A lawsuit paints a grim picture of how a Colorado sports magnate’s firm treated an Aspen art gallery, charging as much as $1 per toilet flush when it should have cost no more than four cents.
E.S. Lawrence Gallery claims that it was overcharged to the tune of $35,755 by Wheeler Block Building LLC, which is controlled by Stan Kroenke’s Missouri-based Kroenke Group. Aspen attorney Matthew Ferguson filed the suit Thursday in Pitkin County District Court.
The suit also accuses a Kroenke employee of telling gallery owner Ken Johnson that his lease has no value except as a tax write-off for Kroenke’s jet fuel for flights to Aspen.
Kroenke’s Kroenke Sports Enterprises owns a collection of professional sports franchises, including the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Rams.
“Stan’s a nice guy, and he’s purchased art from us in the past, but his lawyers are like, ‘Here’s the amount you owe, period,”’ Johnson said.
Kroenke attorney Adam Patchett did not return a phone call left at his office Friday.
Johnson and his wife had run the gallery on Galena Street since 2006 but vacated the building on April 30. The gallery’s monthly rent was $13,585 for 2,117 square feet on the first floor and 1,505 square feet of basement space, the suit says.
The suit accuses Wheeler Block Building and Kroenke of charging “exorbitant” monthly fees of $370 to $383 for water and sewage, while the gallery only had one toilet and one sink.
“Upon information and belief, the cost of a flush should be in the range of one to four pennies,” the lawsuit says. “Regardless of how the overcharges were measured, they were astronomical.” The suit claims that on average, each flush cost $1.
Johnson said an upstairs residential tenant, in the same building, had a hot tub and two bathrooms. But his gallery had to pay 67 percent of the monthly sewage and water bill.
Johnson and the suit also alleged that the building’s water meter had been broken for a duration of the overbilling but the landlords did nothing to fix it. Instead, Johnson said he paid out of his own pocket for a new water meter.
All told, the suit says the gallery overpaid $16,231 for water and sewage, but the high billing didn’t end there.
The suit alleges that the gallery also overpaid $3,229 for snow removal, while Johnson said he did most of the shoveling himself.
Other overbilling came in the form of maintenance/repair and management fees, the suit says.
The suit also says the landlords were unresponsive to the Johnsons and Ferguson’s requests to work things out.
“On one occasion when (Ken) Johnson raised the issue of these overcharges again with the Kroenke Group, a Kroenke Group employee told Johnson that they did not like dealing with these water bill questions every May and told Johnson to just sign the lease,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit notes, “Johnson does not believe that Stan Kroenke would sanction this attitude as Mr. Kroenke was always nice to the Johnsons in person.”
Johnson said he’s getting a temporary space this summer on Cooper Avenue, but his relationship with his old landlord harbors bad feelings.
“These landlords are just killing small businesses,” he said.