WASHINGTON — The publicity-shy billionaire Philip F. Anschutz inherited an oil and gas firm and built it into an empire that has sprawled into telecommunications, railroads, real estate, resorts, sports teams, stadiums, movies and conservative publications like The Weekly Standard and The Washington Examiner.
Anschutz’s influence is especially felt in his home state of Colorado, where years ago Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, a Denver native, the son of a well-known Colorado Republican and now President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, was drawn into his orbit.
As a lawyer at a Washington law firm in the early 2000s, Gorsuch represented Anschutz, his companies and lower-ranking business executives as an outside counsel. In 2006, Anschutz successfully lobbied Colorado’s lone Republican senator and the Bush administration to nominate Gorsuch to the federal appeals court. And since joining the court, Gorsuch has been a semiregular speaker at the mogul’s annual dove-hunting retreats for the wealthy and politically prominent at his Eagles Nest Ranch.
“They say a country’s prosperity depends on three things: sound money, private property and the rule of law,” Gorsuch said at the 2010 retreat, according to his speaker notes from that year. “This crowd hardly needs to hear from me about the first two of the problems we face on those scores.”
With the Senate Judiciary Committee set to take up Gorsuch’s nomination next week, Democrats have based much of their criticism of him on the argument that his judicial and economic philosophy unduly favors corporations and the wealthy. But his relationship with Anschutz, 77, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes to be $12.6 billion, has received scant attention.
The Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, which developed the list of potential Supreme Court nominees from which Trump selected Gorsuch, receive funding from Anschutz. But it is not clear how well the two know each other, in part because the mogul and those around him keep a low profile.
When a reporter called Anschutz’s company and asked for a press officer, a woman who answered said, “We do not respond to media requests.” She hung up when asked her name.
But he has connections with others who work with the Colorado billionaire. For nearly a dozen years, Gorsuch has been partners in a limited-liability company with two of Anschutz’s top lieutenants. Together, they own a 40-acre property on the Colorado River in the mountains northwest of Denver, where they built a vacation home together.
Gorsuch began representing Anschutz and his companies when he was working for the Washington law firm then known as Kellogg Huber. Mark Hansen, a senior partner at the firm, said he assigned the future judge, then a junior partner, to help on various cases involving the Anschutz Company “both because of his skills and experience and because he had expressed to me an interest in getting involved in things relating to his home state.”
A 2004 case was typical. A teachers’ retirement fund that owned shares in the Regal Entertainment theater chain sued over its decision to issue a debt-financed dividend that would permit Anschutz, who owned 58 percent of the company, to extract $368 million. The plaintiffs said this amounted to self-dealing.
Gorsuch helped win a ruling in Regal’s favor by arguing that it could handle the extra debt, telling a judge, “This company is what some analysts call a cash cow.”
Another set of shareholder lawsuits in which Gorsuch represented Anschutz involved Qwest Communications International, whose stock price had collapsed amid an accounting fraud scandal after Anschutz,a Qwest board member, had sold off a large stake. Hansen said a judge dismissed Anschutz from the case, although Qwest paid a settlement.
In 2005, Gorsuch left private practice to work at the Justice Department. But soon afterward, a seat on the federal appeals court in Denver became vacant, and Anschutz sought to secure it for him.
In January 2006, a top lawyer for Anschutz sent a letter on the billionaire’s behalf to President George W. Bush’s White House counsel, Harriet E. Miers, suggesting that he nominate Gorsuch. The letter said Anschutz had spoken to Colorado’s only Republican senator at the time, Wayne Allard, about his idea.
“I have had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Gorsuch for several years, as we worked closely together on several complex federal cases,” wrote the lawyer, Bruce Black, who is now the executive vice president and general counsel of the Anschutz Company. “I have found Mr. Gorsuch to be an exceptionally talented lawyer.”
When he was named to the appeals court, Gorsuch sought to recuse himself from numerous Anschutz-related cases “because my former client” was involved, according to a list he submitted to the Senate.
