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Romer admits 16-year relationship

By Dennis A. Britton
Editor of the Denver Post
Copyright 1998, The Denver Post

Feb. 6 -- In an exclusive interview with The Denver Post, Gov. Roy Romer acknowledged Thursday having a 16-year relationship with B.J. Thornberry, who worked with him on many of his political campaigns and most recently served as his assistant at the Democratic National Committee in Washington.

"I needed an infusion of spirit and energy, and I found that in Thornberry. It was a professional relationship that grew into a supportive personal one,'' the governor said in an interview.

"I was open with Bea (his wife) about it,'' he said.

Echoing her father's words, Mary Romer Ammons, his oldest daughter and the third of his seven children, told The Post in a separate interview: "I hope people can understand. This has not been a secret. This has been discussed, talked about, worked through, negotiated. My mother has not been deceived.

"These are very traditional people, but I am afraid the public won't understand that.

"I really respect the grace and integrity that these three adults have had. It has allowed our family to stay together and has allowed them to live their lives,'' Ammons said.

The interviews given by Romer and his daughter came as Colorado radio talk shows fueled a conservative Washingtonbased magazine's allegations that Romer, who also serves as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has been involved with his former aide.

A private investigator apparently was hired to follow Romer in 1995 and dig up private details about his life, according to Insight magazine. The publication released the story on its Web site Thursday morning.

Colorado Democrats charged Thursday that the Republican right wing was responsible for the surveillances in 1995. Some political figures, including Republican Party activists, denied knowledge or responsibility.

In the Post interview, Romer skirted answering who he thought financed the surveillance but said that he knew it began shortly after he was re-elected as governor in 1994 and that the results of the surveillance a year ago were offered to a national news magazine, which refused to publish them.

Insight magazine, published by the Washington Times, a daily newspaper known for its conservative politics, didn't claim to have incontrovertible proof of an affair between Romer and Betty Jane "B.J.'' Thornberry, his former deputy chief of staff.

The cover story, released on the computer Internet early Thursday morning, said: "Insight has obtained confidential records - including photographs and videotapes - purportedly showing that Romer may have had more than a platonic relationship.''

Romer said his relationship with Thornberry had "always been a secondary relationship. I didn't let it affect our extended family.''

Asked about his past unequivocal denials of a relationship, Romer said: "I was carefully answering about having a sexual affair. . . . I'm not a very sexual person.''

Romer's daughter, said she had known Thornberry for 16 years, initially as one of her father's colleagues.

"I have been impressed how my parents have been able to balance the relationship without tearing our family apart. They made things work. It allowed adults to have friendships that were important parts of their lives.

"It was never easy for any of them,'' she said. "They have made it work, as adults. The greatest tragedy here is that the nuances of life aren't always perceived by the public for what they are. This is a very complex situation.''

Ammons, who is temporarily living in the Governor's Mansion with her family as she prepares her home for sale, said she told her mother Wednesday night that "I was afraid (that these latest allegations) would be embarrassing to her. I told her that I have no sense of embarrassment and neither should she.''

"This is political warfare. I feel very protective of both my parents, and also for B.J.,'' she said. "There isn't a bad guy or a victim.''

From Washington, Romer told The Post: "We worked this out among ourselves. We knew it would not fit the public perception.''

In a prepared statement, Bea Romer said: "B.J. Thornberry is a close friend of Roy's. He has been open with me and shared the facts about the relationship with me from the beginning. It has not affected our marriage or our family. I ask people to respect our private lives.''

Meanwhile, local Democrats questioned who paid for what Insight magazine described as "private surveillance teams.''

"The extreme right wing will stop at nothing in their attempts to discredit the Democratic Party and to divert the public's attention from the real issues,'' said Phil Perington, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party. Don Bain "baffled' Even Don Bain, who was the Republican Party state chairman during the April-to-July period of 1995 when the pictures allegedly were taken, expressed "bafflement'' at who might have underwritten the surveillance at "a cost well into five figures, I would guess.''

Some Democrats speculated privately that the 1995 surveillance may have been an effort to collect damaging information in the event Romer decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, a race he ruled out last June.

Bain said the Republicans did "substantial opposition research'' on Romer in 1993 and 1994 for the 1994 gubernatorial campaign. "We never turned up anything at the time, nor did we look for it,'' he said.

But both he and Bruce Benson, Romer's GOP opponent in the 1994 gubernatorial race, said they had no idea who might have paid for the costly shadowing of Romer in 1995.

"Why would the state Republican Party spend money on a guy who was a lame-duck governor?'' Bain asked. "I don't have a clue.''

A Denver private detective suggested as a likely source of the pictures and documents said Thursday that he "couldn't comment on that.'' R.W. "Pete'' Peterson said that even if he had been hired to tail Romer, he couldn't say who his client was.

Jamie Dettmer, senior editor at Insight, said the tapes and photos of Romer were passed on to the magazine by Romer foes from both parties.

"Democratic opponents, as well as Republicans, were involved in this,'' Dettmer told The Denver Post.

The magazine's editors wouldn't make the video available Thursday, saying they were considering media requests and would sell other unpublished photos, possibly today. Dettmer said the magazine pursued the story because of Romer's prominence as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, his past statements denying a romance with Thornberry, and his recent defense of President Clinton in the alleged Monica Lewinsky affair.

"For us, it was a public-interest article,'' Dettmer said. "We're uncomfortable running this kind of story and don't want to be accused of tabloid salaciousness. But it's a story about public trust and political office. As a staunch defender of the president, (Romer's) saying, "I'm going to take the president's word, and you should take my word because of who I am.' ''

Rumors about Romer and Thornberry circulated before both of his runs for re-election, in 1990 and 1994. Both times, he and campaign aides denied them vigorously.

While Democrats pointed fingers at who might be behind the surveillance of the governor, most local news outlets either ignored Insight's story or addressed it cautiously.

Channels 4, 7 and 9 all passed on airing it on their 5 p.m. newscasts Thursday night.

However, talk radio was found in the middle of the story, fueling the controversy through two main shows. A KOA radio fill-in talkshow host Wednesday began broadcasting that such a story was coming Thursday from Insight magazine's Web site. And Peter Boyles of KHOW devoted several hours to the subject. Talk-show host The article came to KOA's attention through Tom Tancredo, of the conservative Independence Institute, who was substituting on KOA for talk-show host Mike Rosen.

"Tancredo had conversations with someone who knew the article was coming out,'' KOA News Director Jerry Bell said, declining to further identify the source. "I wish we didn't have to do stories like this.

"It's more than a story about making an allegation, it's about the whole system and politics right now, which makes it more of a story,'' KOA's Bell said.

Other news outlets airing the story Thursday included KRRF; the Ken Hamblin, Marty Nalitz and Jim Bohannon syndicated radio shows; and radio stations in Portland, New York and Washington, D.C.

Channel 9 News Director Patti Dennis said she wouldn't air the Insight story, "unless we get some verified documentation or other than third party information from a newspaper in Washington.

"You have to look for agenda,'' Dennis said. "When you have a news story that has character implications you have to walk very carefully.''

Channel 4 News Director Jack MacKenzie likewise had not aired any mention of the allegations. "We have a reporter who's on the story. When we feel there is a story to report, we will report it.''

MacKenzie cited numerous errors, vague references and unattributed allegations contained in the Insight story.

Denver Post staff writers Fred Brown, Adriel Bettelheim and Joanne Ostrow contributed to this report.

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