Attorneys on both sides dug the dirt in the second day of a trial over allegations by former WeHo City Council deputy Michelle Rex that she was improperly fired for defending her friend and colleague, Ian Owens, for his secret monitoring of the conversations of a third colleague at City Hall.
The revelation in 2015 that Owens had monitored phone calls made by Fran Solomon, deputy to Councilmember John Heilman, opened up an investigation into the imbroglio that came to be called “Deputygate” and resulted in the dissolution of the 30-year-old City Council deputy system and the trial that began yesterday and is likely to continue for two weeks. Rex is said to be seeking $3 million in damages and lawyer’s fees.
Under questioning from Rex’s attorneys, Owens depicted himself as a “whistle blower” and offered details of what he said were efforts by Solomon to “extort” money from real estate developers and to campaign from her City Hall office on behalf of Heilman, who was running for re-election in March 2015. He also described what he said was sexual harassment by his boss, Councilmember John Duran.
In his testimony about Solomon, Owens said that he was part of a conference call in October 2013 involving the Council deputies and Robin Conerly, executive director of the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, to plan the WHCHC’s annual fundraising gala. He said that on that call Solomon suggested her fellow deputies push people to donate at least $25,000 and that they ask developers of projects on the city’s Eastside who needed the city’s backing to donate more. Owens said he complained to Duran about that Solomon’s behavior and that he, Rex and Michael Haibach, deputy to then-Councilmember Jeffrey Prang, resigned from the gala committee because of it.
Owens said that in November 2014 he heard Solomon make telephone calls soliciting campaign donations for Heilman, who was running for re-election in March 2015. Owens then decided to make a list of calls made by Solomon, whose office was adjacent to his, in several of which she allegedly asked people to participate in a photo shoot for a promotional mailer for Heilman’s re-election campaign. It was Owens’ distribution of that list to media organizations on Jan. 24, 2015, using a fake email address, that led to his being temporarily suspended and to City Manager Paul Arevalo’s decision to hire a private investigator to look into the deputy system. Owens also made a formal request to the City Clerk for a list of the telephone numbers to which Solomon had made calls. He received that list but most numbers were redacted because the calls were determined to be personal.
Owens denied allegations by Solomon that he may have wiretapped her or bugged her office. He didn’t need to, he said. “Ms. Solomon is a very loud individual. I originally had my desk adjacent to the wall with hers…. She was so loud that I had to move it … You could hear Fran audibly from the hallways with all the doors closed.”
Owens said his sexual relationship with Duran began and ended in April 2012, shortly after he had moved to West Hollywood from Las Vegas. “We met on a gay hookup app, networking app, called Grindr,” he testified. Owens said that he had sex with Duran once. However, he was looking for a job and began to hang out with Duran, going to social events and dinners with him.
“He continued to send me texts, contact me (after the sexual encounter),” Owens said. “…. I learned that he was mayor, what he said was mayor, of West Hollywood. Actually he was a city council member.”
Owens said he learned that Duran was looking for a deputy, a well-paid position in which he would manage the council member’s calendar, meet with constituents on his behalf and arrange events for him. He said that Paul Arevalo interviewed him at Duran’s request. On Aug. 6, 2012, the day Owens started the job, LuNita Bock, the city’s director of administration, who oversaw human resources and the City Clerk’s office, asked Owens to submit a formal application and resume.
Bock, who spent the morning testifying today, said that while Owens was on paid administrative leave while the city investigated his allegations about Solomon and his behavior at City Hall, his employment resume is what led to Owens eventually being fired. Bock said the city learned during the investigation that Owens had lied on the resume.
“He had said he had graduated from college and had not. And that is an important requirement….,” she said. “He also had misrepresented why he had left other employers. He had been fired from at least one.”
Bock, who was asked by one of Rex’s attorneys if she had described Owens as an “institutional terrorist,” said that actually was the description made by one of his former employers.
Ian Owens Alleges Sexual Misbehavior by John Duran
Owens said that once he was on the job he was bothered by Duran’s sexual comments. “He would comment on the way my butt fit into my suits. He constantly tried to get me to show him pictures,” Owens said. “He told me about visiting a glory hole on the east side of West Hollywood.”
