Lisa Calderón plans to take her First Amendment case against Hancock and the City and County of Denver to trial

A federal judge rejected most of the City Attorney’s requests to dismiss the case this week.
7 min. read
Lisa Calderón speaks during Denverite’s People’s Forum mayoral debate at the Carla Madison Rec Center. March 7, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Criminal justice advocate and former mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón's legal crusade to protect the political speech of city contractors and employees from retaliation by the City and County of Denver will continue to make its way through court, despite the City Attorney Office's attempts to get the case thrown out.

On Monday, Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer, of the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, ruled that many of Calderón's complaints -- which run the gamut from First Amendment violations to retaliation and conspiracy allegedly committed by the City and County of Denver, former Mayor Michael Hancock and other city leaders -- will be taken up in court.

"The last administration had spent a significant amount of taxpayer money over 5 years to make the case go away, going from federal district court to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and back to the District Court," said Calderón's attorney Trish Bangert, in an email. "Yesterday, Chief Judge Brimmer said no - he will not dismiss the case. That means that the case will go to trial and the facts will be brought out to the public."

The City Attorney's office declined to comment on this story. Former mayor Hancock has not responded to Denverite's requests for comment.

Calderón claims in the lawsuit that the city violated her constitutional rights and conspired to retaliate against her for criticizing the city.

She alleges that after she criticized the Denver Sheriff Department for mistreating Black and Latino inmates and employees, Hancock, Sheriff Patrick Firman, former Deputy Manager of Public Safety Jess Vigil, Denver Sheriff's Chief of Staff Andrea Albo and former Executive Director of the Office of Behavioral Health Strategies Regina Huerter conspired to violate Calderón's constitutional rights.

How so?

She argues they retaliated against her speech by terminating her position as the head of the Community Reentry Project and dissolving the organization that helped inmates at the jail and detention center return to society.

Former mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón announces her endorsement for Mike Johnston at La Alma-Lincoln Park. May 16, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The federal judge threw out several parts of her claim. Calderón also argued the city had violated her Fourteenth Amendment rights, a claim the judge dismissed. He also dismissed the allegations against Firman.

Calderón, a two-time mayoral candidate and criminal justice professor, has been a long-time critic of Denver's criminal justice system.

She was a founding member of the city's Crime Prevention and Control Commission. That group helped form the Community Re-Entry Program, and she took the job of executive director in 2009.

In that position, she worked out of the Denver jail educating inmates about life after incarceration and worked with formerly jailed people, after they got out, to help them transition back into society.

Through her work in the jail, Calderón said, she observed the Denver Sheriff Department mistreat Black and Latino inmates and employees.

As the co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, she supported a joint statement with the Greater Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of Black clergy, that criticized then Sheriff Patrick Firman for demoting Chief Gary Wilson, who was Black, to captain. Wilson, the groups noted, was "accessible to community members."

"Wilson is accused of providing information to facilitate the safe surrender of a wanted person, the niece of Stephanie O'Malley," the letter stated. O'Malley was then the head of the Department of Public Safety. "Community leaders have question [sic] whether the harsh treatment of Wilson was to deflect attention from O'Malley and ultimately Mayor Hancock to preserve their political integrity."

The demotion had "a chilling effect" on community members.

"The coalition of community leaders also objects to Sheriff Firman's exclusion of people of color from leadership roles in the Denver Sheriff Department (DSD), and his ongoing leadership failures to adequately address jail overcrowding and rising assaults," the statement noted.

Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman addresses the press after an incident at the Denver Downtown Detention Center, Aug. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

In addition to her criticisms of Firman, Calderón also pushed for a ballot initiative that would have taken away the mayor's power to appoint the city's sheriff.

All of this ruffled the people in power in charge of renewing her contract.

According to the order, "Defendant Jess Vigil, who was serving as the Deputy Manager of Public Safety for the City of Denver, spoke to other officials about 'terminating the CRP contract because of Calderón's activism and criticism of City officials."

The program was shut down that July with multiple people claiming she had failed to meet the terms of the contract, which she maintains was not true.

At an Aug.14, 2017 meeting, "Mayor Hancock stated that he was 'personally offended' and 'stung' by Ms. Calderón's criticisms of his and Executive Director of Public Safety Stephanie O'Malley's treatment of African American staff," according to the order.

Mayor Michael Hancock and Lisa Calderón sit on the Denver Post's mayoral candidate forum at FIELDHOUSE on Federal Boulevard, April 1, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"I was standing up for the rights of Black and brown inmates and staff, and I got punished for it," Calderón said.

She recalled telling inmates and former inmates that the program was closing. When they asked where they should turn, she didn't know.

Losing the program -- and false claims that she had not met the terms of the contract that spread on social media -- damaged her reputation, which she has worked to regain since, by teaching at Regis University and at the University of Colorado Boulder and running for mayor twice, she said.

In the months that followed, her stress mounted, and she cracked two molars, grinding her teeth.

She took a job as an adjunct teacher, which she enjoyed, but which didn't pay enough for her to make ends meet.

"I essentially became part of the working poor," she said. "I had all of these degrees, and I lost income."

Calderón first sued the city on April 2, 2018. For years, the case bounced between courts, as Denver tried to fight it.

Calderón told Denverite she wants systemic change, so future employees aren't punished for speaking their minds.

Calderón is suing for "actual and punitive damages" and attorney's fees and costs, according to the order.

The city has not offered her a meaningful settlement, she said, and now that the City Attorney's attempts to dismiss the case have failed, she plans to take it to trial. She wants the case to set a precedent about how the mayor's office and the city treat contractors and the right to political expression.

"People must have the right to speak up about government actions without facing retribution," her attorney Bangert wrote. "As important, public officials must be held accountable for violating constitutional rights of the persons they serve. Dr. Calderón has hope that the new administration will act quickly to ensure every person's right to criticize his administration and ensure that all of his officials are held responsible when they fail to live up to that standard."

After coming in third place in the 2023 mayoral election, Calderón endorsed current Mayor Mike Johnston, and she said wants to see him change how the city treats contractors.

"We are absolutely prepared to go all the way in court," Calderón said. "Even though we have a new administration, the same systems are still in place that were harmful to me."

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