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Inside Denver's Big Bucks Settlement Mania With Man Who Got $660K
Thinkstock file photo

Inside Denver's Big Bucks Settlement Mania With Man Who Got $660K

The controversy over Denver Mayor Michael Hancock sending inappropriate texts to police detective Leslie-Branch Wise has led to increased scrutiny on settlements made by the city; Branch-Wise was given $75,000 in 2013 after she made complaints about the behavior of Wayne McDonald, who received $200,000 in 2016 following a lawsuit over his firing by Hancock, his ex-friend. Among those asking questions about such payouts is Stuart Shapiro, a former assistant city attorney and recipient of his own $660,000 settlement from Denver in 2016 over alleged retaliation against him in the wake of a jail-abuse case that cost taxpayers $3.25 million.

"They accused McDonald of sexual harassment and ended up paying him lots of money," Shapiro says. "They accused me of some kind of misconduct and ended up paying me lots of money. Now, if the accusations are actually valid, why do you end up paying people all this money? Because if you don't pay the money, there's going to be litigation. There's going to be continuing coverage of the details of the litigation. Maybe a trial. Maybe depositions. For sure, depositions, and witnesses and a lot of information that comes out. So, if you don't want that information to come out, what do you do? You stop the litigation. And you do that by paying the money."

Unlike the deals with Branch-Wise and McDonald, Shapiro's settlement doesn't include a clause that prevents him from talking about the case, and "that's sort of strange," he admits. "It was discussed, but it's not in the agreement, maybe because if they silenced me, it would have looked like a cover-up — which of course it was."

The roots of the Jamal Hunter case were planted on April 29, 2011. That's when Hunter was arrested on what his 2012 lawsuit, which is accessible below, described as a "misdemeanor domestic charge" and placed in the Denver Detention Center's fifth-floor pod with a cellmate named Chris, "who snored loudly and frequently defecated on himself during his sleep."

Jamal Hunter as seen in a photo shared in his lawsuit.
Jamal Hunter as seen in a photo shared in his lawsuit.
File photo

As a result, Hunter requested that he be transferred within the same pod. Instead, he was sent to another one, where an inmate with Tourette's syndrome had a profane outburst in the shower. No fight actually took place, the suit maintains, but Hunter was shipped to another pod anyhow — and this one "housed residents facing more significant criminal charges than his own," including some who were actively abusing drugs.

Again, Hunter complained, asking to be jailed alongside less dangerous inmates. Instead, he wound up in a pod that housed arrestees accused of high-level crimes, including several who were gang members. After these inmates threatened Hunter, he repeatedly made written requests for a transfer, but to no avail. Then, on July 18, the suit says his cellmates accused him of "snitching and insulting them behind their backs."

Their alleged response began when one person put Hunter into a chokehold while another punched him in the face, then grabbed his legs and tied them together with string. After that, he was picked up and carried to a bed, where he was again slugged in the face, resulting in a broken nose, before being untied, ordered to strip and told to enter the cell's shower. He was afraid he was going to be raped, but instead, he was punched a few more times prior to an inmate's returning with a container of scalding water that was poured on his waist, thighs and genitals. At that point, Hunter passed out, only to awaken some time later screaming in agony, the suit says. But Deputy Gayle Rumer, on duty in the unit, is alleged to have been "deliberately indifferent to Mr. Hunter's safety, by failing to protect him from other inmates and by failing to respond to the assault and burning in a timely manner."

Despite the attack, Hunter declined to press charges against the inmates, fearing that if he did so, his life would be in danger. Instead, he asked again that he be housed with prisoners jailed for lower-level offenses like his own. But on July 31, he filed a grievance in which he claimed, "I have been made an official enemy of the Denver Sheriff Department" and accused one deputy in particular, Edward Keller, of shaking him down.

The next day, Deputy Keller allegedly responded to a complaint from Hunter by asking, "What would you like me to do? Kiss your ass?" After another verbal exchange or two, the suit claims that the deputy grabbed Hunter by the back of his neck, twisted his arm behind his back, forced him into his cell, slammed him down onto the bunk and strangled him. Another deputy intervened — but, among other things, Hunter was reportedly tased in the process.

