Jun 17, 2021 - News

Denver mayor's airport nominee could test City Council's new powers

A photo of the top of the Denver City Hall building lit up in red

The Denver City and County Building. Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Denver Postvia Getty Images

For the first time since Denver voters strengthened City Council's checks and balances on the mayor's office last November, Mayor Michael Hancock's powers may be tested like never before.

What's happening: The mayor is seeking council approval of his new nominee to lead Denver International Airport, Phillip Washington.

  • Washington's former agency in Los Angeles is under criminal investigation, reportedly related to the awarding of a no-bid contract to run a sexual harassment hotline that was costing taxpayers up to $8,000 per call.
  • As Axios previously reported, the LA County District Attorney's Office confirmed it is reviewing a matter involving a search warrant served at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The prosecutor's office declined to say if Washington was under investigation.

What's new: Hancock's office says the mayor was aware of the allegations, but he pushed the pick forward nevertheless because a complaint naming Washington was "dismissed by a federal district court judge."

  • Adam Loew, husband of Jennifer Loew β€” the LA Metro employee whose whistleblowing helped spark the investigation β€” tells Axios he's alarmed Hancock's office "hasn't talked to the whistleblowers" or "looked at the court case," which remains active at the state level, before proceeding with the appointment process.
  • And council members have called off a plan to move Washington's appointment forward without discussion, and are instead inviting him to meet members in a committee before the appointment is up for a vote by the full council.

Flashback: Last fall, voters approved a ballot measure that prevents the city's executive branch from fast-tracking favorites and now requires council approval over top mayoral appointees.

  • "The council appointment process the voters put in place was a transparency and accountability measure meant for just this kind of situation," council member Amanda Sawyer told Axios.
  • Sawyer, along with council member Candi CdeBaca, sponsored the measure.
  • Council member Kevin Flynn, who chairs the aviation committee, tells Axios that he remains "comfortable with the nomination" based on everything he's learned "so far," but plans to meet with Washington again this week to continue the discussion.

Of note: LA County Supervisor and Metro board member Sheila Kuehl sent a letter to council members on Monday in support of Washington, telling them the claims against him β€” specifically those including LGBTQ+ discrimination β€” were "outrageous."

  • Context: Under Washington's leadership, a transgender LA Metro worker was harassed and discriminated against based on their identity, according to a suit filed in California state court, Bloomberg Law reports.
  • "All I have to say is that any entity that chooses Phil Washington to head it up is a very, very lucky and smart entity," Kuehl told Axios.

Yes, but: More "tangible" proof is needed to convince some council members to move ahead, including CdeBaca, who said Kuehl's letter failed to ease her concerns.

The other side: Washington issued a statement, claiming that all "all of these untrue allegations stem from one LA Metro employee" who "has organized a well-orchestrated attempt to assassinate my character and reputation by alleging untrue things that involved programs that she herself managed."

  • LA Metro spokesman Dave Sotero told Axios the agency is "not aware of any improprieties related to the awarding of any of these contracts."

What to watch: Departing airport CEO Kim Day retires on July 16, and it's unclear who will step in her place, even in the interim, if Washington's appointment is delayed.

  • When Axios asked the mayor's office about a backup plan, spokesperson Mike Strott said, "That's a hypothetical. We have every confidence that Phil Washington will be confirmed on time for Kim Day's departure from the role."

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