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Clean-air advocate files intent to sue Colorado Springs officials for defamation

May 24, 2017 Updated: May 25, 2017 at 10:34 am
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Martin Drake Power Plant shot from Gold Hill Mesa on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. Carol Lawrence, The Gazette

A Monument clean air advocate is threatening to sue Colorado Springs officials and representatives of the city's publicly owned utility claiming they smeared her for discussing concerns about a coal-fired power plant.

Leslie Weise announced her intention to sue for defamation in a May 16 claim notice alleging "a coordinated campaign to attack (her) character."

The notice - seeking at least $1.3 million - is the latest salvo in an ongoing feud over Weise's contention that Colorado Springs Utilities and city leaders have withheld internal data showing harmful levels of sulfur dioxide emissions from the Martin Drake Power Plant in downtown Colorado Springs - a charge the city and its utility provider have denied.

"People in Colorado Springs should be outraged by the fact that poison is being pumped into the air and that the government is doing everything it can to keep that secret," said her attorney, David Lane of Denver.

Weise intends to follow up with a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver on state and federal claims, including an alleged violation of her First Amendment rights, Lane said.

Utilities CEO Jerry Forte and three Colorado Springs City Council members - Andres Pico, Don Knight and Bill Murray - are among a list of potential defendants that also includes representatives of the City Attorney's Office.

Representatives of the city and Utilities said they do not comment on pending litigation. Knight declined to comment. Pico and Murray did not return phone messages seeking comment.

City leaders and Forte have disputed Weise's characterization of air quality data in maintaining that the Drake power plant is in full compliance with Environmental Protection Agency standards for sulfur dioxide, a toxic gas linked to respiratory ailments and acid rain.

They have refused to release the air quality study even though nothing in the law would preclude them from doing so, Denver First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg previously told the newspaper.

According to Weise's claim notice, city representatives knowingly pushed false statements in a bid to discredit her and protect themselves from liability.

Their alleged retaliation includes a recent move by the Colorado Springs City Attorney's Office to file a grievance against Weise, who works as a patent attorney, with the New York State Bar, Lane said.

Weise's New York law license is inactive, but the move showed the city's intent to silence one of its critics, Lane said, framing the action as a SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation. SLAPPs seek to intimidate members of the public from going after well-heeled companies and institutions by forcing them into court or otherwise punishing them.

"The fact that the city is going after her like this to me is reprehensible and hopefully we will make the city pay for this," Lane said.

The City Attorney's Office previously claimed that Weise violated state law when she told The Gazette in November 2016 that the Drake power plant had violated sulfur dioxide emission standards.

Weise based her allegations on an air quality report that had been given to her in error by a clerk with the Colorado Court of Appeals after Utilities and a 4th Judicial District judge refused her request for a copy of the study.

Weise said she returned the restricted document, as instructed, but that nothing in the court's orders prevented her from sharing her characterization of what the data demonstrated.

"I didn't quote the study. I didn't disclose any figures from the study," Weise said Wednesday, during an interview in which she confined her comments to material that has already been made public in prior news coverage.

The effort to pursue professional sanctions against Weise in New York represented the crumbling of an uneasy peace between her and lawyers for the city and Utilities.

The City Attorney's Office agreed in February to drop its request for contempt charges against Weise for her public comments in exchange for her agreement to dismiss an appeal seeking an authorized copy of the disputed air quality data.

Weise said she believes the about-face came after she continued to grant interviews with various Colorado news outlets to discuss the legal battle and the specter of toxic levels of contamination around the Drake power plant.

She spoke to the Colorado Independent about the issue in April after the outlet named her the recipient of its 2017 Whistleblower Award for her work in seeking the air quality data.

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