Owens said that on one occasion he and fellow city employees Brendan Rome, Mike Gerle and Rex were in the office with Duran when he showed them photos from Grindr of men he had had sex with. Owens said he was required to update Duran’s contact information, which also exposed him to Duran’s sex life because those contacts included information and photos from Grindr and notes such as “great body, great blow job”.
Owens said he often told Duran that his comments were inappropriate and asked him to stop making them in front of other City Hall employees and lobbyists. “He would laugh it off,” he said.
Owens said he didn’t complain about Duran’s behavior to Bock because he knew that Duran and she were close friends, which Bock affirmed in her own testimony. And he said that he hadn’t complained to Arevalo about Solomon’s alleged solicitation of money for WHCHC because he assumed Duran would have done that.
Owens said that it was clear his relationship with Duran was over when he received an email from his boss on the day that he had sent out the list of Solomon’s telephone calls. That same day WEHOville learned that Owens was the source of the email and published a story about it. Owens lawyer showed the jury a list of text messages between the two that day:
Duran: “I am very angry and unhappy about the article in Wehoville. Your actions make me look bad and unprofessional. This is very upsetting.”
(Link to WEHOville story) “Ugh.”
Owens: “Well I did document her behavior which is 100% true. How it got out – I don’t know.”
“And I love how you are coming down on me… she is the one performing illegal activities.”
“If anything, I’m being the ethical one!
“Protecting her behavior and coming down on me is what makes you look bad.”
“I’m free to talk if you want.”
Former City Human Resources Official Contests Claim Rex and Solomon Were ‘Whistle Blowers’
While Rex’s lawyer focused on the allegations about Solomon and Duran, the city’s lawyers focused on Rex’s complaint that she was unfairly terminated because she was a “whistle blower” who spoke up in support of Owens. Under questioning from Jill Williams, Bock explained that council deputies were “at will” employees, which meant that they could be terminated at any time for any reason so long as it wasn’t a discriminatory one. She said the reason that Rex lost her job was because the City Council in June 2015, faced with outrage from the community over the deputy system, voted to eliminate it.
Bock said that Rex and the other deputies were notified after the City Council decision that they would be laid off in 45 days. That notification was rescinded when the city was pressured by the deputies’ union to negotiate the matter as required under its contract with the city. Bock said that Rex could have applied to be part of the pool of employees assisting council members during the six-month period that ended in December 2015 in which the deputy system was suspended, but she elected instead to go on paid leave.
Bock said that Rex also could have requested to be put on a “reinstatement list”, which includes employees who have left city government but want to be considered again for a job on the same level or a lower level than their previous job. She said that Rex also could have applied for any open position, but that she didn’t do either.
Bock also contradicted claims by Rex and Owens that they were “whistle blowers”. She said that Rex never made any complaints to her about conduct by Solomon or Duran. She said that she did receive an email about an exchange between Owens and Solomon that she thinks either she or Arevalo talked to the two deputies about. But she said that Owens never complained to her or anyone else in human resources that Solomon “was engaged in electioneering or soliciting money from developers or any other misconduct other than the verbal exchange” between the two.
She said that the first time she heard of Owens’ complaint that Duran sexually harassed him was when his attorney filed a complaint with the city while Owens was placed on leave to investigate his monitoring of Solomon’s phone calls and allegations that she was campaigning for her boss while on city time.
Bock said there were many ways for an employee to file a complaint of sexual harassment. They included going to ones’ supervisor or manager, going to the human resources staff, going to the employee’s union representative, going to an outside ombudsman engaged by the city to take such complaints or file complaints with state or federal agencies. She said new employees receive a copy of the city’s sexual harassment policy and supervisors receive training on it.
Bock acknowledged that she was a close friend of Duran, who she has known since when she was 16 and her best friend worked with him at McDonald’s. She said she continues to socialize with him.
She said that if she had received a complaint about Duran “I would have responded by letting the City Manager and the City Attorney know of the complaint and then we would have determined the next best action.” Bock said that because of her friendship with Duran she wouldn’t have been involved in any investigation of him.
Bock also denied and said she was offended by an allegation by Owens that Duran had touched Bock’s breasts and made a joke about them in front of Owens.
“Absolutely I would take offense to that — as a professional, as a mother of two daughters, I would take offense to that.”
The trial will resume on Monday at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Mayor Lauren Meister is likely to be called to testify.