Denver Mayor Michael Hancock sent suggestive text messages to a police officer on his security detail during his first year in office, behavior he now acknowledges as “inappropriate” six years later, after the detective alleged in a new interview that she suffered sexual harassment.
In several text messages from 2012 that the Denver police officer provided — and which Hancock did not dispute — the mayor told her that she made it hard for him to concentrate at work. After spotting her on TV at a Denver Nuggets game, he texted: “You look sexy in all that black.” Another time, he complimented her haircut and said: “You make it hard on a brotha to keep it correct every day.”
Detective Leslie Branch-Wise spoke publicly for the first time Tuesday night in an exclusive interview aired by Denver7, the television partner of The Denver Post.
“I just want people to know that I’m a woman, I have children and I’m a victim of sexual harassment,” Branch-Wise said. “It made me physically sick. It was extremely scary. And I dealt with it at that time the best way that I could.”
That meant staying silent about the mayor’s “crushing” conduct, and, amid allegations that a mayoral aide also was harassing her, requesting a transfer off Hancock’s security detail.
Hancock said that while he does not believe his behavior toward Branch-Wise amounted to sexual harassment — characterizing his intention as friendly banter — he now realizes the texts were inappropriate to send.
“Detective Branch-Wise served with me probably eight or nine months. We became friends, and I blurred the lines between our friendship and being a boss,” Hancock told The Post in a interview Tuesday. “And these text messages are inappropriate. They’re too familiar, too casual. For that, I accept responsibility, and I apologize.”
He said he intended no sexual advances, and “our relationship did not include any inappropriate physical touching.” Asked by The Post if his texts were an attempt at flirtation, he said it was difficult to know the full context — but “I read them, and I was disappointed in myself.”
He added, “I wish I knew six years ago that Detective Branch-Wise felt these made her uncomfortable. … Had I known that, I would have apologized then — and certainly would not have continued to have that kind of banter.”
Hancock has said he plans to seek a third term as mayor in the May 2019 election.
Branch-Wise did speak up in 2012 about other harassment she said she experienced in the mayor’s office while on his detail.
She raised sexual harassment allegations against one of the mayor’s aides, Wayne McDonald, which resulted in his firing. That allegation led to $275,000 in legal settlements, including a payout to McDonald, who claimed he was defamed and challenged the way he was fired.
“I was only employed in (the security detail) for less than a year,” Branch-Wise told Denver7. “And pretty early on, between the mayor’s aide saying just sexually explicit things to me, in person and via text, and the mayor making inappropriate comments and sending me inappropriate texts … I knew that that unit wasn’t the place for me.”
The text messages were sent during a first year in office that started off rocky. Just after he won election in the June 2011 runoff, Hancock fought allegations that he used a prostitution service — called Denver Players and Denver Sugar — years earlier, while he was a city councilman. The Post and its television partner at the time, KUSA-Channel 9, investigated the claims, which Hancock disputed, but the scandal fizzled out with inconclusive findings.
“I made a mistake”
During this week’s interview on camera, Hancock appeared to become emotional when asked about potential reaction to the revelation of the text messages to Branch-Wise. He has told his wife and their children, he said.
“I made a mistake. I’m human. I never purport to be perfect,” he told Denver7.
He told The Post: “My conversation with my family — you know, I’ll keep that private. But listen, I believe in accepting responsibility. I also believe in apologizing when it’s called for. … I apologize publicly to Detective Branch-Wise, to my family and to the people of Denver.”
Hancock called the situation “wrought with politics,” noting that an anonymous letter sent to Denver7 and other media outlets that claimed harassment by him contained other allegations he deemed “slanderous.”
Branch-Wise said she decided to speak publicly after Denver7 reached out to her while investigating the claims in the letter.
She said she was tired of keeping the secret, which was the subject of rumors within DPD’s ranks. And she said that watching the #MeToo movement unfold in recent months, with harassment accusations leveled publicly against other elected officials and entertainment figures across the country, also inspired her to speak up.
“It was a hard time in my life,” Branch-Wise said of 2012. “I didn’t have anyone to tell. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. That’s my boss.”
“If you are down here and your boss is up here and he’s showering you with these inappropriate texts and sayings and making you feel uncomfortable, who do you tell if he’s at the top? It’s crushing,” she said.
Branch-Wise, who still works for DPD, said she feared retaliation in speaking up now. But Hancock said she should not have that concern.
“I want to be clear: I think Detective Branch-Wise showed courage coming forward in 2012,” regarding McDonald, Hancock told The Post. “I think she’s showing courage now.”
Even so, the mayor said that he is close with his security detail.
“I’m with my security detail more than I’m with anyone, including my family,” he said. “… It was just one of those things where I got too casual and too familiar, and I learned a lesson from that.”
Details of early scandal
The newly disclosed text messages to Branch-Wise revive one of the first scandals of Hancock’s administration.
McDonald, a longtime friend of Hancock’s, had been his driver during the campaign and was then appointed as a special projects coordinator in the mayor’s office.
But he was fired in May 2012 over what the administration termed “serious allegations of misconduct” toward Branch-Wise. She ultimately was paid a $75,000 city settlement over the claims involving McDonald.
But McDonald denied he acted inappropriately and sued Hancock, his press secretary and Branch-Wise, alleging defamation and breach of contract, among other claims.
In 2016, the city agreed to pay McDonald $200,000 to settle his lawsuit.
Branch-Wise’s settlement agreement with the city prohibits her from seeking any further litigation against the city for the conduct that led to her leaving the security detail.
She said she had no interest in seeking any more money, but she said she regretted taking a settlement without holding the mayor accountable.
“When we were going through the initial process of the suit, the initial suit, my attorney advised me that I wasn’t supposed to speak on the mayor,” Branch-Wise said.
Her attorneys declined to comment. So did McDonald, who has disputed in court documents connected with his lawsuit that any sexually explicit comments by him to Branch-Wise — including in phone calls she recorded — were unwelcome.
“Members of the security detail and I and Mayor Hancock regularly discussed sexual subjects during work,” McDonald wrote in one court filing.
Current Denver city attorney Kristin Bronson said in a written statement to Denver7 that Branch-Wise filed a complaint with the city in 2012 claiming she was being harassed by a then-member of the mayor’s staff. “The matter was reviewed, and the employee was terminated. Detective Branch-Wise subsequently retained private counsel, a former judge and highly reputable attorney, to represent her in the resolution of this claim.
“In June 2013, the city negotiated a settlement with the detective through her private attorney. The settlement agreement does not require confidentiality or any provision that would restrict her ability to speak. At all times, Detective Branch-Wise has been free to discuss this matter.”