The police detective who accused Denver Mayor Michael Hancock of sexually harassing her years ago by sending suggestive text messages tore into him Wednesday for, as she put it, "blatantly telling additional lies" after he said at a mayoral runoff debate the previous night that his texts were part of a "back-and-forth conversation."
Detective Leslie Branch-Wise made the charges at a press conference held at the headquarters of mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis, who faces Hancock in a June 4 runoff election.
"It's clear to me that the mayor is blatantly telling additional lies," Branch-Wise said, referring to remarks made by Hancock on Tuesday night at a Denver Post debate, when the mayor was asked why he doesn't consider the text messages he sent to be sexual harassment.
"And the other thing is when you see the texts from Detective Branch-Wise, you see my texts," Hancock said at the debate.
After the crowd erupted, Hancock added: "The reason I say there was no sexual harassment is you don’t see the back-and-forth conversations that occurred."
Minutes before the Giellis press conference, Hancock issued a statement apologizing for his new remarks:
"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," he said.
"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."
Hancock apologized a year ago after a series of 2012 text messages he sent to Branch-Wise when she served on his security detail were made public, saying the texts were "too familiar, too casual" and "unprofessional," but rejected suggestions they amounted to sexual harassment.
In one text, Hancock wrote, "You look sexy in all that black," and in another he asked if she had taken a pole-dancing class or had "ever considered taking one."
One of the text messages complimented Branch-Wise's haircut and added: "You made it hard on a brotha to keep it correct everyday. :)"
Branch-Wise, who has refused to comment publicly about the texts since conducting an interview early last year with Denver7's Tony Kovaleski, said Hancock's remarks at Tuesday's debate compelled her to break her silence.
"After looking at him last night, I look at him as a pitiful, desperate liar," she said.
Referring to a handwritten letter of apology she received from Hancock in 2018, Branch-Wise said: "Nowhere in that letter does it claim that I said something to facilitate his response to me as being inappropriate. I've never said anything to this man as inappropriate. If he has these things, which he claims he does, I am challenging him to bring it forward. I, like everyone else, would like to see these things that I supposedly said to make him say the things that he said to me."
Giellis, who last week charged Hancock with encouraging a "culture of sexual harassment" in city government, accused her opponent on Wednesday of "blam[ing] the victim for her own harassment" and called on voters to "change the leadership at city hall."
"In the Denver Post debate last night, the mayor followed in the footsteps of so many powerful men who abuse their power, and he blamed the victim for her own harassment," Giellis said. "In a private letter to Leslie, Michael said there was no excuse for his behavior. In public last night, he blamed her. That is hypocrisy of the worst sort."
"I believe Leslie," Giellis said. "And I'm glad that she, unlike so many women who have been sexually harassed, has a platform to have her voice heard."
Saying she stood with Branch-Wise and "all of the city employees who have faced harassment and haven't felt safe enough to come forward," Giellis dismissed the statement of apology that had just been sent out by the Hancock campaign.
"I think it's important that we note he still is conflicted and confused about whether or not he actually was doing sexual harassment," she said. "And if he hasn't learned, then perhaps he continues to do it to others. And we need to bring this forward and bring that to his attention."
Later, while speaking with reporters outside his southeast Denver campaign headquarters, Hancock again apologized, calling his remarks in the closing minutes of the debate "a boneheaded mistake."
"I don't want anything to take away from or diminish from the fact that seven years ago, I made a mistake that was absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate."
"It was just absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate then, and it's unacceptable and inappropriate today," he said. "I've learned from those lessons and from that mistake and have made a commitment to get better and to make sure that it doesn't happen again."
"Nobody owns the mistake that I made seven years ago but me," he added.
Reporters pressed Hancock several times asking if he considers the texts to be sexual harassment.
He stopped short of saying so and instead insisted: "The only perception that matters is that of Detective Branch-Wise."
Hancock also noted that since the incident, he has met with victims of sexual harassment, has worked on changing the city's policy on dealing with it, and has joined all city employees to undergo training on the topic.
Asked why voters should trust him and re-elect him to a third term in light of the seven-year-old incident, Hancock responded, "I have spoken and been as forthright with the people of Denver as I possibly could."
He again noted that he had apologized to his family, the detective and to the city, as he has whenever the issue was raised during the campaign.
"I didn't run from this. I didn't hide," he said. "I stood up and I took accountability for my mistake. I acknowledged it, and I said I'm going to make sure this never happens again.
"I came out as vulnerable as I could be to be very clear about the fact that this is something that has hurt someone, and that's not OK. I've hurt my family, and that's not OK.
"And quite frankly, it's something that I'm going to live with for the rest of my life."