After his release, Hunter tried to reopen the burning case, but little appears to have happened over the next several months, leading to the lawsuit, which asked for punitive damages and more — actions that led to Shapiro's involvement in the matter, as well as what he sees as scapegoating when the case didn't go Denver's way.

"I was assigned to defend the city and several sheriff's deputies," he recalls. "And — well, it's hard to really know what the accusations against me were. There were suggestions that I had started an internal affairs investigation of what had happened in the jail and used it to somehow intimidate potential witnesses who were inmates. They said I hadn't revealed there was an internal affairs investigation, even though there are transcripts and emails informing everybody that there was an internal affairs investigation — and I didn't initiate the internal affairs investigation anyway. The sheriff did."

In Shapiro's view, "there were ill-formed, ill-thought-out accusations made for strategic purposes by the plaintiffs' attorneys, and they gained momentum — and for whatever reason, my own office didn't back me. Defending these civil rights cases is difficult anyway. There was a lot of negative press and criticism of law enforcement, and if you were defending them, you were exposed to potential criticism. But when your own office stabs you in the back and throws you under the bus, you're in big trouble."

What happened next is bizarre by any standard. Shapiro was placed on paid administrative leave from his city position in July 2014 and was left in limbo until August 2015, when CBS4 reported about the situation as an example of government waste. Then-Denver City Attorney Scott Martinez reacted by firing Shapiro, but the sacking was rescinded thirteen days later, and he was placed on leave again — and he stayed there until February 2016, when another CBS4 package revealed that he'd earned more than $200,000 in salary for essentially doing nothing for around eighteen months. At that point, Shapiro returned to active status. He worked from home for several months, then was brought back into the office after Martinez left. But he'd filed a Career Services complaint over his treatment in March, and in August, he accepted the $660,000 settlement.

Living through this period was "sort of psychological warfare," Shapiro says. "I was isolated. I couldn't talk to anyone in the office, and they were afraid to talk to me; they'd been told not to. So basically, they tried to break me, and I probably did break into little pieces. But I swept up the pieces and tried to put them back together again."

He adds: "You don't pay somebody for a year and a half if they've done some bad stuff. They made a bad mistake, and instead of talking to the press and saying, 'We are so sorry,' they just kept trying to shoot me until I didn't move anymore. It was crazy. You don't imagine how difficult it is to be under fire. They had all the resources, all the money, I don't know how many attorneys. They even consulted public-relations firms. They were out to get me, and it's really amazing that they didn't succeed, since everything was on their side. This is really a story of fighting abusive power and surviving, and even prevailing. The odds of that happening, I think, were infinitesimal."

Michael Hancock celebrating his election in June 2011, with former Denver mayor Wellington Webb looking on.
Michael Hancock celebrating his election in June 2011, with former Denver mayor Wellington Webb looking on.
Photo by Kate Levy

Today, Shapiro is working on a handful of legal projects while still trying to shed what he sees as the false impression of him established in the wake of the Hunter verdict. "I was exonerated, and they apologized to me," he emphasizes. "But people remember the accusations, too, and that takes a toll."

In the meantime, Shapiro sees similarities between what happened to him and the city's dealings with Branch-Wise and McDonald. After stressing that he has no inside information about the current scandal, he offers his take.

"If the city had knowledge of the mayor's text messages at the time the McDonald case was settled, think about how that might have affected the strategy in the lawsuit," he suggests. "If you knew about those text messages, might you treat Mr. McDonald's complaint, and Ms. Branch-Wise's, in a different way if your priority was to protect those text messages? And Ms. Branch-Wise knew about those text messages at that time, right? She knew it back then. So how would that have affected the treatment of the accusations against McDonald or the treatment of the city toward her? But we don't know about that, right? We know so little."

The reason this information hasn't reached the public is "because it was hidden," Shapiro continues. "If it had come out when they settled the case, we could have analyzed what happened and decided if the settlement was fair. But there are so many things we don't know — and that's the problem with an opaque government."

Click to read the Jamal Hunter complaint and jury demand.

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