A Spectrum of Mixed Feelings Brings Controversy To Denver Community
The political season is upon us. Mid-term elections are often viewed as not that critical, so voter turnout is small compared to presidential elections. But even though Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s possible re-election to a third term is months away, there is cause for concern. In the last few months, he has weathered a storm that started with a February television interview on Channel 7 facilitated by investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski.
He and other investigative reporters in the metro area received an anonymous letter detailing incidents of alleged sexual harassment by Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock against a detective, Leslie Branch-Wise who had been on his security detail in 2011 and 2012. The story broke on Feb. 28 and three days later Mayor Hancock initiated an “apology tour.”
It seems as if Kovaleski is the only reporter able to coax Branch-Wise in for an interview about the incidents. Detective Branch-Wise did not grant interviews to anyone else but Kovaleski, thus declining an interview with Denver Urban Spectrum.
Perhaps the letter was sent as a result of the #MeToo movement sweeping the country, a movement started by a Black woman, Tarana Burke. Or perhaps it is something else. Hancock has his critics and detractors. Not everyone is satisfied with the mayor and his record, which is generally viewed positively. But, maybe it was a combination.
Mayor Hancock has admitted that the text messages sent to Detective Branch-Wise, which came out in the Kovaleski interview, were inappropriate and unprofessional, but does not concur that they reach the level of harassment, which is generally determined in court or through an investigation.
“Not everything is a fire-able offense,” Hancock told the Denver Women’s Commission on March 1. In elaborating on this point he told the Spectrum, “You know when these sort of things come up, you have to step back and try to understand what occurred and make decisions based upon the information that you have in front of you, and the facts that you have in front of you. As we see these sorts of things happening around the country, and certainly here in Colorado, I think it’s important that we always make decisions based on facts. Because regardless of how these things come about, there is a human toll to all of this, and we must make sure that any decisions that we make are defensible and are rendered based on fact.”
Laws in this area are often complicated, widely interpreted, and murky, especially in the public sphere as they relate to elected officials. You might even say they are flawed, because they were originally designed for the workplace in the private sector. Harassment is viewed as discrimination, and gender or sex has been assessed the same as any other protected class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964). Protection and confidentiality of both the victim and the offender, as well as the liability of the organization or employer, have been a critical precedent.
It is apparent that we are at a crossroads with this issue as more and more women and men are coming forward with their stories in the private sector, as well as the nation’s capital, state houses, and city halls across the country. There have been numerous resignations, like U.S. Representative John Conyers and U.S Senator Al Franken, and in Colorado, Representative Steve Lebsock was expelled from office by his legislative peers.
On April 11, 9 News held the first televised debate, Decision 2018: Race for governor. When asked by a show of hands, if they believed there should be serious consequences for Mayor Michael Hancock for sexual harassment, all three candidates Mike Johnston, Cary Kennedy and Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynn displayed their opinion by not raising their hands.
As we hear these stories, there is a tendency to lump everyone together as equal offenders, under the label of sexual misconduct. There are degrees of offense that must be reckoned with each individual case, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has recognized this. One person’s perception of harassment through innuendo is another’s view of innocent banter.
Definition of harassment
Sexual harassment laws fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, and other protected classes. Title VII applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, as well as federal, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions.
“Unwelcome sexual advances requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
– Facts about Sexual Harassment
“When investigating allegations of sexual harassment, EEOC looks at the whole record: the circumstances, such as the nature of the sexual advances and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. A determination is from the facts on a case-by-case basis.”
– Facts about Sexual Harassment
The EEOC is one investigative body. Most organizations also have an internal mechanism, usually through HR departments for both investigating and preventing incidents of harassment. Local and state governments frequently look to the federal level for precedent and guidance in developing laws and policy. Denver city government’s harassment policies are codified in the Career Service Authority Rule Book.
Rule 16-22 Harassment and Discrimination (Revised September 21, 2017; Rule Revision Memo 28D states,
A. Career Service employees have a right to work in an environment free of discrimination and harassment because of the employee’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disability, genetic information, military status, age, marital status, political affiliation, or any other status protected under federal, state, and/or local law.
