Michelle Rex Trial Begins with a Focus on WeHo Councilmember John Duran

Today’s opening statement by the lawyer representing former City Council deputy Michelle Rex in her lawsuit against the City of West Hollywood indicates that he will try to direct the jury’s attention to allegations that Councilmember John Duran sexually harassed his deputy, Ian Owens.

“This is about sexual harassment, retaliation and termination, said Mark Quigley, a lawyer known for having obtained a $7 million verdict in a sexual harassment and wrongful termination case involving celebrity yoga guru Bikram Choudhury.

Rex claims that she was fired from her job as deputy to City Councilmember John D’Amico after speaking out in support of Owens. Owens was suspended temporarily from his deputy position in January 2015 after WEHOville revealed that he was the source of a mass email sent under a fake name that included allegations that Fran Solomon, deputy to Councilmember John Heilman, was inappropriately campaigning for her boss from her City Hall office.

Michelle Rex (right) waiting outside the courtroom at Stanley Mosk Courthouse.

The suspension, allegations by Solomon that Owens had been spying on her and allegations by Owens that the city tolerated improper political behavior by Solomon and that Duran had sexually harassed him, led the city to hire a private investigator to look into the situation.

“An investigation ensued, and Ms. Rex was pulled into the investigation,” Quigley said. “She actually testified against the council member who was a friend of hers” (a reference to Duran).

The allegations sparked a heated debate about what some called “Deputygate”. Among the criticisms of the deputy system were that some of the deputies, who made as much as $190,000 a year, including benefits, didn’t come to work until 11 a.m., took long lunches, didn’t respond to residents’ telephone calls, engaged in illegal campaign activities for their bosses, spied on one another’s telephone calls, sniped at one another and interfered with the work of other city employees to promote the political interests of the Council member to whom they reported.

In June 2015 the City Council voted to do away with the 30-year-old deputy system. Owens and Rex claim the system was abolished as way to end their employment at City Hall. Owens later sued the city and Duran for wrongful termination and sexual harassment. At the recommendation of its insurance provider, the city settled the lawsuit with a payment of $500,000. Both the city and Duran rejected Owens’ allegations. Rex reportedly is seeking $3 million for “emotional distress” and future lost income.

Quigley told the jury today that it would hear evidence that Duran was dismissive when Owens claimed that Solomon had pressured Council deputies to raise money for the non-profit West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation from companies doing business with the city. He also criticized City Manager Paul Arevalo for allegedly pushing to end the deputy system to get rid of Rex and Owens. Quigley described the deputy system as a well-functioning system that enabled city residents to get quick responses about issues and to get contact with Council members, who all have other full-time jobs.

Steven Rothans, the lawyer representing the city, told the jury that it would hear evidence that the deputy system had long been dysfunctional. He described the deputies as being “primarily personal assistants” to Council members. “They would take them to the airport. They would pick them up at the airport. They would pick up the laundry. They would take the dog for a walk,” he said.

A few of the more than 21 boxes of files delivered to Michelle Rex’s lawyer.

Rothans argued that the deputy system was unparalleled in small cities with a council-manager form of government and had been controversial inside City Hall from the start. “There was a fist fight at City Hall, there were Council deputies who screamed and yelled at one another,” he said. Rothans said deputies sometimes worked on the same project without informing one another and also interfered in the work of other City Hall employees.

Rothans agreed with Quigley that while Rex now claims she had been upset about Duran’s alleged harassment of Owens, she actually had been a friend of Duran’s. “That horrible harasser was her friend, went to parties, went to bars, danced on tables with him,” he said. Rothans said that Rex didn’t speak to city human resources officials or send a single written complaint about Duran to city officials until after the Owens issue emerged.

Rothans acknowledged that Solomon had broken the rules by contacting local residents to appear in a photo shoot for a campaign mailer for Heilman, details of which Owens had included in his email under a fake name. He said she apologized for that and had been reprimanded by Arevalo and Heilman.

