Denver council doesn’t plan to investigate Mayor Hancock’s texts

The council is the only body of city government with the power to punish or investigate Hancock in this case.

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

The Denver City Council doesn’t plan to use its investigative powers to look further into the text messages sent by Mayor Michael Hancock to a police detective in 2012, according to Council President Albus Brooks.

The announcement comes two weeks after Hancock admitted to sending the suggestive messages, which Det. Leslie Branch-Wise described as sexual harassment.

The council is the only body of city government with the power to punish or investigate Hancock in this case, as we reported earlier. They won’t use that power, and they won’t push for an independent investigation — in part because Hancock and Branch-Wise seem to agree on what happened, according to Brooks.

(The texts said she was “sexy” and that Hancock’s friends thought Branch-Wise was “fine,” among other statements. Hancock has apologized for the texts, but denies they were harassing or that he made sexual advances.)

The council feels “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,” Brooks wrote.

Twelve of the 13 council members were briefed on Monday behind closed doors about the matter. They learned more details about a $75,000 settlement that was paid to Branch-Wise and a $200,000 settlement to Wayne McDonald, a mayoral aide who was fired after Branch-Wise raised allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. (McDonald denied that he had harassed her and later sued both her and the city.)

The settlement with Branch-Wise included a “standard release of any future claims,” meaning she can’t sue now, per Brooks’ letter.

“Council stands against any kind of sexual harassment or otherwise to any person and we commend Det. Branch-Wise on her courage and conviction,” Brooks wrote on behalf of the council.

“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.”

The letter denied that the council members had any prior knowledge of the text messages.

What’s next?

Councilman Rafael Espinoza called earlier this week for an investigation of the scandal, but he now supports Brooks’ letter, he said.

He acknowledged that any of the council’s committees could use investigatory powers, but he said on Wednesday that wouldn’t be feasible.

“Technically, we could investigate with a majority of any committee, but we are not qualified investigators and establishing an objective would be a challenge,” he wrote in a text message.

The council also could have pushed for an independent investigation. That would have required the support of a majority of the full council, he said.

“However, based on the fact that a new investigation would put the victim back under scrutiny makes it easy for me support the position we took regarding an investigation in our letter. I believe that given cultural shifts, a different conclusion might be drawn (than what) was historically accepted, even with the exact same evidence, but that alone isn’t reason to reopen settled matters,” he continued.

What else?

An attorney for McDonald, the fired aide, may keep the discussion going. He argues the city violated its settlement agreement with McDonald as it discussed the new scandal.

Hancock said in his recent apology that he had fired a “member of his staff” in 2012 after Branch-Wise originally raised the issue of sexual harassment.

The attorney, William Sulton, said that statement violated a non-disparagement clause that McDonald and city officials had signed.

Sulton planned to “request a public name-clearing hearing at which the people of Denver will hear the entire story,” he wrote in an email earlier this month.

The council’s full letter, dated March 13:
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.