Late last night, Denver City Council president Albus Brooks announced that the panel will not investigate the question of whether inappropriate texts sent by Mayor Michael Hancock to Detective Leslie Branch-Wise during the 2011-2012 period when she was on his security detail constitute sexual harassment.
Brooks maintains that Branch-Wise ceded her right to such an inquiry when she reached a $75,000 settlement with the City of Denver in 2013 over alleged unacceptable treatment at the hands of another city employee, former Hancock friend Wayne McDonald. In 2016, four years after filing suit over his firing, McDonald received his own settlement, valued at $200,000. However, McDonald's attorney, William Sulton, plans a new complaint against Denver based on Hancock's mention of the firing in his apology video to Branch-Wise and the fact that the text messages the mayor sent to the detective weren't disclosed at the time of the settlement.
Branch-Wise considers Hancock's actions to have constituted sexual harassment. In contrast, he describes them as an improper blurring of the line between colleague and friend.
Denver City Council hasn't seemed that into a Hancock investigation for weeks. After member Rafael Espinoza called for an inquiry, the council as a whole rejected the idea, opining that no facts were in dispute and that Branch-Wise might be revictimized in the process. When Branch-Wise stepped forward to say she wanted such a probe to go forward, Brooks and company "directed our legal counsel to develop a proposal for a potential investigation." Late last week, the council revealed that it was still musing about the issue.
This deliberation continued during an extended executive session after the regular April 2 city council meeting. Shortly thereafter, Brooks released the following statement:
Detective Leslie Branch-Wise requested the Denver City Council to publicly investigate whether Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s texts to her six years ago constituted sexual harassment. Each Council Member agrees that Mayor Hancock’s conduct was unacceptable. Tonight, based on extensive additional legal advice, Council is unable to grant Detective Branch-Wise’s request for an investigation. Since we are not the judicial branch, we are unable to make a legal conclusion about the Mayor’s conduct and there are no disputed facts. In 2013, Detective Branch-Wise waived any opportunity to pursue the legal process where these types of legal conclusions are typically made. Furthermore, the request for an open investigation would be problematic under state law confidentiality requirements.
Council is deeply concerned that there is not a process to make a complaint against a Denver elected official for sexual harassment. Council will lead by example and adopt a clear policy and process for reporting and investigating complaints against a Council Member. We call on the Mayor to follow suit and adopt consistent policies to meet the community’s demand for accountability.
Our attorney will communicate with Detective Branch-Wise’s attorney on this matter.
As you can see, the reference to undisputed facts is back in these new remarks, as is an allusion to laws that prevent an open hearing about sexual harassment, a concept first teased in a letter from legislative counsel Kirsten Crawford to Branch-Wise's attorney, Sean Lane.
Why did the council feel it needed to mull over these matters for weeks? At first blush, the difficulties in coming to a decision seem more political than legal. Many observers had expected the council to announce a behind-the-scenes analysis as a way of saving face, after which members would shrug at their inability to punish Hancock for his behavior — a flaw in the current system.
Instead, they opted for the more direct approach of squelching an investigation before one could begin.
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After issuing the letter, Brooks, who's been prolific on social media but recently announced that he was dropping his Facebook page, tweeted not about the council decision, but about 9News's Kyle Clark distributing a photo of what he said was the council's lawyer, City Attorney Kristin Bronson. Brooks countered by sharing Crawford's pic. (According to 9News, Crawford also answers to "city attorney.")
Meanwhile, the mayor's office quickly put out a statement of its own: "From the start, Mayor Hancock has been open, honest and transparent about this matter. He has taken full responsibility for his inappropriate text messages from six years ago and has apologized to Detective Branch-Wise as well as his family and the entire community. Mayor Hancock is committed to learning and growing from all of this while continuing to lead the city forward."
Are there any additional avenues through which Branch-Wise can press her argument? We've passed along an interview request to attorney Lane, and will share his views if and when he gets back to us. We also requested an interview with William Sulton, who emailed that he's on vacation and will be in touch next week. Additionally, we've reached out to Councilman Espinoza, who reacted to the council's allergy to his earlier call for an investigation call by saying in part, "That is the difficult nature of a body like ours."
Truer words were never spoken.