer who is running for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire.

In a complaint filed Tuesday, the former justices joined several other Coloradans in alleging that Bryant “Corky” Messner of Messner Reeves LLP broke the law when his charity raised $200,000 at a raffle in 2015 to fund scholarships for underprivileged high school students but didn’t provide scholarships that year.

“The Messner Foundation and its president, Corky Messner, swindled both the underprivileged students in Colorado it was promising to help, as well as all of the people who purchased tickets for its 2015 raffle believing their money was going toward a good cause,” the five-page complaint to two state agencies alleges.

The complaint suggests Messner committed charitable fraud, a felony in Colorado, by claiming in a press release and promotional material that proceeds from the raffle of a Tesla vehicle that year would benefit low-income students.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office says its business and licensing division will investigate but declined to comment further. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the allegations Tuesday.

“The complaint is a political hoax with no legal basis or merit,” said Mike Biundo, a senior adviser for the Messner campaign. He called it “a clear attempt to obscure the good work that the Messner Foundation has done.”

Messner is a leading Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, where his charity’s finances and his longtime Colorado residency have come under fire as that state’s September primary draws closer. If Messner wins the Republican primary, he will face Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, in November.

Messner has owned a home in New Hampshire for 13 years but didn’t register to vote there until 2018 and launched his exploratory committee from Denver, leading Republican opponents to call him a carpetbagger and interloper. The business law firm Messner founded began in Denver but now has offices in several cities.

The Washington Post found Messner — a multimillionaire who was a top lawyer for Chipotle — started the Messner Foundation in 2009 and has raised money for it by raffling off luxury vehicles. But its first donation, in 2014, was to the elite, private Colorado Academy for a baseball field, not a scholarship.

It has given only one scholarship, worth about $48,000, to University of Denver student Majarlika Diane Villaruel-Mariano, according to tax filings analyzed by the Washington Post. The Messner campaign told the newspaper that Villaruel-Mariano has received additional money not yet reported, making her scholarship worth about $78,000, and that a second student is now receiving a scholarship.

“Thanks to the support from the Messner Foundation, I will be the first in my family to graduate with a college degree,” Villaruel-Mariano said in a statement provided by the Messner campaign Tuesday. She will graduate with a master’s degree in accounting and plans to be a certified public accountant, the statement says.

Tuesday’s complaint was filed by six people: Mary Mullarkey, a former chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court; Jean Dubofsky, a former Colorado Supreme Court justice and deputy attorney general; Josie Heath, former president of the Community Foundation of Boulder County; Adele Phelan, former president of the Clayton Foundation; Tom Korson, a retired minister married to Mullarkey; and Rollie Heath, a former state senator.

At least five of the six have direct connections to Democratic politics. Mullarkey and Dubofsky were appointed by Democratic governors and Korson is a volunteer for Denver Democrats. Heath, of Boulder, was a Democratic lawmaker and his wife, Josie, is a former delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

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