For Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the 2020 election must feel, as Yogi Berra once said, like deja vu all over again.
In 2014, there was Scott Brown, whose only connection to New Hampshire was his birth in Portsmouth and ownership of a home in Rye. He moved here from Massachusetts to challenge Shaheen. Didn’t work out.
Now comes Bryant “Corky” Scott Messner, from Colorado, the Republican nominee to challenge Shaheen, a two-term senator and former New Hampshire governor, in November.
Unlike Brown, who served as a Massachusetts state legislator and U.S. senator before losing to Elizabeth Warren, Messner has no prior public service record. A wealthy Trump-backed Denver lawyer (his financial disclosure form states a net worth of $14 million-$54 million), who once represented the Chipotle food chain and now lives in Wolfeboro, Messner shifted his voter registration 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 Brown. He also faces potential legal jeopardy in Colorado from two former Colorado Supreme Court justices who have accused him of fraud and deception. More on that in a minute.
A 1979 West Point graduate, Messner founded a Denver 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 “as a leader in the military, leadership in the civilian world, as a job creator ... 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. His campaign material claims, “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 did so effectively by shooting anyone who tried to escape over it to the West.
Messner’s claim of serving as an elite Army Ranger earned him the first two of six Pinocchios in July from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. In the Army’s view, completing the Ranger School, as Messner did, makes you “Ranger-qualified,” Kessler said. But to actually become a Ranger, one must also serve in a Ranger unit. Messner did not.
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 Messner Foundation's support of underprivileged students.
According to IRS records, Messner established his foundation in 2009 with $100,000 of his own funds. In an echo of the self-benefitting Trump Foundation, which the sate 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, which was 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 in 2016. 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, which regulates charitable organizations, and the state Attorney General.
Their complaint alleges that Messner and his foundation “violated Colorado state law.” By selling raffle tickets beginning in 2015 but awarding no scholarships at the time, “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," the complaint says.
Messner adviser Mike Biundo has 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 N.H. primary campaign, retired Brig. General Don Bolduc, Messner’s main Republican opponent, 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.”
In a change of heart the next day, Bolduc told 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.