DENVER -- Sources tell Denver7 Investigates Denver city officials were aware of a police detective’s sexual harassment allegations Mayor Michael Hancock treated her inappropriately before the city reached a settlement with the detective several years ago.
Leslie Branch-Wise received a $75,000 settlement with the city in 2013 after leaving Hancock’s security detail, and at the time the settlement was publicly linked to her sexual harassment allegations against fired mayoral aide Wayne McDonald.
“I didn't share a lot with them but I did tell them that he (the mayor) also harassed me. I told them,” Branch-Wise said.
The detective did not know specifically who in the city was told of the mayor’s behavior but said all of her discussions with the city and its outside attorneys happened through her attorneys. The attorneys who represented her would not comment.
After Branch-Wise came forward this year, Hancock apologized and said he did not know the detective believed he had done anything improper before Denver7 brought it to his attention earlier this year.
But Denver7 Investigates has learned Branch-Wise’s attorney turned over several text messages from the mayor to at least one high-ranking city official before the settlement was reached – and sources say those texts were presented to the city as leverage while Branch-Wise sought a settlement.
It is unclear whether the specific messages in which Hancock told Branch-Wise she looked sexy or asked her if she had ever considered pole dancing were included in the messages that were turned over to the city.
Attorney Thomas Rice helped represent the city in the Wayne McDonald matter and told Denver7's news partners at the Denver Post he was involved in many conversations with Branch-Wise's attorney in 2013.
"While we were aware of the Mayor’s text messages, Detective Branch-Wise’s personal attorney told us that neither she nor her client believed that the Mayor had said or done anything that constituted sexual harassment," Rice wrote.
But Branch-Wise said it was her understanding that the settlement was contingent upon her leaving the mayor out of any public allegations she made of sexual harassment.
“When we were closing out the suit. I was again told by the city I was again told not to name the mayor, Mayor Hancock, and they would settle,” Branch-Wise said.
Doug Friednash, who served as city attorney at the time of Branch-Wise’s settlement negotiations, referred questions to the city attorney’s office.
Current city attorney Kristin Bronson strongly disputes the notion that Branch-Wise was paid to stay quiet about the mayor.
“The settlement agreement contains no requirement of confidentiality of any kind,” Bronson wrote in an email. “The Detective has been free to speak out at any time over the last six years.”
The City Attorney's Office also sent the following statement when asked for a comment:
“This settlement was reached at a time when Detective Branch-Wise and the City, including the Mayor and Press Secretary Amber Miller, were all being sued by a former employee. The parties worked together through their respective attorneys for the next four years to defend the claims that were brought against them. Early on, the city’s outside counsel worked with Detective Branch-Wise’s personal attorney to reach her settlement. The city did not pressure her as evidenced by the fact that the settlement agreement did not impose requirements of non-disclosure, confidentiality or non-disparagement. She has been free to speak out for the last 6 years.”
Denver7 Investigates reached out to every city council member who voted to approve the Branch-Wise settlement in 2013 to ask whether they were aware of those texts or that any of the detective’s allegations against the mayor. None of the eight who responded said they were aware of any texts or any allegations against Hancock when they voted to approve the settlement.
“We were not given all the information,” said former councilwoman Susan Shepherd. “There is physical evidence that this sexual harassment took place between the Mayor and her...so absolutely, we were duped.”
Responding the former council member's expressed frustrations with the process, Denver7 asked Shepherd if she thought the city had worked to cover up the text messages and sexual harassment claims made by the detective.
“Absolutely, absolutely!” Shepherd responded,
Shepard said she was “disgusted” when she heard that Branch-Wise believes she was paid to keep quiet about the way the mayor treated her.
“People wonder why people don't trust government. Well, it’s precisely because of things like this,” Shepard said.