An anonymous person has accused Burlington City Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) of sexual assault stemming from a night in 2017 while both worked for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
Hanson, who was not on the council at the time, denied the allegations. He published an account of the evening in question on Facebook on Monday evening.
Shortly afterward, at the council’s first in-person meeting since March 2020, two people alluded to the accusations during public comment. Some people in the audience held signs that read, “Abolish Vt Prog Men,” “Abolish VPIRG,” and “Believe Survivors.”
“We’re here because we want to hold a city councilor, in particular, accountable for his actions,” said a woman who later declined to provide her name to Seven Days. “When you do harm, it comes at your doorstep — or it comes to city hall.”
“Jack Hanson has trampled all over the work of Black femmes in our community,” said Will Keeton, who sat next to the woman. “We’re really done with the political games to protect the reputations of politicians,” he added.
“Whose side are you on?” the woman said. “Don’t be silent. You have the name, so do something about it.”
The allegations burst into public view on Sunday when Zanevia Wilcox, an activist who participated in last year’s protests in Battery Park, posted the anonymous person’s account on Instagram. The account said Hanson had been the person's boss at VPIRG and, after a party where the person had been drinking, they invited Hanson into their bed so he wouldn't have to bike home. Once there, Hanson asked whether the person wanted to "do stuff," and the person "said sure."
The person described themselves as "incapacitated and very very vulnerable."
“I didn’t have the time or space to really listen to what I was feeling, I didn’t trust myself and I definitely didn’t trust the workplace enough to say ‘no’ and not face repercussions,” the statement reads. “So we ‘hooked up.’ As in, he assaulted me. Maybe I went along with it, but under the context, who could blame me?”
The person also said that Hanson asked them not to tell anyone what had happened because he could get fired. Hanson was a director and the accuser was a canvasser, a subordinate position.
"The culture at VPIRG was one of idolizing (male) directors, letting them do whatever they want," the account reads.
During an interview on Tuesday, Hanson said that he and the person both consented to being physically intimate that night, though they did not have sex and no sexual assault occurred. The person subsequently volunteered on his first campaign for council, in 2019, and they had been friendly in the years after the night in question, according to Hanson, exchanging texts, Facebook messages, and seeing each other in person
“They've never indicated anything along the lines of that I had sexually assaulted them,” Hanson said. “These key elements of the accusation — that they were incapacitated, that they only agreed because of a power dynamic — none of these things in any way have been indicated. It was extremely surprising to see this.”
Tuesday, City Council President Max Tracy, a Progressive, said he was "very concerned" by the allegations. He said he'd been in touch with Mayor Miro Weinberger's administration, including the city attorney, about hiring an independent investigator to look into the accusations.
"I take seriously whenever an allegation of sexual assault is brought forward," Tracy said, "and that's why I think we need to take this seriously and have an independent investigation into Jack's conduct."
In his Facebook post, Hanson said his accuser told VPIRG colleagues about their “encounter,” though he had asked the person not to because he worried that “it could make things uncomfortable in the workplace.” Hanson wrote that a supervisor questioned him about it.
“I did not face any disciplinary action for the incident as I had not violated any of VPIRG's policies,” Hanson wrote.
In a statement on Monday, VPIRG said it "takes seriously the concerns raised by" the former canvasser, but noted that it had not received a complaint against Hanson that summer or since.
The nonprofit did say it made organizational changes stemming from complaints about the culture during the 2017 canvass. For instance, it has banned directors "from any inappropriate touching, flirting, sexual relationships or any otherwise sexualized behavior with subordinate employees."
"If an investigation is initiated now by an independent entity with authority, we encourage current and former VPIRG staff with pertinent information to share what they know," the statement reads.
Hanson said he first learned of the accusations on July 2, when Wilcox posted an Instagram video alluding to sexual assault allegations against him. He said he subsequently recounted his story to other Progressive council members so that they were all aware.
Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8) worked at VPIRG at the time of the incident. In an interview Tuesday, Stromberg said she was good friends with Hanson’s accuser while they worked together. She never heard their encounter described as nonconsensual or as a sexual assault.
“The story that I heard from this person in 2017, and Jack’s details and story of what happened, were almost entirely identical,” she added. “That’s why I’m feeling very, like, ‘Wait, what changed?’"
Stromberg did note that the accuser was a subordinate of Hanson's, which "was not great, but it's not sexual assault. That's just not good in another way."
"It just seemed like a normal interaction that was intimate," Stromberg said.
In the post, the accuser said Hanson should resign from council "as people who abuse power should not be in positions of power."
Hanson said Tuesday that he had no plans to resign. Instead, he called for an investigation into the allegations, though he wasn’t sure whether the city, VPIRG, the council or an independent body should carry it out.
“The purpose of the investigation isn’t to exonerate me, it’s to find out the truth,” Hanson said. “But I do believe it will exonerate me. Either way, it will provide additional clarity for the public.”
Correction, August 9, 2021: The accuser later volunteered for Hanson's campaign. An earlier version of this story contained an error.