Will City Council Investigate Michael Hancock After New Victim Statement?

Mayor Michael Hancock at an event in 2016.
Photo by Brandon Marshall
Mayor Michael Hancock at an event in 2016.
Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza's call for an investigation over improper texts that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock sent to Denver police detective Leslie Branch-Wise when she was a member of his security detail circa 2011-2012 didn't gain support from other members of the panel, which issued a joint statement rejecting the launch of such a probe.

Espinoza signed on to the document in large part because Branch-Wise had publicly accepted Hancock's apology for his actions and hadn't asked the council to look into the situation further. Now, Branch-Wise has done so, via a new interview with Denver7 that aired last night.

The council member's response? Reached this morning by text, Espinoza wrote, "I haven't formally received her statement, so I won't comment at this time. But I do think it could clear the way for council to act, if the majority wishes to."

This remark echoes thoughts Espinoza shared with Westword during an extended conversation last week.

"That is the difficult nature of a body like ours," he said at the time. "We have different opinions on that. It has never been ambiguous to me what transpired from the most powerful person in the city, and that's inappropriate behavior whether it occurred today or at any time in history. But if it were the victim making that kind of request, it would be interesting to see what the responses to that would be."

The city council's statement is included below in its entirety. The text stands behind the city council's approval of a $75,000 settlement bequeathed to Branch-Wise in 2013 and points out that a $200,000 payout circa 2016 to Wayne McDonald, a former Hancock friend who sued after being fired from his city position for behavior that appears to mirror the mayor's, didn't require its approval, since the monies came from other funds.

The council reached its conclusions following a closed-door sit-down with assorted officials arguing on the mayor's behalf — and Espinoza doesn't see the non-public nature of the discussion as contradicting the statement's demand for greater transparency.

"I'm somebody who wholeheartedly believes we should be operating in as much daylight as possible," he stressed. "But there is a reason, and there have always been reasons, for executive sessions. As a legislative body, the council already has limited access to matters of the executive deliberation process. So the ability to have candor between both branches is important for us to do our jobs. That's the most important thing here — and there was a lot of candor and an incredible amount of information shared."

As for why the council collectively opted against an inquiry of the sort he requested, Espinoza said, "What's clear is that an investigation would involve requesting all the witnesses, but this information wouldn't be available. Current expectations around sexual harassment have changed for the better, but putting all the witnesses back through these events — and particularly the victim — without their consent or request would potentially make people relive some difficult times. I think that's the approach the council used. And while the public certainly has an appetite to learn more about this, we all agree an investigation should be predicated by the victims."

Denver police detective Leslie Branch-Wise's accusations against Denver Mayor Michael Hancock prompted him to make a video apology. - DENVER7/YOUTUBE
Denver police detective Leslie Branch-Wise's accusations against Denver Mayor Michael Hancock prompted him to make a video apology.
Of course, Hancock hasn't confessed to sexual harassment. Instead, he characterizes texts he sent to Branch-Wise (including one asking if she'd ever taken a pole-dancing class) as a blurring of boundaries between friend and co-worker. Espinoza sees things differently.

"I've always believed that, based on what has been shared publicly — and I don't have the totality of his comments to the detective — constitutes sexual harassment, because this is a person in a position of power making those kinds of statements to a subordinate," he maintained. "You have an imbalance there, and the person in power should be cognizant that it is inappropriate behavior and crosses a line if the advances were not received in an accepting manner. So by definition, it was sexual harassment to me, and women are clearly and gratefully more empowered to speak out about it, and about all harassment. It's a new day."

Regarding the aforementioned settlements, Ezpinoza noted that "the one to Ms. Branch-Wise followed the actual letter of the law, so there's no reason for council to go back and reprocess any of it. But the one to Mr. McDonald brought to light the fact that settlements have occurred out of agency budgets that we're unaware of. So what we discussed in our letter is maybe devising a mechanism by which we are kept informed. That's part of the executive branch and always has been — what they do with their budget in terms of these kinds of payments. But at council, we feel it's a matter of oversight, and it's something we want to be better informed about."

If no council investigation takes place, does Espinoza believe the mayor will have essentially gotten away with committing sexual harassment? After a pause, he said, "Let's put it this way: He is getting away with the conduct that has been shared, but that is [Branch-Wise's] choice. It's her choice not to pursue it. Now, would I want her and anybody else to feel that when they've been put in that situation by someone, they have the power to act if they feel it's appropriate? Yes. But she appears to be satisfied with her situation, with the outcome she's received. And by virtue of the fact that she's accepted it and is moving on, I'm going to honor that just as much as I would honor any statements to the contrary."

This scenario changed on March 18, when Branch-Wise told Denver7's Tony Kovaleski she wants Denver City Council president Albus Brooks "to know for a fact that I am willing to cooperate with a thorough investigation. They want transparency, and a full and thorough investigation would provide that." She added that no one from city council reached out to her to ask if she would feel re-victimized should an inquiry be launched — but such a concern wouldn't prevent her from cooperating in an investigation, as is made clear by a letter to Brooks and other council members by her attorney, Sean Lane. Its text can be seen below.

