A former Wetaskiwin councillor and mayoral candidate remained on city council after he was charged with sexual assault, but Joe Branco and the RCMP kept it quiet, CBC News has learned.
Court documents show Coun. Branco was charged with sexual assault on May 25 for an offence that spanned three years, between July 1, 2011 and December 31, 2014.
But the two-term councillor served in office for another two months. On July 20, Branco stepped down, telling local media he still intended to run for mayor.
‘I’m already hurting my family’
On Wednesday, CBC News reached Branco by phone. He denied the sex assault allegation.
“I did not sexually assault her,” said Branco, who is married, in a brief call. He declined a request for a face-to-face interview. “I had an affair with a lady and four years later she accuses me of sexual assault.”
Branco said he didn’t resign because of the charge but revealed he now plans to quit politics for good.
“I’m already hurting my family,” he said. “I did some stupid things in my life. It’s a mistake I made I’ll regret for the rest of my life.”
Branco’s explanation contradicts comments made at the time of his resignation.
In July, Branco told the Wetaskiwin Times newspaper his business, Jo’s Concrete Services, was busier than anticipated and he “needed a break.”
Five days later, on June 25, Branco’s lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Branco was not in court.
He has selected a trial to be heard by a judge and jury in a Court of Queen’s Bench. Branco is due in court on September 29 for a preliminary hearing.
‘Innocent until proven guilty’
On Wednesday, Wetaskiwin Mayor Bill Elliot disputed Branco’s version of events, explaining the resignation occurred at a breakfast meeting and stemmed from a “breach of confidentiality.”
But even then, according to Elliot — a two-term mayor who spent 28 years on council but said he has no plans to run again — Branco didn’t reveal he’d been charged.
“We did not know while he was serving on council that there were any charges against him,” Elliot told CBC News Wednesday.
“He’s believed to be innocent until proven guilty but I think in a leadership role at least we should have been advised that there was something going on. I don’t feel we should have been kept in the dark and been surprised.”
Allegations against Branco first surfaced on a Facebook page called Wetaskiwin Confessions about two weeks ago. But according to the mayor, council only confirmed the charges through a criminal record check on their own initiative last week.
“I wish we would officially know from the RCMP that it happened. Then I think we could go from there. We have not received any notification whatsoever from the RCMP that charges have been laid,” said Elliot, explaining it is up to police to notify the city manager of criminal activity, as well as the public.
“When charges are laid, it should be the RCMP who are letting the media know.”
An RCMP spokesperson said police would respond to the criticism Thursday.
Elliot said the breach of confidentiality arose from in-camera discussion about the price of property. Information got out prior to meeting with a developer and the price quadrupled, sinking the deal.
So when Branco cited personal reasons for leaving, it came as a surprise to the rest council, said Elliot.
“It was hard on the rest of council because we pretty much kept it quiet and didn’t say anything,” he said. “We just felt out of respect for him that we weren’t going to say very much.”
Elliot described Branco as a really good dad and grandfather, as well as a kind, big-hearted individual who donates “much of his time and finances” to the community, as well as to children in Mexico.
“I think I would believe that Joe is innocent until he’s proven guilty.”