B. Types of Harassment: Harassment because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disability, genetic information, military status, age, marital status, political affiliation, or any other status protected under federal, state, and/or local law, includes but is not limited to:
1. Verbal conduct such as epithets, derogatory comments, slurs, unwanted sexual advances, invitations, or comments;
2. Visual conduct such as derogatory posters, photographs, cartoons, drawings, or gestures;
3. Physical conduct such as assault, unwanted touching, blocking normal movement, or interfering with work directed at an employee because of the employee’s sex, race, or other protected basis; and
4. Threats or demands to submit to sexual requests in order to keep a job or avoid some other loss, and offers of job benefits in return for sexual favors.
The expectation is that our elected officials will conduct themselves professionally, but it seems we are in a different era. Nationally, we have a president accused of sexual harassment and assault, which is recorded as admitting to the act. There is a cruel irony that this same president, declared April as National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. But Mayor Michael Hancock isn’t Donald Trump. Hancock has admitted to sending the text messages of questionable content, and has apologized to Detective Branch-Wise. Most cited text messages referred to Branch-Wise as being called sexy, and asked whether she had ever taken a pole-dancing class. She has accepted his apology, but according to reporting by Kovaleski, is somewhat disappointed that city council has not moved for an investigation into Hancock’s conduct.
Because there are no disputed facts, the city council has declined to move forward with the further investigation.
Denver City Council Statement
In an April 2 statement, after extensive deliberation and executive sessions, Denver City Council President Albus Brooks said, “Since we are not the judicial branch, we are unable to make a legal conclusion about the mayor’s conduct and there are no disputed facts.” He continued, “In 2013 Detective Branch-Wise waived any opportunity to pursue the legal process where these types of legal conclusions are typically made. Council is deeply concerned that there is not a process to make a complaint against a Denver elected official for sexual harassment.”
Detective Branch-Wise is a police officer, a position that one would normally associate with strong-mindedness and confidence, but yet she felt vulnerable.
“It made me physically sick and it was scary,” said Branch-Wise in the interview with Kovaleski. “It’s painful…takes me back to that day and those days. I can't be silenced by the city anymore.”
– Detective Leslie Branch-Wise
It is instructive to hear from experts treating victims of gendered abuse, because of the commonality of these feelings in the workplace. “They feel vulnerable, maybe a little bit of control about something they don't know quite how to address. Maybe some self-blame, sometimes fear is involved depending on who the person is and what form the harassment has taken. It can be all over the map,” said Executive Director Cathy Phelps of The Center for Trauma and Resilience.
Hancock has repeatedly insisted in on-camera interviews that he has nothing to hide and that he has been open and transparent about what happened as he remembers six years ago. He says that he blurred the lines between being a friend and a boss. As a result of a sexual harassment complaint against one of Hancock’s aides, who was subsequently fired, Branch-Wise received a $75,000 settlement from the city in 2013 and agreed not to bring complaints against anyone else in the city.
It is difficult to remedy complaints of sexual harassment in the courts, so they are often resolved in the court of public opinion, especially for elected officials. Silence, mediation, and settlement are often the solutions. Nationally, millions of dollars have been paid out for the thousands of complaints received by the EEOC annually. In the private sector, there is an effort to remove the offender from the victim, and the whole process is bent on the liability of the organization or employer.
With elected officials, especially those at the top, the question arises what is the recourse for the victim? Who do you tell? What we have seen most often recently is resignation, but this may not always be appropriate depending upon the course and degree of the alleged offense.
“I am not doing this because I want him to resign. He shouldn't make someone who has no power afraid.”
– Detective Branch-Wise
Unfortunately, Branch-Wise is not providing additional interviews but DUS would ask her, what is it she wants now for the Mayor?
It often takes time before victims of harassment are comfortable coming forward. But then what is the remedy? There is an emotional toll. Apologies help, but they may never erase the pain. “It's the political thing to do. It's the right thing to do,” said Phelps.
“The behavior has long lasting deep ramifications for many women survivors, and because we don't know what their previous retrospective history has been, has this happened to them before, has there been another trauma that they've had to deal with, have they been isolated before around this kind of thing? It can trigger an avalanche of feelings so I'm not sure if you're asking me if the apology makes this all go away. It doesn't. That's not feasible that's not real.”
In an emotional on-camera conversation with Kovaleski, Hancock said, “I wish she had shared with me how much it hurt her at the time. That is not the character of the man I am. It’s time for me to lean in and accept responsibility and give everything I have to this city.”
Since the interview with Kovaleski, the Denver mayor has tried to get out in front of this scandal. He has his critics and supporters, some critics have conflated Hancock’s past alleged missteps in this area and other areas of governing and policy with the current one and are attempting to make political hay and set the barn on fire.
