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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

Michael Hancock Text Scandal Needs Outside Investigation, Councilman Says

In a strongly worded letter accessible below, Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza calls out Denver Mayor Michael Hancock over improper texts he sent to Denver police detective Leslie Branch-Wise when she was a member of his security detail circa 2011-2012. Espinoza refers to the actions as sexual harassment, an assertion Hancock has denied, and advocates for "an independent investigation by an outside party, selected by Council, to delve into this matter and provide a full accounting," with particular focus on settlement payments made to Branch-Wise and former Hancock friend Wayne McDonald.

As we've noted in this space, McDonald was fired in 2012 after allegedly making "inappropriate comments" to Branch-Wise when he, too, was working for Mayor Hancock. That same year, he filed a lawsuit over his dismissal and won a $200,000 payout in 2016 — more than twice the $75,000 handed to Branch-Wise in 2013, reportedly owing to her experiences with McDonald.

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At the outset of his video apology for his texts to Branch-Wise (including one in which he asked her if she'd ever taken a pole-dancing class), Hancock directly referenced McDonald. "Six years ago, Denver police detective Leslie Branch-Wise was a member of my security team," he stated. "In May of 2012, she called me. She let me know she had requested a transfer out of the unit because a member of my staff had sexually harassed her. I listened, and what I heard greatly disturbed me. I apologized that this had happened. We reviewed the matter and took immediate action. The employee was fired within days."

Afterward, William Sulton, McDonald's Milwaukee-based attorney, suggested in correspondence with Hancock's attorney, Thomas Rice, that these remarks violated confidentiality language in the 2016 settlement. He expanded on these assertions to Westword via email, writing, "In 2012, Mayor Hancock caused false statements about Mr. McDonald to be published. Mr. McDonald’s then-attorney tried to mitigate the damages caused by publicly disputing the false statements. That did not alleviate the damages. So Mr. McDonald sued and the taxpayers paid Mr. McDonald $200,000."

Former Hancock friend Wayne McDonald won a $200,000 settlement from the City of Denver in 2016.
Former Hancock friend Wayne McDonald won a $200,000 settlement from the City of Denver in 2016.
File photo

Sulton added that "settlements, despite common clauses to the contrary, are acknowledgments of wrongdoing and the amount of a settlement is a measure of the wrongdoing. $200,000 is an extraordinary sum for a municipality to pay for an employment matter. A review of Denver’s employment settlements from 2004 shows that the settlement in Mr. McDonald’s case is one of the largest employment settlements in Denver’s history."

The sums paid to McDonald and Branch-Wise concern Espinoza, too. In his letter, he wonders if the information provided to Denver City Council prior to its vote to approve the outlays "omitted the extent of the harassment Branch-Wise was subject to" — specifically Mayor Hancock's own actions. Among the questions he asks: "Was the settlement agreement with Mr. McDonald designed to keep him from publicly revealing your own harassing behavior toward Ms. Branch-Wise?"

We've reached out to Hancock spokeswoman Amber Miller for comment about Espinoza's missive. If and when she gets back to us, we'll update this post.

In the meantime, the mayor continues to maintain an extremely low public profile, as he has ever since Branch-Wise first told her story to Denver7's Tony Kovaleski. This tactic suggests his hope that the scandal will blow over, as was the case back in 2011 following attempts to link him to the Denver Players/Denver Sugar prostitution ring. But Espinoza's direct challenge and demand for an independent investigation makes getting out of the latest situation unscathed that much more difficult.

Click to see the original Rafael Espinoza letter about Mayor Michael Hancock. Continue to read the text.

A portrait of Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza.
A portrait of Denver City Councilman Rafael Espinoza.

Dear Mayor Hancock:

I am very concerned that I and the members of Denver City Council were advised to vote for a 2016 settlement agreement related to the sexual harassment of Denver Police Det. Leslie Branch-Wise and the termination of Wayne McDonald which omitted the extent of the harassment Branch-Wise was subject to, and the apparent obfuscation and incomplete information conveyed at that time. At the behest of our attorney, David Broadwell, who was interim City Attorney because of the controversial actions of Scott Martinez, on your behalf, we voted to approve a settlement agreement, that I now believe — based on the recent revelations of your own harassing behavior in this matter — was ill-advised. As a representative and fiduciary of my constituents and the taxpayers of Denver I am very troubled that this matter was handled as it was by the City Attorney and you.

In light of your admission, I believe it is important that you address concerns about the circumstances surrounding the settlement:

• Did you and/or City Attorney knowingly obscure your own harassing behavior related to relations with Ms. Branch-Wise at the time of the termination of Mr. McDonald and subsequent settlement agreement;

• Was the settlement agreement with Mr. McDonald designed to keep him from publicly revealing your own harassing behavior toward Ms. Branch-Wise;

• Was the settlement agreement designed to limit the exposure of harassing behavior by you to other city employees or others?

Sexual harassment in the workplace — or anywhere else — is unacceptable and it is clear to me that your behavior related to Ms. Branch-Wise was indeed sexual harassment coming from the most powerful individual in the City. The citizens of Denver deserve no less than answers to these questions and a full and complete accounting of your behavior and the true context of the settlement agreements in relation to your actions.

While a briefing in Executive Session to members of City Council, by the current City Attorney...does nothing — because it will be in secret, and the City Attorney is taking unusual steps to ensure opacity — to provide the citizens with a full and accurate accounting of what occurred related to the sexual harassment of Det. Branch-Wise; the circumstances and reasons for her $75k settlement; and the termination of Mr. McDonald. Frankly I am less than confident that what will be presented will vary in any appreciable way from the less than forthcoming briefing we received when we were asked to approve the settlement.

Moreover, more questions have arisen since the revelation of the content of your text messages including whether other individuals may have been involved in or the target of harassing behavior.

Your constituents, the citizens of Denver, deserve to be confident that what you have averred, related to issues of sexual harassment, is indeed true, if there is nothing to these concerns state that clearly and unequivocally, otherwise a full public accounting is in order, rather than place members of Council, whom are without official recourse, in the firing line for your behavior.

To remove the cloud forming over your administration, it is in the best interests of the citizens of Denver that you direct the current City Attorney to commission an independent investigation by an outside party, selected by Council, to delve into this matter and provide a full accounting. This should be done with all due speed to ensure that voters have clarity the conduct of the person occupying the most powerful office in Denver, before they are asked to consider whom should occupy that seat.

Sincerely,

Rafael Espinoza
City Councilman, District 1

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