After his friend and aide was accused of sexual harassment, Mayor Michael Hancock sacked him without launching an investigation into the allegations. That's the main argument of Wayne McDonald, who plans to sue the city months after being ousted. But those aren't the only accusations made by McDonald's attorney. She also claims the mayor has personally called and texted McDonald numerous times since his dismissal.
Yesterday, when we asked the mayor to comment on McDonald and the pending lawsuit, he generally declined to comment. However, he did say, "This is someone I've known most of my life and I care about he and his family, so it is very difficult."
McDonald is a longtime friend of the mayor; he was appointed as a "special projects coordinator" but fired in May, after allegedly making inappropriate comments in front of a female Denver police officer. His legal team has filed a notice of claim, and plans to file the official lawsuit in the next month or so. In addition, his attorney, Anne Sulton, has also filed an Ethics Board complaint, on view below. Sulton says he asked for an investigation before he was fired, and is now requesting one via the upcoming lawsuit and the ethics complaint.
McDonald, who is seeking more than $362,000, has denied the allegations against him and says he has been unable to find work since losing his job with the city.
When contacted about the mayor's brief comments yesterday, Sulton told us she was surprised Hancock was expressing concern for the family given his and the city's actions.
"Why did you deny his application for unemployment compensation benefits if you care so much about his family?" she said. According to her, the city's not only refusing to give McDonald unemployment compensation, but its representatives are using it as leverage to try and stop him from going forward with the lawsuit.
"The city attorney...says if he walks away, they won't challenge the unemployment compensation," Sulton said. "That's really low."
Sulton couldn't find an e-mail record confirming this charge, but she says people at the city attorney's office have told her multiple times they would not challenge McDonald's application for unemployment under those circumstances.
That's not an option for McDonald, who can't find work because of the nature of the accusations and the impact they have on his reputation, she said.
"Mr. McDonald has to fight to clear his name," she said.
But Denver City Attorney Doug Friednash tells us that under Colorado law, an employee who is terminated for misconduct is not eligible for unemployment benefits. He adds in an e-mail that his "office does not ever comment on settlement negotiations, including whether the parties involved in litigation are even discussing settlement."
But questions of unemployment benefits are not the only concerns Sulton raises when she is asked to respond to the mayor's comments.
"I know that since my client has been fired, [Hancock] has been calling [McDonald] and his wife and sending text messages to my client," she said.
In our brief chat yesterday, Hancock told us he has not spoken to McDonald in a while, and that may be true, Sulton said, pointing out that to the best of her knowledge, McDonald has not responded to any of the mayor's messages.
"I think it's highly inappropriate for the mayor to be calling the man's wife and sending texts to my client," she said.
By Sulton's estimate, the mayor has reached out to McDonald and his family at least three times with texts and calls -- mostly in the immediate aftermath of firing him. When pressed on the matter back in June, Hancock told reporter, "We're still friends." McDonald was Hancock's driver during his campaign, attended college with the mayor and also worked at the Denver Urban League when Hancock was president.
We've reached out this morning to Hancock spokeswoman Amber Miller for any response to these specific accusations about phone messages and texts and will update if we hear back.
Continue for more details on the relationship of McDonald and the police officer, according to the ethics complaint. In a statement provided to Westword, Friednash wrote, "Mr. McDonald's allegations have no merit. He was an employee at-will and the city's actions were reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances."
Sulton said it's been a very trying time for McDonald, and he wants his reputation cleared. "He's struggling. It would be difficult if he had been fired for misusing a city vehicle. That would be difficult. But to be fired because you sexually harassed somebody puts a whole different spin on it.... It's doubly difficult to be accused of sexual harassment, because he is married and has children."
She added, "If the city had done the investigation at the front end, then we wouldn't be where we are today."
The ethics complaint also contains new details about McDonald's relationship with the police officer. It says that when McDonald traveled around the city with the mayor, he would often see and interact with this officer and they "engaged in conversations ranging from workplace issues, sporting events and personal matters." The officer frequently called McDonald's "personal cell phone to discuss personal matters," the complaint says, "including during the early morning hours (before 7:00 AM) and in the evening (after 6:00 PM) while he was off-duty."
During the 2011 Christmas season, McDonald reports that he and the officer also exchanged "expensive gifts," the complaint says.
The last time McDonald saw the officer was on or about March 11, 2012, when she came to the church he attends and he introduced her to his wife and other family members, according to the complaint. In May, he was informed by the city that she had reported that he sexually harassed her and had produced a tape recording she secretly made of a 31-minute telephone conversation she placed to McDonald. And McDonald's records show that between November 3, 2011 and March 14, 2012, the officer placed dozens of telephone calls to his cell, the complaint notes.
McDonald, who was suspended from his job pending the outcome, denied that he had sexually harassed her and agreed to cooperate in an investigation in a May 18 meeting.
A week after that first meeting with the city, he was called to meet with Stephanie O'Malley, the mayor's deputy chief of staff, and Friednash, the city attorney, who told him "that he could resign his job or he would be fired." He asked for a hearing but was instead told he would be fired, the complaint says.
Sulton said that Hancock and his press secretary then broke city rules when they released "confidential information" to the media in June about McDonald, who says he didn't even initially receive a termination letter from the city -- or anything in writing informing him of the allegations of misconduct or the reasons for termination.
"People should be treated fairly," she said. "Why the mayor allowed this to happen, fired his supposedly good friend without an investigation, I don't know. I don't know why."
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