Supporters have stood up for Hancock and seem receptive to his apology and taking responsibility within the parameters of city government and the Denver City Charter.
The community conversation is lively in venues like Let’s Talk, a live talk forum, where Brother Jeff and former KDVR-TV reporter Jon Bowman discuss the issue and the players. In a March Facebook session, Bowman commented that Branch-Wise failed to file a harassment complaint both when she first became a detective and when she was subsequently moved to the executive security detail. The aide who allegedly harassed Branch-Wise was fired, and sued the city. It appears that Hancock sought the correct legal remedy, but in Branch-Wise’s view, this wasn’t enough. Both she and the alleged harasser subsequently received settlements.
Bowman also commented that it’s important not to merge the issues in evaluating Mayor Hancock referencing to a recent article in the Cherry Creek Glendale neighborhood paper which brought up the brothel Hancock allegedly frequented in his second term, attempting to connect the dots to this current issue and paint the mayor as someone no longer worthy of the public’s trust. But there are others in his corner.
“When an elected official shows bad judgment and makes a bad decision, yet steps forward to take ownership for the said mistake – that is still leadership. We do not agree with or endorse what the Mayor did or said, but we can appreciate the fact that he didn't run, hide or lie.”
– John Bailey in an email message from the Colorado Black Roundtable
Technology has been both an affliction and a boon. Text messages brought this all on, yet Mayor Hancock has received support through email blasts into the community, and has been able to address the issue through the Internet and social media.
“He has been very transparent about his actions, apologized to his family and the people of the City and County of Denver. I don't condone Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s behavior. However, I do accept his apology as a Black woman and community advocate. I support him staying as Denver Mayor to finish his vision of making Denver a great city.”
– Maya Wheeler, Chair, African American Initiative of the Colorado Democrats, in a letter to the community.
Denver is a great city, and came into its own because of visionary leaders in the past 30 years. Three of its mayors during this time have been either African-American or Hispanic. They were responsible for closing and moving a major international airport, the re-development of federal lands with the closing of a U.S. Armed Forces facilities (Lowry AFB) and the development of the Denver Tech Center. Denver’s development continues in the Hancock administration. Pena, Webb, and Hancock were perhaps not expected to succeed, and were all under scrutiny as they lead a city with low percentages of minority constituent populations.
Minority populations in Denver still continue to struggle, sometimes marginalized by law enforcement, and communities are frequently challenged to have their voices heard by senior leadership positions. We have a capable African American City Council President in Albus Brooks and across the city green in the statehouse, eight African American leaders combine to represent us in both the House and the Senate. Opportunities are cherished in this environment.
Yet when events don't happen, or decisions are contrary to perceptions or expected outcomes, opposition groups coalesce, and there is sometimes a piling on effect.
One of Mayor Hancock’s most vocal critics, Lisa Calderon, who has sometimes allied with the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), organized a rally on the City Hall steps calling for the mayor to resign under the hashtag #TimesUp Hancock. Calderon, Co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum Denver, has advocated for greater diversity within upper levels of Denver Law Enforcement agencies. Currently the Denver Sheriff Dept. is 48 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic, and 17 percent African American. Of the eight chiefs in the department, two are Hispanic, and none are African American.
Throughout Hancock’s tenure, the Denver Sherriff Department and the Denver Police Department has had its leadership challenges. As of this writing, Denver Police Chief Robert White just announced his future retirement after serving the city six years. Calderon has advocated for a May 2019 ballot initiative for an election of the Denver Sheriff. She believes an elected Sheriff would be more accountable to communities. Denver is one of two Colorado counties where the Sheriff is appointed.
The police union has been critical of leadership. Despite reforms implemented by Hancock, the Denver Sheriff Department still has issues with overcrowding andresultant increased violence, excessive overtime, understaffing and attrition.
In an extensive letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper, listing grievances, and systemic problems with Denver leaders impacting public safety, which included the harassment of Detective Branch-Wise, FOP called for Hancock’s resignation.
The union has suggested in statements on YouTube that they have to use any tactic available to get the administration’s attention. In the letter, they urged Hickenlooper to call upon the Attorney General to open an investigation. Hickenlooper has not acted on the request, stating “As we get into issues around the workplace, and people’s rights to work in a place without being intimidated or somehow undergoing behavior that is really inappropriate, our laws probably aren’t sufficient to what people – the public – really expect now. And I think that’s one of the issues that is going to come up…its already coming up in certain ways in the state legislature.”
