Lisa Calderón Sues Denver in Federal Court, Alleging Political Retaliation

Lisa Calderón at the Ink! Coffee demonstration on November 25.
Lisa Calderón at the Ink! Coffee demonstration on November 25. Danielle Lirette
Lisa Calderón is well known in Denver as the co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum and for her activism around gentrification and police brutality. In recent months, her profile has been raised significantly in light of impassioned speeches she delivered at the Ink! Coffee protest in November, a gentrification summit in January, and a “Time's Up Hancock” rally that happened in the wake of the mayor's recent text-message scandal.

Now Calderón is challenging the city in another forum: federal court.

Today, April 2, Calderón and her attorney Trish Bangert filed a lawsuit and request for a jury trial with the U.S. District Court in Colorado that lists the City and County of Denver, along with four city officials — including the mayor and Sheriff Patrick Firman — as defendants.

The complaint centers around the city's Transition From Jail to Community program, which specializes in helping inmates transition back to society after being released from behind bars. Calderón ran the program from 2007 until 2017, when her contract was not renewed in a competitive application process solicited by Denver. In her court complaint, Calderón alleges that her organization, called the Community Re-Entry Program, was denied a $550,000 contract because of political retribution from Hancock and other city officials.

The main charge of today's court filing is that Calderón's First Amendment rights have been violated; the court documents mention her pointed criticisms of the city's jails and sheriff's department, including her public crusade against alleged mismanagement, jail overcrowding and safety issues, and a lack of diversity in the sheriff’s department.

Following Calderón's public criticisms in June of last year, the lawsuit alleges, various city and county officials, including Deputy Manager of Public Safety Jess Vigil and the sheriff’s chief of staff, Andrea Albo, began discussing in private and emails ways to terminate Calderón's re-entry program.

According to the suit, Mayor Hancock also stated in an August 2017 meeting that he was “personally offended” and “stung” by Calderón's criticisms.

Calderón is charging that she was also discriminated against as a woman since, when the city's jail re-entry contract went up for renewal last July, she was not notified that she had to prepare an application, and all the other applying organizations were headed by men.

On behalf of the city, spokeswoman Julie Smith with the Denver Department of Human Services sent this statement:

The Transition Jail to Community Services contract followed the laws and rules of the city that govern all contracts. The Board of Ethics has already dismissed complaints filed by Ms. Calderon relating to this process and we are confident a judge will see this lawsuit for what it is: an upset contractor who was not selected through a competitive bidding process. It is unfortunate that Ms. Calderon has been trying to impact the competitive bid process by inserting politics into the decision making process. DHS manages 500 different contracts and MOUs, many of a higher monetary amount than this one – all important to our community. Our contracts are consistently reviewed by our internal audit team and we are consistently audited by the state and federal government for compliance with state and federal contract rules. This contracting team consistently works to ensure rules are thoroughly followed and equality and fairness exists in all contracting processes. This contract, which was handled by an all-female team of City Attorneys, OBHS leadership, and DHS contract staff, utilized the same, consistent process as all other contracts.

Before filing her complaint today in federal court, Calderón did approach Denver City Council and the Denver Board of Ethics to look into the matter. But with the independent ethics body, which dismissed Calderón's complaints, Calderón had originally leveled accusations against different defendants than those listed in her court filing today. And while some city council members expressed grave concerns over Calderón's allegations, including councilmembers Paul Kashmann and Debbie Ortega, the council voted 10-2 on March 19 to follow a Department of Human Services recommendation that the city's jail re-entry program be awarded to Servicios de la Raza and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

"In this suit, Ms. Calderón is seeking a declaration by the Court that the City’s actions in retaliating against her for speaking out violate her Free Speech rights, and compensation for the damages the City caused," said her attorney in a statement to Westword. "The case is brought under a statute passed after the Civil War to protect minorities from often corrupt local governments and sheriffs. The statute, colloquially called '1983,' allows individuals whose constitutional rights are violated by government officials to sue those officials for damages."

Below you can view the full court filing:

Complaint Final

Updated at 1:30 p.m., April 2: This article now includes a statement sent to Westword from the Denver Department of Human Services regarding Lisa Calderón's lawsuit.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker