Wayne McDonald firing: Lawsuit against Mayor Michael Hancock rejected
A federal lawsuit against Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other city officials, filed by one of Hizzoner's former best buds and top advisors, has been dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge John Kane -- just when filings in the case were getting interesting.
Ex-aide Wayne McDonald's complaint of wrongful termination had hinted at ominous revelations to come, not only about his rift with the mayor but some of the Hancock administration's more curious hiring practices. But Kane ruled there was more smoke than fire in McDonald's argument.
McDonald and Hancock both attended Hastings College in Nebraska and had worked together in various roles since, 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 claims, were initiated by the officer; without his knowledge, at least one lengthy conversation was recorded by her. Almost exactly a year ago, on May 18, 2012, McDonald was summoned to a meeting at Racine's 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.) 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).
Mayor Michael Hancock talks to reporters at an event last year.
Photo by Sam Levin
Without baldly stating it, McDonald's pleadings hint at the idea that the sexual harassment complaint was a contrivance, a set-up, a pretext for getting rid of a loyal employee who couldn't be easily cashiered otherwise.
But McDonald's case began to unravel two weeks ago, when Judge 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.
So dims McDonald's hopes of vindication in the wake of being cast out, and the tantalizingly brief prospect among City Hall observers of learning something more about the promises made to the faithful who've come to serve in the Hancock machine.
Kane has suggested McDonald's employment issues belong in state court. McDonald's attorney has indicated she will appeal the dismissal.
More from our Politics archive: "Wayne McDonald, fired employee accused of sex harassment, sues Michael Hancock, Denver."
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