DENVER — Denver Mayor Michael Hancock called comments he made during a debate related to sexual harassment accusations against him a “bone-headed statement” and offered an apology.
“I don’t want anything to take away or diminish the fact that seven years ago I made a mistake that was absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate,” Hancock said. “I certainly don’t want anyone to go away thinking that I was trying to blame the detective for what happened."
Detective Leslie Branch-Wise came forward last year saying she received sexually inappropriate texts from the mayor between February 2012 and April 2012 and felt sexually harassed.
Among the texts she claimed Hancock sent her was one that said, "You look sexy in all that black, lol".
Last year, the mayor apologized for sending the texts, saying he was "too casual." He never admitted at the time his behavior was sexual harassment.
At Tuesday night's Denver Post debate at the Denver Press Club, Hancock suggested it went both ways.
"When you see the texts from Detective Branch-Wise, you see my texts," he said before putting the microphone down.
After a pause, Hancock continued.
"The reason why I never said that it was sexual harassment is because you don't see the back-and-forth conversation that occurred," he said. "That's the point, I said. That's all I ever said."
Branch-Wise responded Wednesday during a press conference with Jamie Giellis, who is challenging Hancock in the mayor’s race. She said Hancock is “blatantly telling additional lies” and said she “has nothing to hide.”
“He apologized and said that I deserved better and said that what he had written was inappropriate," Branch-Wise said when recalling a letter she said Hancock wrote her in 2018.
“And nowhere in that letter does it claim I said something to facilitate his responses to me as being inappropriate," she said. "I’ve never said anything to this man as inappropriate, and if he has these things, which he claims he does, I am challenging him to bring them forward.”
Hancock said he doesn’t have any text message from back then and said he has learned from his mistake and didn’t mean to insinuate that Branch-Wise did something wrong.
“The only perception that matters is that of detective Branch-Wise,” Hancock said. “As I read those messages last year, I said, 'This is unacceptable, it’s inappropriate and I will never excuse that away.'"
Branch-Wise said the mayor’s comments during Tuesday's debate were the “tipping point” for her to come forward in a public way.
Before Wednesday, Branch-Wise had largely stayed out of the spotlight at a time when Giellis has focused on those text messages, saying they demonstrate a larger culture of sexual harassment within the city.
“This is a very important issue because it continues to highlight a pervasive culture of harassment of issues that have made it hard for women to thrive in the city workplace," Geillis said Wednesday.
“This is a very important issue, one that shouldn’t be used as a political football,” Hancock said in his news conference. “It’s one that I take very seriously. I will always stand up and submit to the importance of making sure that every employee has a safe, comfortable environment in which to work."
Branch-Wise said she endorses and supports Giellis, but said she would not have come forward had she not felt the need to defend herself.
“When I was asked to be part of the mayor’s unit, I was honored,” Branch-Wise said. “I felt like this is a prestigious job, I’m grateful, I had so much pride, and I looked up to Mayor Hancock until the culture that he presented and the things that I went through. And after looking at him last night, I just look at him as a pitiful, desperate liar."
When asked by 9Wants To Know reporter Jeremy Jojola if his conduct was sexual harassment, Hancock would not put a definition on the texts.
"I made a very inappropriate, unacceptable misstep and mistake seven years ago now. I owned up to it. Her perception matters. Six years ago, seven years ago, she didn't believe it was sexual harassment, her attorney didn't. Six years, she has a right to change her mind, and she did," said Hancock.
Giellis has claimed, without evidence, that the city paid a secret $1.5 million settlement for Hancock's actions.
Hancock released a statement shortly before Wednesday’ press conference saying that he “misspoke” during a heated debate. His full statement is below:
I misspoke last night in a heated debate, and I want to apologize. The most important thing in all of this is that my behavior seven years ago was unacceptable and inappropriate. There is no justification for it, and it’s something I am deeply sorry for.
I want to reassure the people of Denver -- and the women of Denver -- that I understand how the power dynamic between an employer and employee puts a special responsibility on the person in charge to make sure their interactions and communications with subordinates are professional. I know that as a city, we are only successful if we support all of our employees and our community.
Again, let me be clear. My bad judgment is a mistake that I own. No one else. While the detective never indicated at the time that she felt the text messages were inappropriate and signed a sworn affidavit to that effect, I know she feels differently today. I am held accountable for this mistake every day. And I will continue to strive to do my best by the people of Denver.
Also Wednesday, Hancock's campaign put out an open letter signed by more than two dozen women who work in his office. It said, in part:
We stand together to make one fact very clear- we work in a culture of respect and support. Gender equity is a hallmark of this administration and the Mayor’s office staff reflects that priority. We acknowledge that the text messages sent by the Mayor 7 years ago were inappropriate, something the Mayor has admitted to and repeatedly apologized for. We now have more robust workplace policies that hold elected officials accountable as a result.
However, the rampant mischaracterization of our workplace by the Mayor’s opponent is insulting to the highly skilled, experienced and qualified professional women who have chosen careers in public service in collaboration with and under the leadership of Mayor Hancock.
City employees are prohibited from engaging in campaign activity while on the clock for taxpayers. They are allowed to participate in politics while on a lunch break or if they take personal breaks during the workday.
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