The Vermont Public Interest Research Group is launching an independent investigation into an allegation that Burlington City Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District), a former VPIRG employee, sexually assaulted a fellow staffer in 2017.
The organization, however, says it will not publish the results of its inquiry despite requests by Mayor Miro Weinberger that the findings become public.
Hanson is accused of assaulting a former VPIRG canvasser, who was his subordinate, four years ago. The allegation became public last month after a local activist posted the anonymous person's account on Instagram. According to the post, Hanson initiated sexual contact after a party when the person was "incapacitated and very very vulnerable."
Hanson has denied assaulting the person, saying they consented to being physically intimate and that they did not have sex. The person later volunteered on Hanson's 2019 election campaign, and Hanson said that they've been friendly since the night in question.
Emails obtained by Seven Days show that Weinberger contacted VPIRG executive director Paul Burns about an investigation shortly after last month's city council meeting, when several people in attendance called for Hanson to be held to account.
The emails indicate that Burns initially declined to conduct an inquiry because it could endanger the alleged victim's privacy and put VPIRG in a position of determining whether Hanson should resign. Weinberger responded that VPIRG was "best positioned to quickly and comprehensively establish the necessary facts" while still protecting the person's identity, and clarified that he didn't expect the organization to "assess Councilor Hanson’s fitness for public service."
"Only the voters can make this determination. To that end, however, the public needs and deserves a thorough and expedient investigation into the incident," the mayor wrote on July 16. He added that he hopes VPIRG would "share the investigation report or a summary of it with the Burlington City Council and the public."
Burns subsequently agreed to engage a third party to look into the matter but said VPIRG would only share the results with Hanson and the former canvasser,and only if they both participate in voluntary interviews. "It will be up to them whether to share the findings further," Burns wrote back.
In an interview Friday, however, Burns said he's rethinking that part of the plan after consulting with "trauma-informed experts."
"I think it's best that no one has an expectation that this is going to be something that is for some sort of public use and is illuminating about the events that took place," Burns said. "That is just not what we’re trying to do."
He said VPIRG's primary goal is to gather facts about the incident so that it can further improve its personnel policies. Burns said the investigator will contact both Hanson and the alleged victim, and take steps to prevent causing "further harm" to the person.
"We really want to look at what we can of what may have happened, how it was dealt with by staff in the office at that time, and how we might improve upon the policies and practices that we have in place," he said.
VPIRG didn't discipline Hanson after the incident, but it did introduce a policy that bans supervisors from having "inappropriate" relationships with subordinates. Burns said while VPIRG won't make public its conclusions about the incident, the organization will share what changes, if any, it will make to its personnel policies.
City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) expressed disappointment that the public may not get full accounting of VPIRG's findings, saying he'd hoped the organization would "release any information that they’re able to" about the incident.
"I think it would be helpful for us to understand what their findings were," Tracy said.
Burns countered that it would be inappropriate for VPIRG to release sensitive information about any employee, past or present. He said his staff need to know that VPIRG will protect their privacy.
"They’re going to know if they come forward, it's not going to be something that is shared or becomes knowable to a broader public audience," Burns said. "If you're going to protect people that have the courage to come forward, you've got to be serious about it."
Meantime, local activists have said an investigation would do more harm than good.
"We don't need an investigation where we revictimize your victim, intimidate her into not cooperating, and help you do a coverup," an anonymous email to Hanson, sent to local news media last month, said. "Your own statements already mean the only right thing for you to do is resign."
Hanson, for his part, has said he does not plan to step down. He told Seven Days last month that he'd welcome an investigation "to find out the truth" and "provide additional clarity for the public." Reached Friday, Hanson said he has not yet heard from VPIRG's investigator but that he's "willing and ready to fully participate."
Burns said he expects the inquiry to be complete sometime next month.
Correction, August 6, 2021: Jack Hanson's accuser served as a volunteer on his election campaign, not on a campaign for reelection. Further, an earlier version of this post misattributed the information about the person's campaign work to Hanson's Facebook post. The post has been corrected.