The trial is expected to last as long as two weeks, and there are 67 possible witnesses on the list. Ian Owens is expected to testify tomorrow along with Councilmember Lindsey Horvath and LuNita Bock, the former city administrative services director  who later was retained to deal with the deputy situation.

The list of witnesses includes all City Council members and most major City Hall department heads. Others on Rex’s witness include Kiran Hashmi, former deputy to Councilmember Abbe Land; Hernan Molina and Michael Haibach, former deputies to Councilmembers John Duran and Jeffrey Prang, respectively; Scott Schmidt, the temporary deputy to Mayor Lauren Meister, and Solomon.

Also on Rex’s witness list are City Manager Paul Arevalo; former Assistant City Manager Sam Baxter and Lisa Belsanti, the city’s communications director. Other City Hall employees who may be called are Seantea Burroughs, Mike Gerle, Margarita Kustanovich, Andi Lovano, Bobby Safikhani, Christof Schroeder, Susan Schumacher and Beth Theriac.

Others on the Rex list are former Councilmember Abbe Land, L.A. County Assessor Jeffrey Prang (a former WeHo City Council member) and John Noguez, Prang’s predecessor as assessor. Noguez was arrested in 2012 on charges of reducing property taxes in exchange for contributions and other favors.

Several people on the City of West Hollywood’s witness list are the same as those on the Rex list. Other notables include Paul Brotzman, the city’s first city manager, during whose tenure the deputy system was created. In an interview with WEHOville in 2015, Brotzman said the system had pros and cons but overall had a negative impact on City Hall because its political nature. Also on the list is Steve Afriat, the prominent lobbyist who has managed the election campaigns of some WeHo City Council members. Josh Kurpies, district director for state Assemblymember Richard Bloom and a former deputy to Prang also is listed.

Other community members on the city’s list include Estevan Montemayor, manager of Councilmember Horvath’s campaign, who is the chair of WeHo’s Public Safety Commission and communications director for L.A. Councilmember David Ryu; Josh Morgerman, a marketing consultant whose firm has done work for the city;  Duke Mason, a member of the city’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board and a former candidate, and Renee Nahum, Rex’s former partner in her election campaign management business.

  1. Well, at least the trial is going to resolve the issue without the city acting alone in judging and deciding the case.

    YES – any pay out will not come from weho treasury, but from insurance.

    However, there have been many payouts, so it would be impossible to believe all future Insurance Premiums the city will pay will be Much higher (who knows how high, due to how many more such cases keep popping up)

    So in the big picture, the city and thus the residents will suffer a financial burden from John Duran’s repeated inappropriate behavior of all kinds (most not illegal – but kinda crazy sounding to me).

    Let’s wait for the California Court to judge and decide and stop a trial by public opinion.

    Whatever the outcome (given Trump’s repeated refusing to acknowledge our Justice Department Works, and calls court rulings all sorts of bad things and ‘wrong’.

    Let’s be our own example, and accept the courts ruling either way AS THE STORY, TRUTH, FACTS and DECISION of compensation or not.

    Maybe then we can move on from opinion to normal American Constitutional government with it’s three branches to provide checks and balances. We should actually enjoy it now, because (opinion here) with trump – it may never be the same again.

  2. @steve….i was told later that she was in school full time while serving as your deputy. i only wish i knew then to contact you personally, as the only time i ever caught her was on the elevator leaving as I was heading to meet with other deputies. But, who knew? The past is the past.

  3. Steve, I worked for thirty years for a government agency. Sleeping and hiring friends and relatives was common practice. If one was smart they did to get a promotion or even move on to another agency including the federal government. It’s my belief that the temporary layoff I experienced was partially due to the fact I observed a department manager existing my building after visiting a person from the Executive staff for most the day.

    From most accounts the Duran / Owens sexual relationship was a one night stand. Perhaps John did make inappropriate remarks but that did not come to light until Owens antics were revealed. And it was common knowledge Ms. Rex and Ms Solomon did not get along because their bosses didn’t.

