Good company: Cole Finegan
While some dip a toe in a range of projects or professional pursuits, 58-year-old Cole Finegan immerses himself in law, business, politics, finance and development. He is entrenched in Denver. Recognized in 2013 as “Lawyer of the Decade” by Law Week Colorado, Finegan presently serves as regional managing partner of the Americas and managing partner of Hogan Lovells’ Denver office.
Where does the oh-so-slight Southern drawl come from?
I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And then I returned to Oklahoma after I graduated [from the University of Notre Dame] in 1978 and I worked for a local congressman, a guy by the name of James Jones, who later became the chairman of the House Budgeting Committee. And in the course of working for him, I moved up from an intern and went to Washington, worked in that office and worked my way up to becoming the chief of staff.
Were you inspired during that time to pursue law?
I attended law school at night at Georgetown. I was not necessarily picturing myself as a lawyer all along. I went to law school because I thought I needed to have another career as well as being in government.
Why is that?
Working in Washington, where you see people come and go and elections change people’s lives, I wanted to have some security.
But there’s more to your career than law.
You know, my wife’s joke is I just can’t say no.
I left Brownstein [Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Madden at the time] in 1991. I was Gov. Roy Romer’s lawyer and chief policy director. I was with him for two years. Then I came back to Brownstein from 1993 to 2003, as a partner and was very involved in the land use and government relations practice. I was involved in starting their Washington office and starting their office in New Mexico.
Then in 2003, I became enamored with John Hickenlooper’s campaign. I just thought he was a great candidate and was really a breath of fresh air. He teases me – we met for lunch in 2002 and he was telling me he was going to run for mayor and I told him I didn’t really think that was a great idea.
So I joined him – I became the city attorney in 2003. We had a number of great projects. We got the Justice Center built. We got the budget brought in line … we reorganized the city attorney’s office for the first time in 20 years and saved about $1 million off the budget. We were involved with the redevelopment of Stapleton – we worked with financing mechanisms, with the entitlements, the permits, the zoning, how it was all built out.
Then in 2005, Michael Bennet was the chief of staff and he left to become the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, so I became the chief of staff as well as the city attorney.
And you’re the only person who has held both roles simultaneously.
The only person crazy enough!
I would say the most significant thing that came out of that period was we actually amended the city charter and created a chief financial officer post. There was a real sense that we had a very archaic and antiquated system in Denver, particularly with the way the city auditor interacted with the city government, and that we really needed to bring someone in that had business skills and was much more nimble and that made a huge difference.
So, how’d you find your way back to the private sector?
When I left the City [in 2007], I talked to several businesses and I thought Hogan Lovells was the best platform for me because I was very interested in pursuing the [public-private partnership] projects, and also because it had a national platform and it was widely regarded as the No. 1 regulatory firm in the country, and because a lot of my legal practice had been interacting with local, state and federal governments.
So I came [to Hogan], and Tom Strickland was the managing partner and within a few weeks, he became the general council of United Health. So they asked me to serve as the managing partner, and I stepped in and took that job.
Describe one case or project that stands out.
In late 2007, I was approached as they were beginning to redevelop Union Station and they were beginning to have some issues. They asked if I would come in and serve as the legal council to the executive operating committee. I began to sort through the different roles of each of the agencies, how they were going to interact with the two developers, East West and Continuum. We had to handle a couple lawsuits. We set ourselves up as a separate entity because under TABROR you have to be an enterprise. And our theory was we were going to go out and issue bonds and then repay the bonds off the payments that come off FasTracks, because there’s roughly $12 million a year that RTD collects from FasTracks.
So we were set.
And then the financial market collapses. So, now we’re moving into 2009-2010, and we were really getting worried and we sat down and put our heads together and we figured out there were some provisions in the law at the Federal Department of Transportation. We could borrow money and then we would repay those funds through the RTD tax. It had never been done. So we had to enlist then-Mayor Hickenlooper, Gov. Ritter, Senator Bennet, Senator Udall, and obviously the Obama administration and Ray LaHood, who was the secretary of transportation at the time.
Where the City and County of Denver really helped, was we suddenly had a financial executive who really was in charge of the city … to deploy its dollars. And the federal government was willing to issue these loans when the City and County of Denver stepped forward. They essentially said, ‘We agree. We will be morally obligated for the repayment of these funds, if, for some reason everything collapses.’
What’s been your greatest takeaway from all your experience?
Probably the thing I’ve learned the most, both in practicing law and being in government, is relationships are more important than anything else. We have a remarkable group of people in Denver. I think if you look back at the last 28 years, we should all take great pride in what’s happened. I think we had a willingness to work, we had a willingness to invest in ourselves and we took some big chances and it’s worked beyond our wildest dreams.
As you look at the downtown Denver scene, what does Denver still need?
I think we need to determine a way we can continue to develop and grow. I am troubled by some of the recent developments where there seems to be a bit of an anti-growth backlash. The truth is, one of the greatest things about Denver is anyone who comes here has a chance. I think the Western ethic has been fantastic.
Now, I think we’ve got to be smart about how we continue to grow. Are we ensuring that there’s a quality of life?
And I would say the other piece that we’ve made enormous strides with is DPS. But I think we need to look for creative ways to reform the public schools and make it possible for any child in our community to get a first-rate education.
We’re not there yet. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.