Denver council member suggested Mayor Hancock suspend himself over sexual harassment allegations

DENVER -- In the days after a Denver police detective accused Mayor Michael Hancock of sexual harassment, internal emails reveal a city councilman told Hancock’s chief of staff he should consider suspending himself to slow the growing controversy. The mayor is declining to take the councilman's suggestion. 

Internal emails obtained through a public records request show Councilman Kevin Flynn wrote Hancock’s chief of staff Alan Salazar with the proposal on March 2. 

That was three days after Denver7’s chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski aired his exclusive interview with Detective Leslie Branch-Wise, who said Hancock sent her sexually suggestive text messages when she worked on his security detail in 2011 and 2012. Hancock apologized for the texts but denied sexually harassing Branch-Wise.

“I, and likely all my colleagues, are hearing from constituents that we need to call for him to resign. I’ve been quoted saying I did not think so, that the ‘disciplinary process’ for the mayor is the next election, which is on the horizon anyway,” Flynn wrote Salazar.

“But more to the point, I don’t believe that under Career Service, any supervisor has ever been terminated under the same set of facts; that some other step on the progressive discipline ladder was taken. Letter of reprimand, suspension for a time period, or something else,” he continued. “So here’s my suggestion: The mayor impose an unpaid suspension on himself.”

Flynn wrote a self-imposed week-long suspension would be “a way to address the current lack of any other recourse with an elected official not subject to Career Service rules, yet being consistent with them. I think it would be more appropriate, certainly, that resigning and much more responsive than doing nothing at all.”

Salazar responded, “Thanks for these thoughts. Let me consider and share with the Mayor.”

Flynn later shared the suspension proposal with a constituent who wrote him four times asking his stance on Hancock’s behavior.

“I hope you will stand with women on this. I would not want a council member who tolerates sexual harassment,” the constituent wrote.

Flynn responded that he believed Hancock’s behavior was “completely unacceptable” but said he did not believe the mayor should resign.

“I have suggested to the mayor that he impose a penalty on himself in the form of a period of unpaid suspension, which I believe would be a likely disciplinary outcome for a manager in a similar situation and a first-time offense,” Flynn wrote the constituent. 

Flynn told Denver7 Investigates Wednesday he spoke to Hancock about the suspension idea within the last few weeks and the mayor indicated he was still considering the idea.

But Hancock spokesperson Amber Miller said in a written statement Wednesday afternoon the Mayor would not be taking Flynn's suggestion. 

“Mayor Hancock’s apology was sincere, open and public. He is held accountable every day by the people of Denver and has taken full responsibility for his actions. The Mayor appreciated Councilman Flynn’s outreach but decided that self-imposing consequences was not an appropriate response,” Miller wrote.

City places hefty price tag on some records requests, denies others

The Flynn-Salazar email exchange was just one of hundreds reviewed by Denver7 Investigates shedding light on the council’s behind-the-scenes response in the days and weeks following the Branch-Wise revelations. 

Denver7 Investigates obtained the emails to and from members of the Denver City Council involving Hancock as part of a public records request submitted by a group of local media including The Denver Post, 710 KNUS, KUSA 9News, and KDVR Fox 31. 

The media outlets took the unusual step of requesting the records together after the city estimated the cost of compiling the request would be $480.

The outlets also joined together to request records from the city attorney detailing the legal expenses stemming from the settlements paid to Branch-Wise and former Hancock aide Wayne McDonald (who was also accused of sexual harassment by the detective) because the city’s estimated cost of fulfilling that request topped $1,100. The outlets are still awaiting the results of that request.

The city produced other requested records related to the Hancock matter at minimal cost, including the mayor’s travel records. But it also refused to release several records requested by Denver7 Investigates, including all texts stored on any phone issued by the city to Hancock, and numerous emails involving the sexual harassment matter sent by the mayor’s spokesperson, Amber Miller.

In the case of Hancock’s texts, the city denied the request because “they are not ‘made, maintained or kept’ by the City and County of Denver itself and are purely personal to the sender/receiver.”

The city also withheld several of Miller’s emails sent between Feb. 25 and March 1 from public disclosure, saying the records were “predecisional, deliberative and candid in nature. Public disclosure would be likely in the future to stifle frank and open communication within the government … and thereby would cause substantial injury to the public interest.”

Behind-the-scenes reaction to Espinoza’s call for an “independent council”

Some of the hundreds of emails released by the council shed light on the behind-the-scenes reaction to Councilman Rafael Espinoza’s email letter sent March 12 to the mayor and the city council requesting a “public accounting and/or independent council that will generate a public report on the matters surrounding past settlements and recent admissions/revelations.”

About 10 minutes after Espinoza emailed the letter, council member Mary Beth Susman forwarded the message to two colleagues and wrote simply, “For pete’s sakes.”

After local media reported the contents of Espinoza’s letter, he responded to the mayor and council again, writing, “This letter was intended to be confidential, and only for the recipients, meaning the Mayor, all Council members, the Executive Director, and  our Legislative Counsel.”

“You should have acknowledged that in your first email. Too late now,” council president Albus Brooks responded.

“Naively, it never occurred to me that one of our own would leak such a letter. Just so you both know, I did not leak this, at all,” Espinoza wrote back.

Flynn then wrote Espinoza expressing doubt over the need for an independent review.

“I think you’re out over the tips of your skis on it. From everything I’ve learned, the detective didn’t make a complaint about the texts between her and the mayor until a month or so ago when she was approached by a news reporter. Not even the mayor was aware that she was upset over it until then,” Flynn wrote.

“It's clear in the Mayor's texts that she was the subject of conversation with other men surrounding the Mayor,” Espinoza responded. “When you are the lone person at the top of the entire organization, everyone is your subordinate, that means that you are most responsible for your actions and the culture you create. One was clearly a wants participant in that culture, another was less so, and both were subordinate to the Mayor. That is what I would like to fully understand.”

Constituents began to respond to Espinoza, with several thanking him for being the first to call for the council to act. 

“Thanks for your singular courage to demand an independent investigation of Hancock,” one woman wrote.

“Please spend your time doing your job as you are paid to do by the citizens of Denver and not pushing a political agenda to get rid of our mayor.  Attend to your own job.  Or you won't have one,” another woman wrote.

The city council ultimately decided against opening an independent investigation into the matter. 

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