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Last summer, the publisher and executive editor of the West University Journal told a Houston Business Journal reporter she was getting out of the community newspaper publishing business and going back to her true calling as a writer. Beverly Denver, who had just been named small newspaper print journalist of the year by the Houston Press Club, characterized her decision as a romantic return to her roots.
"It's a leap of faith for me," declared Denver. "But I'm at a point in my life and I have the time where I can do it. When I'm running a business, I don't get to write as much."
Denver was not exactly engaging in full disclosure in the HBJ interview. At the time, she was in bankruptcy court seeking Chapter 7 protection from a long list of creditors, specifically a high-powered group including mega-plaintiffs lawyer John O'Quinn and Baker Botts attorney Laura Higley, a former mayor of West U and wife of O'Quinn investment adviser Bob Higley.
Asked why she had glossed over the messy legal details, Denver replied that the HBJ writer "didn't ask the right questions."
In court documents and interviews, creditors claim Denver solicited money from them to launch the West U publishing venture and then spent it on her private life while running the business into the ground. They say she failed to pay federal withholding and social security taxes on her employees and required more cash infusions to bail her out of IRS problems.
Denver signed a note to the investors in 1992 promising to pay back $72,500 but ceased payments in 1995. Investors later filed suit to recover the money, and Denver filed for bankruptcy.
Denver, who still periodically publishes the paper, is now in Seattle working as a strikebreaker in the newsroom of the Hearst-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She accuses the Higleys and O'Quinn of a vendetta that destroyed her business and even contributed to the suicide of her husband, Tom Bennett. She admits to signing the note to pay back the investment, but claims it was under duress from the creditors.
"The only way I could get rid of them was to file bankruptcy," says Denver, who occasionally broke into tears during an interview. "They did everything they could with John O'Quinn's money to just never let it go away."
According to Denver, O'Quinn's attorney called her to ask for money, and that was the couple's last conversation before Bennett's July 1995 suicide.
"He had lost his job, helping me with this struggling little paper, both of us running it, trying to make a living. I was making payments of $841 a month" on the note to the creditors, "and we didn't have the money to do it," recounts Denver. "I was on unemployment. I mean, this is not a very nice story."
A source in the creditors' camp says the dispute had nothing to do with the suicide, and that O'Quinn and the others allowed Denver to suspend payments till she recovered from the tragedy. Denver continued to publish the paper, and later disavowed the loan.
Bob Higley and Denver first met at a series of Leadership Houston training sessions in 1991. He had just run for state representative and lost to Sue Schechter, now the Harris County Democratic Party chair. In Denver's version of events, Higley was looking for a vehicle to promote his political future and recruited her to start a politically simpatico newspaper to counter the existing Village News.
"When he called me, it was just days after he lost the election, although I didn't know that at the time," recalls Denver. "He later lied to John O'Quinn, telling him that I had called them looking for someone to back me. The reason Bob Higley started that paper was he wanted to get back at Kathy Ballanfant, who owns the Village News, because she did not endorse him" against Schechter.
Higley responds that it was Denver who aggressively solicited his help in getting investors. He says his wife and her friend Deborah Detering were looking for an investment after cashing out of the Houston Rockets, and the newspaper seemed like an interesting idea.
Denver says the venture went badly because the investors did not raise adequate money for a business plan. She claims she gave up on the enterprise and eventually started the West U Journal as a separate venture called Denver Ink. Since the investors had already lost their money, reasons Denver, they had no claim on her new newspaper. The investors contend that's a maneuver to cheat them out of their share of the Journal.
After the financial dispute simmered through the late '90s, Denver filed for bankruptcy last year, though her initial filing did not include the Journal as an asset. An amended filing this year did list it, and a bankruptcy trustee now supervises the publication as part of her estate. She says despite the bankruptcy, Higley and O'Quinn are still after the paper.
Denver recently received a demand letter from the creditors' attorney. The creditors previously filed a claim in state district court that was dismissed after her bankruptcy was approved. Her counterclaim alleging harassment is still pending.