At this time yesterday, March 19, political observers were wondering if Denver City Council would investigate Mayor Michael Hancock after a new call for an inquiry from his alleged victim, Denver police detective Leslie Branch-Wise. By the evening, the answer had moved close to a "yes," with council president Albus Brooks, who'd previously said "I continue to maintain that an investigation is not warranted because there are no disputed facts about the case" reversing course in dramatic fashion.
"Based upon recent statements from Detective Branch-Wise, I and other council members have directed our legal counsel to develop a proposal for a potential investigation," Brooks revealed in a message to Westword. "A formal vote by council is necessary before we could begin any such investigation. We are listening and we are working. We will know more at the end of the week."
This 180-degree pivot is a political victory for councilmember Rafael Espinoza, who last week called for a probe into what Hancock has described as inappropriate texts sent to Branch-Wise during the 2011-2012 period when she was on his security detail. In one, he asked if she'd ever taken a pole-dancing class.
But Espinoza isn't ready to declare victory. Corresponding with Westword by text after last night's fiery council meeting, at which numerous members of the public scorched the panel for inaction about Hancock, Espinoza wrote that the new openness to the possibility of an investigation was "very encouraging. But there are so many irons in the fire right now, I don't know which option is going to be taken."
What's clear, however, is that Branch-Wise's latest conversation with Denver7's Tony Kovaleski put the council in a very uncomfortable spot.
The council's explanation for why it wouldn't launch an inquiry into whether Hancock's texts to the detective constituted sexual harassment (as Espinoza believes) had a paternalistic tone; one passage reads, "We feel strongly that any attempt to further investigate this new matter without [Branch-Wise's] request or consent would be contrary to best practice and risks re-victimizing her."
But it appears that no one at the council thought about actually contacting the detective before proclaiming that protecting her was the first priority. And in a letter to council written by her attorney, Sean Lane, Branch-Wise made it clear that she was more than capable of dealing with fallout from an investigation.
"Detective Branch-Wise notes that one of the stated reasons behind the Denver City Council's decision not to pursue an investigation of this matter is a desire not to 're-victimize' her," Lane's letter points out. "As a public servant, Detective Branch-Wise understands that the risk she may experience and the strong negative emotions that the situation with the Mayor and Mr. McDonald created, must be subordinate to her duty to the people of Denver. She believes that only a full investigation of these events will truly satisfy the City Council's stated intent to provide transparent and accountable government for the City of Denver."
Just as important as what the council may investigate is what its members can do if they find wrongdoing. "Because of the way the charter is structured," Espinoza said in a recent Westword interview, "we don't have any mechanism to censure or anything like that. That's something the council will look into as a body: What kind of changes might be necessary to cover that event in the future."
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Brooks made the same point in remarks he shared just prior to the airing of Branch-Wise's investigation request. "It is important to reiterate that the Denver City Council has no authority to discipline the Mayor whatever the outcome is of any investigation," he maintained. "And depending on the scope, no investigation could result in the public release of legally privileged matters that could subject the city to serious financial risk and legal liability under the non-disclosure clauses in the separate settlement" with Wayne McDonald, a former Hancock friend fired in 2012 for alleged actions toward Branch-Wise that seem to mirror Hancock's.
Four years later, McDonald received a $200,000 settlement with the city that called on both parties to stay mum. But McDonald's attorney contends that Hancock violated that pact when he alluded to McDonald's sacking in his video apology to Branch-Wise.
Hancock still insists that his texts don't constitute sexual harassment. Quizzed by Kovaleski on the topic yesterday, Hancock said, "We're not going to sit here and try to characterize her statements, my actions at that time. I know what my intent was. At this point in time, what's important is what her perceptions were, and we'll leave it at that."
The mayor may want to cut off the conversation there, but that seems unlikely because of the way Branch-Wise called the bluff of those councilmembers who were hoping that demands for an investigation would slowly fade away. Instead, they're likely to intensify over the course of the week, no matter what happens next.