Brooks, for his part, still doesn't believe an investigation is warranted, as he makes clear in this response to Denver7:
I received a call from Denver 7 investigates, indicating that a new statement from Det. Branch-Wise would be aired with her stating she would like the Denver City Council to investigate her report of sexual harassment. I was not allowed to view this statement, so cannot verify the accuracy or the details of the Detective's request.

Councilmembers have already asked and received answers to many questions, and will continue to do so, with the responses to many of those questions related to prior settlements legally prohibited from public disclosure. City Council does have formal investigatory powers as well, and would consider using those powers if the matter fell within our purview and a majority of Council made the decision to proceed.

It is important to reiterate that the Denver City Council has no authority to discipline the Mayor whatever the outcome is of any investigation. 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 Mr. McDonald.

I continue to maintain that an investigation is not warranted because there are no disputed facts about the case. Should Ms. Branch -Wise have new information or disputed facts, I welcome her to reach out to myself or any member of Council with whom she may feel comfortable to help us understand her request.

Albus Brooks, MBA
Denver City Council President
Continue for the Denver City Council's original statement and the aforementioned letter from Leslie Branch-Wise's attorney.

click to enlarge The current members of Denver City Council. Espinoza is in the front row to the far left. - DENVERGOV.ORG
The current members of Denver City Council. Espinoza is in the front row to the far left.
Denver City Council statement

The Denver City Council, like many Denver citizens, is concerned about the recent reports of sexual harassment against the Mayor toward a member of his security detail. We want our constituents to know that we take these matters seriously, and we have been working to obtain as much information as possible.

Today, we learned details of the legal environment, past and present, following the reported behavior. The City settled a lawsuit with Mr. Wayne McDonald in August of 2016, after lengthy litigation. Because the legal matter at the time of settlement involved payment of wages, the settlement was paid out of departmental funds and did not require approval by the City Council.

The City settled with Detective Branch-Wise in July of 2013. Because that settlement was paid out of the claims and liability fund, Council did review and approve the settlement by resolution. While there were no claims of sexual harassment against the Mayor at that time, the Branch-Wise settlement also included a standard release of any future claims against the City arising under the same circumstances. Therefore, there cannot be any further litigation regarding the Mayor’s actions at this time.

Because Mr. McDonald’s settlement agreement includes clauses of non-disparagement, and non-dissemination, it is important that Council members (or any city employee) do not violate those contractual provisions. While Det. Branch-Wise’s agreement did not contain the same confidentiality clauses, the parties involved have not disputed the facts that recently surfaced, and we feel strongly that any attempt to further investigate this new matter without her request or consent would be contrary to best practice and risks re-victimizing her.

While we strive to be transparent, City Council members cannot comment further on the legal aspects of these matters given the confidentiality requirements. We want the people of Denver to know that at no time prior to the recent media reports were we aware of the texts currently at issue; we learned of them when you did and have been seeking information ever since.

Council stands against any kind of sexual harassment or otherwise to any person and we commend Det. Branch-Wise on her courage and conviction. Going forward, we are looking at putting processes in place to ensure that we are aware of all settlements that rise to a certain threshold. Regardless of the fund from which it was paid, we want to monitor claims in the city more closely. Again, transparency and accountability are of the utmost importance to us. We will continue to ensure that City employees feel safe to report misbehavior and are free from retaliation. We are continuing to meet with City Attorneys to get answers to our questions. We will do our best to serve the constituents of our city.

— Denver City Council

Letter to Denver City Council from Sean Lane, attorney for Leslie Branch-Wise

Dear Councilman Brooks and Members of the Denver City Council:

Greetings. I write to you on behalf of my client, Detective Leslie Branch-Wise, of the Denver Police Department. Detective Branch-Wise wishes to respond to the Denver City Council Statement concerning the Mayor, issued March 13, 2018.

Detective Branch-Wise strongly supports the values of transparency and accountability in government. As you are aware, she has served the City of Denver as a police officer for almost 20 years. She believes that the citizens of the City of Denver deserve a full and open investigation of the incident that included Mayor Michael Hancock participating in what she perceived as a pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior. With this firmly in mind, Detective Branch-Wise strongly encourages the Denver City Council to conduct an investigation of this matter.

Detective Branch-Wise notes that one of the state reasons behind the Denver City Council's decision not to pursue an investigation of this matter is a desire not to "re-victimize" her. 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.

She wishes to advise the Denver City Council that she is fully prepared to cooperate with an investigation of the events regarding the reported behavior of Mayor Hancock while she served on his protective detail.

My client, Detective Branch-Wise, would like me to thank you for your time in this matter.

Very truly yours,

The Lane Law Firm, P.C.

Sean J. Lane