    As a manager I was expected to be at work on time and if I had to attend a meeting after hours that was part of the job. Also I was on call 24/7 without extra compensation. The deputies were well paid, in fact over paid. Ridding the city of those unneeded , over paid leaches is the best thing the city could have done. It’s now time to examine the salaries of each and every city employee and determine if they are over paid as well.

  4. Jimmy, deputies hours were pretty much Monday through Friday 9 to 5 or 6 pm (depending if the council member was in the office in the afternoon). Often they were in internal meetings and often they came in late, particularly after late night Council meetings. For the most part nearly all the deputies when I was there put in more than 40 hours a week, often attending community meetings after hours. So the hours were not set in stone. But if you had left a voice message, then your message should have been returned. But your point is well taken, it was not like the having deputies was some “golden era”; there were problems with lack of supervision and some deputies being taken advantage of to serve as taxi services and the like. But overall the system was far more professional than it was in the end. When I was there deputies had weekly lunches together, the doors to our office were always left open and the deputies did their best to work together even if there were conflicts between Council members, (that has never changed). I do believe the public was better served when each Council member had a deputy; John Heilman was a huge defender of the program until Fran Solomon was essentially terminated for illegal campaigning at City Hall on City time.

    My opinion about hiring campaign staff as deputies was never a secret and was not popular with my friends. I never hired a deputy that I had a social relationship with as I did not believe hiring friends was appropriate or professional. What I find unfortunate is that the former deputies are being demonized when in fact the problems with the program was directly related to the Council members and their antics. Ian Owens was a whistle blower and he received a just settlement as per our insurance carrier. John Heilman is a respected law school professor; you can’t tell me he did not know using Fran Solomon as a campaign worker was legal. John Duran is also an experienced attorney; as part of our mandated legal education we must take sexual harassment training and a basic rule is that you can’t hire someone you have slept with unless you notify Human Relations. In the real world hiding a prior sexual relationship with an underling is grounds for immediate termination. But then again, very little that goes on at City Hall these days relates to the real world.

  5. Chris its called democracy and he overheard her calls, what she was doing was illegal. We dont lose BTW the residents lose when they let the same faces stay in the same place and our city is over-developed. Hatred is a strong word. I’m for transparency and a healthy democracy. I know your pro Heilman and Duran and they could do no wrong its clear by everyone of of your posts on here. But can you honestly say to your self yah Mr Duran should of hired a city employee he had sex with first? That.s a basic moral ideal. If you think its right, we are not on the same moral compass. In the end “we the residents” have won as well, the meters were reprogrammed to stop over charging, plummer park isnt a parking lot, we have term limits so the next generation doesn’t have to live with our flawed elections process, we have great #PrEP awareness occurring, some tow away traps have been removed, their is a historic preservation focus now in weho. We have new trees also planted in Plummer park and new grass. Great Hall Long Hall is on the historic register, so it cant be bulldozed like MR Duran along with Heilman tried for political payback at one point. I could go on and on, we the residents have won many things. Elections come and go, but legacy’s are forever. If your not a lawyer my point was maybee your not in the place to make legal judgement s. But there are two facts that are not alt facts. 1.Fran was fundraising at city hall. That’s Illegal. 2. She got caught and Owens was the one who caught her, he was spun to be the bad guy. And it would be my opinion the deputys were sacked to try and pour water on the fire that Duran set into motion along with the trust here by the creator of “Deaputgate”

