Michael Hancock's Firing of Ex-Pal Wayne McDonald to Cost Taxpayers $200K

Update: We've been reporting for more than four years about Denver mayor Michael Hancock's firing of Wayne McDonald, a good friend who turned into an adversary in court. After being sacked for allegedly making inappropriate comments to a female police officer, McDonald filed a lawsuit against Hancock and the city (see it below) that was killed in 2013 only to subsequently rise from the grave; much of our previous coverage has been incorporated into this post.

Now, the saga is on the cusp of being over, at least publicly. A hiring of the sort capable of prompting charges of nepotism has now resulted in a $200,000 taxpayer-funded settlement expected to be finalized this week.

Jenna Espinoza, a Hancock spokeswoman, confirmed the deal with this statement: “Through careful consideration, the city has settled the case with Wayne McDonald. This was a business decision, and we firmly believe it was the best action to take. Similar to other personnel matters, we cannot comment further on this matter."

As we've reported, McDonald and Hancock both attended Hastings College in Nebraska and worked together in various roles afterward, including at the Denver Urban League. McDonald was Hancock's driver during the mayoral campaign and shortly after the election was named as the mayor's "special projects" manager, with a salary of $85,000 a year.

In the course of his new job, McDonald came into regular contact with a female police officer assigned to Hancock's security detail. The two spoke frequently on the phone. All of the calls, McDonald claimed, were initiated by the officer; without his knowledge, at least one lengthy conversation was recorded by her.

On May 18, 2012, McDonald was summoned to a meeting at Racines restaurant and told he could resign or be fired; the officer had accused him of sexual harassment. (His old college bro Hancock was pointedly not present at the get-together.) McDonald denied any improper conduct and was soon fired — without, he insists, a promised independent investigation of the accusation or any sort of hearing. 

McDonald sued, claiming defamation and breach of his employment contract. An ethics board dismissed a separate complaint by him, ruling that he served at the pleasure of the mayor. But McDonald's federal complaint alleged that it was really the other way around — that he'd given up a lucrative job in the private sector to work for Hancock only after obtaining a "unilateral" right to terminate his employment when he chose (and which, even more confusingly, he apparently agreed not to exercise, committing to serve as long as Hancock was in office).

Without baldly stating it, McDonald's pleadings hint at the idea that the sexual-harassment complaint was a contrivance, a setup, a pretext for getting rid of a loyal employee who couldn't be easily cashiered otherwise.

But in May 2014, Judge John Kane abruptly dismissed the police officer as a defendant in the lawsuit. Even if the officer wasn't protected by governmental immunity laws, which state that a public employee's conduct has to be "willful and wanton" for a lawsuit to proceed, McDonald couldn't sue her for defamation because she complained of sexual harassment, Kane ruled. The woman's allegations "were clearly of public concern," Kane wrote, and McDonald had failed to present any facts that demonstrated she had made them with the intent of defaming McDonald.

With that linchpin gone, Kane then determined that the rest of the claims, particularly the supposed breach of the employment agreement, didn't stand up to legal scrutiny, either.

But McDonald wasn't ready to surrender. He appealed, and in October 2014, U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephanie Seymour reversed Kane's decision to dismiss McDonald's claim for "deprivation of his liberty interest without due process," as well as the one against the officer.

As a result, the matter was remanded back to Judge Kane, and there have been plenty of additional legal moves and counter-moves since then. But they'll end with the finalization of the settlement, half of which will go to McDonald's attorneys. That will leave McDonald with $100,000, or a little over what he would have grossed had he lasted just over another year in his special projects manager gig.

As for Hancock, the only thing he'll get out of the deal is the knowledge that the whole mess is finally behind him, thanks to some ready cash previously collected from the citizens of Denver. Look below to see the original, redacted lawsuit.

Wayne McDonald Complaint

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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