Calderon has also been somewhat embedded in the Denver Sheriff Department. Since 2007, she has been the executive director of the Community Re-entry Project (CRP), which is modeled on the Transition from Jail to Community (TJC) program for inmates going back into the community. Denver was one of six learning sites in the first phase of TJC Initiative. “The premise of TJC is that re-entry starts before release,” says Calderon, who was one of the first national leaders of the TJC model, and initiated it in Denver. She was trained by the National Institute of Corrections and the Urban Institute on re-entry best practices. The state inmate population is increasingly female, nearing 10 percent, the highest level in nine years and is expected to grow 50 percent as reported in Colorado Politics by independent journalist Gabrielle Bryant.
The $500K CRP contract stopped in December2017, and was not renewed for 2018.
In April, Calderon filed a first amendment lawsuit in federal court against Hancock and the city, claiming that Hancock retaliated against her because of her prior criticism of him in June 2017 and Denver Sheriff Firman’s lack of diversity at the executive levels, and the demotion of Chief Gary Wilson, the first African American Denver Sheriff. She also claims the contract was given to a coalition of organizations, two of which have been under investigation for sexual harassment and hostile environments, Urban League of Metropolitan Denver and La Raza Services.
She says they alerted the administration and CPCC of this in October and also the Crime Prevention Control Commission, raising the issue that it's inappropriate to place women in harm's way of these men.”
Finally, the lawsuit claims that the contract was denied because she was the only woman applying.
Mayor Hancock cannot speak to thelawsuit, but has said that the contract award was made through the competitive bid process. Calderon has held this contract since 2007, and it was last competitively bid in 2011. According to the city, the notice of intent to re-bid the contract was sent to Calderon in 2016, and Denver Human Services Communications Director Julie Smith provided DUS a timeline in refuting her claims beginning in 2016, outlining steps and procedures, up to Feb. 12, 2018.
Executive Order 8 (XO 8) requires that city contracts be competitive and that any exceeding $500,000 be constantly monitored and goes out to bid every 3-5 years. Calderon has claimed that the most recent contract award was a sham, verging on collusion between Hancock and staffers in the Denver Sheriff’s Department. The council committee meeting to vote on the resolution to send the contract to the larger city council was on March 7. It passed 5-2.
That same day the #TimesUp Hancock rally was held on the steps of city hall. It was attended by some of Mayor Hancock’s most vocal critics. The city has viewed this as politicizing the competitive bid process.
“We need a mayor who understands that texting a subordinate about pole dancing is never appropriate conduct,” Calderon told the assembled group of 60 at the rally. After 12 years as a legal director for victims of domestic violence, Calderon’s commitment is unshakeable. She seeks accountability, and thinks nonaction or investigation sends the wrong message, but stresses that this issue of harassment is bigger in the community.
We can't continue to deny that harassment continues on in what we might consider our safe spaces and institutions, our government, our schools and even our churches and the conversations must continue.
“We’ve dealt with it and dealt with it and dealt with it and ignored it and navigated around the minefield of it, repressed it we've laughed it off, we’ve cried it off, said Cathy Phelps. “We've not really had a forum to say this is not, okay let's change the culture. That's what this whole #MeToo movement is bringing to light.”
The #MeToo movement has brought many things to light, including the opportunity for other issues to come into existence which could be good or bad, depending on the outcomes. With so many unanswered questions still hovering over these allegations, we also cannot blur the accusations. Nor can we mix apples with oranges. We’ve always heard that what is done in the dark will come to light. It has brought to light the need to continue conversations for future generations. Most importantly, it has been a teachable moment for some.
Mayor Michael Hancock says that he has learned from this. “One of the most important things for me is I thought about what the accusations were, and we had a chance to face the issue. And I was quite sure that I had to issue the apology to the detective. And then secondly do everything we can to get the city moving forward again so that we did not neglect the job that the people asked me to do. And so what I have attempted to do in the aftermath of all this is to be present, be engaged in the community, and be engaged as mayor of the city. And to be forthright and transparent when I am out in public with people and they want to talk about it. It hasn't been all that often that people want to talk about it. My thing is not to bury it, but to talk about it and be honest, and to be straight forward about it and move on as a person and as a city.”