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.
Detering was one of the investors and served on the paper's board of directors. She says Denver did not behave responsibly and got the business into serious tax problems. She recalls one meeting where Denver suggested they just make up a figure for the operation's tax liability, a suggestion that stunned other board members.
"I have invested in projects that have gone down the tubes -- good shots, close calls and long shots," says Detering, "and I've never had anybody keep sloppier records and never had this kind of distaste for the management of a project."
She concludes that Denver is "a great newspaperwoman, but I don't think she was much of a business manager." "I know that John O'Quinn put in a lot more money than I did," she says. "And if I were him, I would be looking for some of it, maybe."
O'Quinn and Mrs. Higley did not return Insider inquiries.
Although Denver is planning at least one more issue of the Journal, she is pessimistic about its future.
"At this point, the West U Journal has been damaged so badly, why fight for it anymore?" asks the publisher, hard at work on her temporary assignment in Seattle. "They can't get it, but yet they are going to keep hassling me where I can't financially afford to do anything."
Political consultant Allen Blakemore lives in West University and was on the cover of the last Journal issue in October, pushing a police pay-raise referendum. He recalls that a frantic Denver called him on a weekend last summer and begged him to pose for the photo, which did not run in the paper until three months later.
Asked who he pegs as the villains in the controversy, Blakemore shrugs.
"If I had to guess," says the consultant, "most of Beverly's problems are based on her complete and general incompetence in the business aspects of trying to put out a paper."
A source close to the creditors warns that Denver's problems are far from over.
"If you know of anybody that's interested in a newspaper, I think Mr. O'Quinn's going to end up owning one," says this source. "Somewhere down the line he's going to bid enough to own that West U Journal, and if nothing else, he's going to put that thing either out of business -- or into business."
Get Thee to a Spell Checker!
Early in his administration Mayor Lee Brown got tagged in the Houston Chronicle when an aide approved an education brochure with numerous misspellings. So Hizzoner might be forgiven for questioning why the Chronicle and other media failed to similarly ridicule a congratulatory letter from an even higher-profile politician. It ran on the cover of a program earlier this month for the Lombardi Award dinner in Houston. The missive was laced with misspelled words and grammatical blunders.
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The letter's author, Governor and now President-elect George W. Bush, saluted the purpose of the banquet audience to "celebrate the achievements of this year's outstatnding college football lineman."
The letter went on to praise the finalists "for yur dedication." Rotary Club sponsors also received praise "for you 31 years of service to the American cancer society."
Both Brown and President Bill Clinton contributed banquet letters of their own that appear to be error-free.
Note to the White House transition team: Make sure whoever handles outgoing correspondence from the Oval Office has strong grammatical skills -- and a computer with a good spell checker.