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.
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.
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.