  6. Duran won because of the massive amount of billboard and real estate money that flooded our election. That he even ran again is the problem in my view. We can disagree. But the honorable thing would have been to step down. If you want to see why Duran won follow the money. Historical non-incumbents have an almost impossible chance of being elected. Individuals on city council for decades is not democracy is organized cronyism. Thaits why we joined together as a community an approved term limits. Abbe Land had the decency to not run again. Heilman lost and said he wouldn’t run again but did anyways. And Mr Duran god bless him for all hes done for this and that and so on. But it serves no one in the democracy when you hold on to power at all costs. Career politicians in a small city is just not a healthy democracy in my view. In the end Mr Duran would of been terminated in the real world. But in Weho World the lines of ethics have been blurred by out of town money in our elections, city contractors who flow money to keep them, real estate money forcing massive density. And donations to Mr Duran’s Favorite charities as another way to peddle power, and a gay west Hollywood that’s lost its identity because our stewards for decades on council have been bought out. To those that want to advance the agenda that all this out of town money was used to get Mr Duran re-elected had no strings attached I would say #resist the denial your in. Also individuals in the end dont run for council, not cause the ones we have are the best, but they dont run cause the system is rigged for them not to have a chance to win. The average citizen in #weho gave up a long time ago on the idea that we have a real democracy they dont even vote. And Mr Duran won by 600 votes in a city of 36,000. No candidate even got half the vote. there was no landslide. Our elections are a show. Its broken until we have campaign finance reform, and the long term power hoarders let go of their seats on the dais at city hall

  7. To Jessica Mitford aka Michael aka a host of other dodgy names: WeHo’s quotient of Muckrakers has currently exceeded capacity.

  8. Steve, I enjoyed your comment. And thanks so much for “Concerned Citizens” for sharing.

    Do you think if my beloved young nephew, Magnus, went on Grindr there would be a possibility of his getting a job with the City of West Hollywood? He is taking the California Bar but has a $257,000 student loan debt! He didn’t go to Oxford but some place called Western University, founded by John Wayne. It’s in Orange County.

    Bottom line, Magnus needs a job!

    Do you know if John Duran has gone to Grindr Anonymous or is still open for dallying in a Human Resources payoff? Perhaps John D’Amico and Lindsay Horvath could check to see if Duran is still trolling on Grindr at the WEHO City Council meetings, or maybe now he abstains. Grindrpsychosis is such a cunning obsession, but it was certainly profitable for dear Ian. What an excellent package Ian has going for him! Amour with a middle age man’s Grindr’s attentions, a $150,000-year job for walking dogs, taking Duran to the airport and then a half a million dollar plus severance to get out of Dodge aka WEHO after being hounded by a Grindrolic.

    As a newcomer to this quaint village, so charming and sweet, especially with apartment complexes so regally named, the Avalon and the Crown, I truly believe there is hope for my nephew!

    He’s the spitting image of James Duke Mason. Not related to a film star, James Mason, but Magnus is titled, not a Duke but an Earl, so if he married some man in WEHO, with a large dowry, his mate would become a Countess-Man!

    WEHO is certainly a bottomless pit for the lolly!

    Can’t wait to be in court net week! Look for me.

  9. One need not have a law degree to know that Rex did in trying to get into Solomon’s files is illegal. Had Solomon did that to Rex, I’d have said the same thing.Unlike you, I don’t judge actions on the basis of who did them and which side they support. This incessant hatred of Heilman and Duran that you and Steve and a handful of others live for and use to assess every aspect of WeHo life is why you guys rarely if ever win. Had the deputies not been disbanded, Rex would have been fired for cause for good reason.

  10. Steve, I think you are a nice man, but I need to tell you. Years ago, I can’t tell you how many times I tried to get in touch with your then deputy Sarah, I believe her name was, and was continually told, none of us know Sarah’s hours. She comes and goes when she pleases. I was not informed enough at the time to come directly to you.

  11. Nonsense Steve. That sort of wacky reasoning is why the voters of this city consistently reject you. The problem came from Rex embarking on an illegal vengeful plot to destroy someone she perceived as a rival, and enlisted Duran’s deputy to help her. Her actions were what caused her deserved firing.

  12. Shawn, regarding Duran, the real question I have is why people voted him back in. Harassment or not, he put the city in a vulnerable position with this hire, and it was unprofessional to not disclose his prior sexual relationship to human resources. I guess people don’t care, or they weren’t offered another candidate they thought was a better option.

    I read Rex’s lawsuit in its entirety (which was filed in March, 2016). She makes some interesting claims and assertions.

    Her suit leaves me with some questions:

    – Why would her boss vote to dismantle the deputy system if this was “revenge” on her and Owens?

    – What proof does she have that Horvath proposed dismantling the system because “she is an ally of Heilman?” Maybe Horvath proposed it because it wasn’t working?

