VPIRG Completes Probe of Burlington Councilor, But Withholds Results | Off Message

VPIRG Completes Probe of Burlington Councilor, But Withholds Results


Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District)
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group has completed an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Burlington City Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District), but the nonprofit isn't releasing the probe's findings.

Hanson, a former VPIRG employee, was recently accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate after a party in 2017. In a social media post last July, the anonymous accuser said Hanson initiated sexual contact when the person was incapacitated and vulnerable. Hanson, who was not a councilor at the time, allegedly told the person not to tell anyone what had happened because he could get fired.

Hanson has refuted the allegations, saying that the person consented to being physically intimate, and they didn’t have sex. He said he asked the person not to tell their colleagues because “it could make things uncomfortable in the workplace.”

At the time, a supervisor questioned Hanson about the incident but didn’t discipline him. VPIRG didn't receive any complaints about the incident at the time. But after other complaints related to the culture of the 2017 canvass, the organization implemented some changes, including creating a policy that bans inappropriate relationships between supervisors and subordinates.

The nonprofit agreed to investigate after the allegations went public over the summer. Activists had confronted Hanson at a city council meeting and demanded he resign, leading both City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) and Mayor Miro Weinberger to call for an independent investigation. Tracy floated the idea of a city-led inquiry, but he said councilors weren’t on board.

Weinberger ultimately urged VPIRG to investigate. The group's executive director, Paul Burns, initially declined over concerns that an inquiry would violate the alleged victim’s privacy and would force the organization to assess Hanson’s fitness for office. The mayor pressed, and Burns agreed to hire a third-party investigator — but said the org would not share any findings.
The investigation was completed in early October, though VPIRG didn't notify city officials "since we had made very clear this was an internal inquiry," Burns said.

Tracy only learned that the investigation was complete when Seven Days contacted him this week. He said on Wednesday that he’d hoped the public would have more answers. Tracy plans to poll his fellow councilors about whether they’d support a follow-up investigation funded by city dollars — a proposition they previously dismissed.

“Now that we know that we’re not going to get anything public from VPIRG, I think it’s worth checking back in and seeing if there is interest in that,” Tracy said.

Weinberger's chief of staff, Jordan Redell, said Friday that the mayor thinks VPIRG could have found a way to release information about its findings while still protecting employee privacy. She said Weinberger would "provide support as needed" if the council moves to investigate Hanson but that "it would not be appropriate for the Mayor to unilaterally decide to investigate a City Councilor in this circumstance."

In an interview this week, Burns said the investigator interviewed Hanson and “maybe a half a dozen” other people; the alleged victim, meanwhile, chose not to participate. No one outside of VPIRG, including Hanson and the person, have seen the findings, he said.
The inquiry may eventually inform other policies at VPIRG “but that process has not yet been completed,” Burns said. The investigation was meant “to help us be a better organization for the people who work here,” he added, not to provide a full accounting of the incident.

“It’s not our goal, as a private nonprofit organization, to conduct an investigation for use by the City of Burlington to determine what maybe should or shouldn't happen to a sitting city councilor,” Burns said. “If the city wants to conduct an investigation, the city is empowered to do that.”

Hanson, who had said he welcomed an independent investigation, said via text message on Thursday that he's glad the inquiry happened but wishes the results were made public. He said he had no comment about Tracy’s plan to gauge interest in another investigation, and stopped responding when asked to discuss the matter in a phone interview.

Tracy wouldn't elaborate when asked how the allegations have affected Hanson's relationship with council Progressives.

“I can only really speak for myself about it,” Tracy said. “It’s been really challenging to navigate the situation.”

Clarification, January 10, 2022: More context was added to better explain when and why VPIRG implemented some changes.