In 2007 he did participate in a case involving a firm that had merged with Qwest. The disability fund of the old firm, not Qwest, was named as the defendant, although the opinion, written by another judge, noted the old firm was “now Qwest.”
Liz Johnson, a spokeswoman for Gorsuch, portrayed his participation in that Anschutz-linked case as inadvertent, explaining that he did not include the old firm’s name in a recusal list he filed with the court clerk because “it did not exist as an independent company” when he became a judge.
Steven Lubet, a Northwestern University law professor who has written about judicial ethics and recusals, said that so long as Gorsuch disqualifies himself on a case-by-case basis from Supreme Court cases that are too involved with Anschutz’s interests, his ties to the billionaire should not be a problem.
But the judge appears to be leaving the door open to participating in Anschutz-related cases on the Supreme Court.
Johnson said his recusal practices at the appeals court went further than what is required on the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s procedure is that individual justices decide for themselves whether any particular case meets a vague standard for recusal set by a 1974 statute. It does not address whether cases involving former clients raise an improper appearance of a conflict of interest.
Still, James Sample, a Hofstra University law professor who has studied Supreme Court recusals, said, “It’s very reasonable to ask a Supreme Court nominee for a more thorough answer” about how he will weigh such decisions, especially since “it seems as though there is a kind of continuous relationship — this is not just a past client.”
One of the Anschutz executives Gorsuch represented in a Qwest lawsuit was Cannon Harvey, the head of the venture capital investment arm of Anschutz’s empire. In 2005, a company called the Walden Group filed paperwork with the Colorado secretary of state that listed Harvey as the company’s registered agent, but did not disclose any other partners’ identities.
But when he was nominated for the appeals court, Gorsuch disclosed in his Senate questionnaire that he was a partner, too. The Walden Group attracted little attention until his nomination to the Supreme Court, when American Bridge, a liberal research group, identified public records about it that linked Gorsuch to Harvey.
Days after its formation, the Walden Group purchased a 40-acre property along the Colorado River’s headwaters in the mountains northwest of Denver. The group then built a 2,923-square-foot log house there overlooking “the quiet seclusion of the private fishery,” including both sides of 2,000 feet of the river, according to a real estate listing.
Johnson said the Walden Group has three partners: Gorsuch, Harvey and Kevin Conwick. The judge befriended Harvey while representing Anschutz companies, and Conwick was a friend of the judge’s late father, a Denver lawyer, she said.
Conwick is also another important member of Anschutz’s network. His law firm profile focuses on his work through the years as the billionaire’s counsel in deals to buy sports teams and develop stadium and entertainment district projects, like the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Johnson said Gorsuch contributed $360,000 to the Walden Group, giving him a 20 percent stake; Harvey and Conwick each own 40 percent. She said the partners divide the time when each has a right to vacation on the river property, as well as taxes and utilities, based on their respective shares.
Although the judge’s stake is smaller than his partners’, county records direct correspondence about the property to him at the federal courthouse in Denver.
A longtime friend of Gorsuch’s whom Johnson made available to discuss the property said the partnership had its origin years ago, when Gorsuch’s father and a dozen friends — including Conwick — bought an adjoining property to be a timeshare they called the Walden Hollow Fishing Club. When the 40-acre property became available, the judge’s father persuaded Harvey and Conwick to partner with him to buy it for a similar timeshare, the friend said.
Conwick and Harvey declined to discuss the partnership, but since 2015, the Walden Group has been trying to sell the property, and few neighbors know who owns it.
“They’re very protective of their fishing,” said Dawn Murphy, 46, who said she was one of only a few year-round residents nearby.
But down the gravel road from Murphy’s cabin, a man outside a ranch house identified himself as the river property’s caretaker.
“I’m one of maybe half a dozen people in this valley who know of Neil Gorsuch,” he said.
Then, emphasizing that he was a former law enforcement official, he asked a reporter to leave.