My Turn: Untangling the story of Shaheen’s new challenger

  • Messner

For the Monitor
Published: 9/20/2020 6:45:03 AM

For Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the 2020 election must feel, as Yogi Berra once said, like déjà vu all over again.

First, in 2014, there was Scott Brown, whose only connection to New Hampshire was his birth in Portsmouth and ownership of a home in Rye, who moved here from Massachusetts to challenge Shaheen. Didn’t work out.

Now comes Bryant “Corky” Scott Messner, from Colorado, as of Sept. 8 the Republican nominee to challenge Shaheen, a two-term senator and former New Hampshire governor, in November.

Unlike Scott Brown, who served as a Massachusetts state legislator and U.S. senator before losing to Elizabeth Warren, Messner has no prior elective or significant public service record, here or in Colorado. A wealthy Trump-backed Denver lawyer (his financial disclosure form states a net worth of $14 million to $54 million), who once represented the Chipotle Mexican food chain and now lives in Wolfeboro, Messner shifted his voter registration from Colorado to the Granite State in August 2018.

In May 2019 he launched his Senate exploratory committee from Denver.

As a political novice, Messner seems an even longer shot than Scott Brown. He also faces potential legal jeopardy in Colorado from two former justices of the Colorado Supreme Court who have accused him of fraud and deception. More on that in a minute.

A 1979 graduate of West Point, Messner is the founder of a Denver-based law firm, Messner Reeves LLP, with offices in eight other Western cities and New York. In a bit of resume inflation, he described himself to WMUR television “as a leader in the military, leadership in the civilian world, as a job creator, as a problem solver out in the business world, helping small businesses, undertaking what it takes to make the economy work.”

In point of fact, Messner rose to the rank of captain before leaving the Army in 1984 to attend law school. During his military service, his campaign materials claim, “Corky became an Army Ranger,” “led his men into our battle against socialism,” and “served abroad guarding the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.”

It is unclear why the Berlin Wall needed guarding, as the communist East Germans who built it did so effectively by shooting anyone who tried to escape over it to the West. And the U.S. military is not known to engage in political tasks like fighting socialism.

Messner’s claim to have served as an elite Army Ranger earned him the first two of six Pinocchios in July from the Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler. In the Army’s view, Kessler reported, completing the challenging Ranger School as Messner did makes you “Ranger-qualified,” but to actually become a Ranger, one must also serve in a Ranger unit. Messner did not.

To civilians, this may seem a small difference. Even Rangers are sometimes of two minds on this. But in the military, precision in describing one’s service record is a point of honor – one observed by Messner’s main primary contender, retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. A New Hampshire native who served 10 tours in Afghanistan and won five Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, Bolduc also completed Ranger School, but did not serve as a Ranger. He was careful to call himself “Ranger-qualified.”

Messner earned the Post’s next four Pinocchios on July 31 – the maximum the newspaper awards for any one fib – for boasting at a Republican event about the good works of the Messner Foundation in supporting underprivileged students.

According to the Post, Denver media reports and publicly available IRS records, Messner established his foundation in 2009 with $100,000 of his own funds. In an echo of the self-benefiting Trump Foundation, which the state of New York shut down for fraud last year, the Messner Foundation made no grants until 2014, when it gave $50,000 not to needy students but to the Colorado Academy, an elite private school with a $22 million endowment attended by his children.

According to an archived 2014 version of the Messner Foundation website, which displayed photos of Black and Hispanic students, the foundation nevertheless said it “not only helps its Scholars financially but provides them unparalleled formative life experiences.”

There were no such scholars then and for another two years.

Public records show the foundation’s first scholarship, for $5,500, was awarded to a student only in 2016. Then, oddly, in 2017 the same University of Denver student – still the lone grantee over nearly a decade – received $17,500 and in 2018 another $25,000. Rather than expressing gratitude, the student referred the Post to the foundation. “You should talk to them about that,” she said. (A second student reportedly received about $4,900 this past academic year.)

In 2018 the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which helps students apply for dozens of area scholarships, delisted the Messner Foundation as apparently inactive, according to Salon.com.

Yet between 2015 and 2019, Messner’s Foundation, prominently promoted on his law firm’s website, sold thousands of raffle tickets and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars by raffling a Tesla and other expensive vehicles, all in the name of helping underprivileged students.

On Aug. 10, a retired chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, Mary J. Mullarkey, and her retired Supreme Court colleague, Justice Jean Dubofsky, joined with four other Denver community leaders to file a legal complaint with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, which regulates charitable organizations, and the state Attorney General’s Office. The complaint alleges that Messner and his foundation “violated Colorado state law, specifically the prohibition on fraud and deception for raffle licensees.”

By selling raffle tickets beginning in 2015 but awarding no scholarships at the time, the complaint charged, “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.”

Messner adviser Mike Biundo called the complaint a “political hoax with no legal basis or merit” and a “clear attempt to obscure the good work the Messner Foundation does.”

During the primary campaign, Bolduc said he would not engage in negative campaigning. That was then. The day after the primary, Bolduc told WMUR: “I will not support a man who is being investigated for fraud by the [Colorado] attorney general. No. I will not support him. I will not disgrace my name to support a man like that.”

Bolduc reverted to the party line the next day, telling a Republican gathering, “We need to be united, we need to stay together,” and gave Messner a hug.

(Robert Gillette is a former “Los Angeles Times” reporter. He lives in Ossipee.)




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