Denver mayoral challenger Jamie Giellis went on the attack Tuesday, accusing incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock of fostering a "poisonous culture" of sexual harassment that has cost taxpayers nearly $1.5 million in settlements and legal fees during Hancock's eight years in office.
"As your mayor, I will be implementing ethics reforms to end the culture of sexual harassment in city hall that is out of control under Michael Hancock," said Giellis, who was flanked by supporters at a news conference at her campaign headquarters.
Giellis pointed to a chart prepared by her campaign listing sums paid to settle sexual harassment claims brought against a former top Hancock aide, as well as additional sexual harassment and misconduct complaints brought by three female firefighters.
None of the settlements were for incidents directly involving Hancock, though the victim in one case — a former member of Hancock's security detail — has said she believes Hancock sexually harassed her in 2012 by sending inappropriate text messages to her.
A Hancock campaign spokeswoman called Giellis' accusations "an absolute falsehood" and maintained the challenger is trying to distract voters from her own stumbles involving race-related issues.
"Jamie is desperately trying to distract from last week’s alarming revelations about the cultural ignorance and insensitivities she has displayed over the last decade," said April Valdez Villa in a statement.
"There’s nothing new in what she said today," Valdez Villa said. "Jamie is just trying to divert attention away from the serious misgivings voters are having about her inability and lack of qualifications to lead Denver forward."
Ballots for the all-mail runoff election went out Monday to Denver voters, who will pick between Hancock and Giellis, the top two finishers in the May 7 election.
The two candidates are scheduled to face off Tuesday night at a live, televised debate sponsored by 9News and Colorado Politics.
"In the debate tonight, I encourage the mayor to explain in more detail the true and total costs to taxpayers of sexual harassment settlements under his administration," Giellis said at the news conference.
Valdez Villa rejected Giellis' suggestion that the Hancock administration has been hiding anything.
"The mayor has been completely transparent about this from Day 1 — from all settlement and legal costs to the strengthening of the city’s personnel and workplace policies and training. These are all matters of public record," she said.
Giellis previewed the new line of attack in the increasingly heated runoff campaign on Sunday, when she said Hancock "resembles" President Donald Trump, "who sexually harasses women."
She was responding to a Hancock TV ad that compared Giellis to Trump, citing comments she made in a March debate about the way the city should treat immigrants who have been accused of criminal activity.
On Tuesday, Giellis blasted the Hancock campaign for "twisting" her remarks in its ad.
"We're two weeks from [election day], and ballots are going to start arriving in people's mailboxes today," Giellis said at the news conference. "If they're going to be spreading misinformation, then I'm going to be spreading truth."
Hancock's spokeswoman shot back Tuesday that it was Giellis who was spreading "false and defamatory" information, including when she referenced "$1.5 million paid by Denver taxpayers to cover up Michael Hancock’s sexual indiscretions" in a statement she tweeted out Sunday.
"The accusation in her tweet is false, and her press conference today clearly demonstrates that she engaged in an absolute falsehood," Valdez Villa said.
In 2018, Hancock acknowledged sending what he termed "inappropriate" text messages to then-Denver Police Detective Leslie Branch-Wise six years earlier when she was assigned to his security detail.
The mayor apologized to Branch-Wise but said he disagreed with her contention that the suggestive text messages amounted to sexual harassment.
The city paid Branch-Wise a $75,000 settlement for a separate harassment complaint she filed in 2013 against an aide to the mayor. The aide later won a $200,000 payment from the city after he challenged his firing in response to Branch-Wise's claim.
At the news conference, Giellis also unveiled proposed reforms.
"As mayor, my vision is to have a city where employees feel safe from sexual harassment and unafraid of possible retribution. My reforms will ensure that the culture at city hall changes," she said.
Her proposals include making sexual harassment settlements "fully transparent to the public" and proposing statutory changes to require city employees found liable for sexual harassment to reimburse the city for any judgments.
Giellis also said she would strengthen guarantees of anonymity for law enforcement, firefighters and the mayor's direct employees who report allegations of sexual harassment.