    – Dismantling the system eliminated two other deputy positions. She wants everyone to believe that eliminating the entire system was revenge on her and Owens, yet two other employees lost their jobs in the process? And, once again, if she thinks she was targeted by Duran and Heilman, that Horvath was just acting as an ally of Heilman? And, once again, what about her boss? Why did he vote for it?

    – She contends that her and Owens were the “only full time deputies” when the Council voted to dismantle it. This, I don’t understand. Did Meister and Horvath not have full-time support from their deputies at that time? Maybe it was a transitional thing, because they had just been elected to the Council? She’s also leaving out the fact that the city had an open seat on the council just prior to this vote, with Prang’s exit. In other words, they were running with only four council members, so that’s one more full-time deputy they would have had, had there been a fifth Councilmember. Heilman was re-elected just before this vote, and was waiting for this issue to be decided before hiring a deputy.

    – She wants us to believe that Owens was sexually harassed, yet he made no mention or complaint of this prior to feeling like he was targeted by the city after ratting out Fran Solomon? Talk about “revenge.” An argument could be made that Owens retaliated against the city with his harassment claim. An argument could be made that this lawsuit is just a retaliation, because she is disgruntled over losing her job.

    I know that there were stories of dysfunction in the system long before all of this drama. D’Amico is on record at a City Council meeting of accusing Solomon of harassing Rex.

    It sounds like there was drama from the time D’Amico was elected because he and Heilman didn’t get along. Which is a good argument as to why the deputy system was dysfunctional. Having employees dedicated to specific Councilmembers could result in fighting and animosity in City Hall, with Councilmembers forming alliances (such as Heilman, Land and Horvath, who all campaigned together in 2011), and having enemies.

  13. If the attorney for the City is correct about deputies doing laundry for Council members and otherwise served as personal valets and campaign workers, then the City Manager was absolutely implicit and totally abdicated his responsibilities to the people of West Hollywood. But the real responsibility would lie with the entitled Council members who abused the system. The deputy system had its’ downsides but ultimately it made City Hall a lot more accessible to the public and kept the Council members better informed about the real issues facing the community. While the City now piously claims the system was broken and dysfunctional, the biggest offenders appear to be John Duran and John Heilman, who only turned against the system when the abuses in their offices came to light. The soap opera continues….

  14. The city’s insurance company is calling the shots. They are cold hearted but smart folks. They clearly determined that Rex’s case was baseless and decided it was worth the risk to go forward and not settle. Her lawyer’s opening statements do not constitute proof, and my guess is that the city’s lawyers will challenge the relevance of his widely cast net charges. If she looks like she is going to win, mostly likely the city will offer to settle.
    From everything we’ve learned about her getting her out was worth the cost.
    The testimony that will be most interesting will be that of the member who appointed her, John D’Amico,

  15. With the salaries paid to West Hollywood employees they should all be required to re-apply for their jobs at a salary comparable to the private sector.

  16. So the city’s case is based on the argument that the deputy system had long been dysfunctional! That deputies were mere errand boys and dog walkers for council members! With top salaries and benefits and their own union? If that is their argument then what does this say about the city manager who presided over this mess?

  17. “$3 million for “emotional distress” and future lost income.”??
    She’ll certainly never get hired when any prospective employer Googles her and this lawsuit shows up.

  18. Duran should of resigned when it came to light his prior relationship with Owens. He set this ball rolling. Why he didn’t do the honorable thing has left many in the community stunned at his seeming idea that he is above what in the private sector would be grounds for termination. And to this day we still see its effect both on the city’s reputation and the ideals of a gay man in leadership. In the end ” Deputy gate” is a term that was created here on weho-ville,. No where else. And as been revealed the top staff at city hall are paid the max allowable by law under their civil service job goes. In fact some are over the max;s/ If city hall is so dysfunction firing all the deputy’s was a nice effort to pivot from the deeper organizational flaws that are apparent in this building. Maybe its time to look into the deeper story which is City Hall Gate?

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