Ian Owens Testifies in ‘Deputygate’ Trial, Alleging Sexual Misconduct and Electioneering at City Hall

deputygate, west hollywood city council,
Former West Hollywood City Council deputies Michelle Rex (left) and Ian Owens.

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.

deputygate, michelle rex
Michelle Rex, center, in the hallway at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse.

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.

  1. Chris, OK, based on the testimony yesterday, I was incorrect about it being illegal activity, just a “violation of the city’s administrative regulations regulating campaign activity.” Still wrongdoings by his deputy, and maybe something he doesn’t need to apologize for. But everything I read up until yesterday said that she was reprimanded for this action, so I assumed it was illegal activity. I was incorrect.

    You say that Heilman was “easily reelected twice in the last two years,” but you leave out the fact that the he lost the first election in 2015. That didn’t make his 2015 re-election easy. In fact, he was re-elected in the second election, where he faced little competition. If Prang hadn’t left, we would have been without Heilman until at least this most recent election cycle.

    You are also making assumptions when you point the finger at D’Amico. Am I the only one who remembers that Heilman refused to talk to D’Amico for his first year or two in office? And at that time, D’Amico accused Solomon of harassing his deputy? You assume it happened in the opposite direction. I can only assume that the animosity between these two Councilmembers trickled down to their deputies.

    Neither of us know what really happened, or who started what, as we weren’t sitting in those offices when they did. In fact, the Councilmembers themselves probably don’t know what really happened, because they weren’t present for most of it either (while they were at their full-time jobs). They only have to go on the word of their deputies.

    My point about this mess in City hall remains the same. Everyone knew there was drama. Nobody knows for sure who started it, who was out of line, or if they were all out of line. But everyone knew there was a mess, and nobody did anything about it. And now it is a huge mess to clean up. That should have been dealt with years ago, or they might not be dealing with everything that his happening now. That is a dysfunction in management, and deserves to be criticized, when we are talking about managing a system that uses taxpayer money.

    I didn’t say Duran is a “bad person.” I have repeatedly said that he made a poor decision that put the city in a vulnerable position. I’ve even said that I don’t know if he sexually harassed his employee. But it shows a level of arrogance for him not to admit that he made a bad judgment call in not reporting their sexual history to HR. And if you believe the testimony in this trial so far, and the investigator’s conclusions, it also showed poor judgment to talk about his sex life at work to city employees, even if that does not constitute sexual harassment. That displays yet another level of arrogance. Unless I missed something, Duran has only publicly acted like a victim in this case, and hasn’t apologized for anything except hiring Owens (I believe, if I remember correctly).

  2. Heilman has nothing to apologize for. You’re now just making things up. Illegal activities? You mean unproven allegations from renegade out of control deputies with a personal vendetta against Solomon.
    John Heilman has been the single most important figure in making West Hollywood the successful city it is today. He continues to be so. For some reason that has never made any sense to me he instills deranged reactions from a small noisy group of folks. So be it. It goes with the territory. He was easily reelected twice in the last two years, so I guess he needn’t worry to much about the minority who don’t like him.
    Duran was stupid to hire Owens. He used bad judgment. But Owens on his own behaved badly as a deputy in concert with the clearly despicable Rex whom even her ex candidate and boss no longer defends.
    Somehow her behavior makes Heilman and Duran bad people. Are you kidding? She and the system she was part of fortunately are gone.
    You never criticize D’Amico who hired her in the first place. Curious that someone whose sole agenda in being elected was to destroy Heilman now after seeing the council close up turned out to endorse him, and even Duran after his inappropriate actions.
    Why some of you want to turn over the city out of derangement to people like Meister, Martin and Blatt who though politically of a different ideology than Trump represent exactly the same bust up everything know nothingism of Trump and his kind defies logic.
    West Hollywood is in great shape. It has urban problems and is hardly perfect, but it is vastly better for the service of Heilman, Duran, Abbe Land, Jeffrey Prang and now Lindsay Horvath. I’ve seen it close up, as well as governance in other similar cities.
    West Hollywood is superior to them all, and the leadership of the city is the main reason.

  3. Chris, it matters not to me if insurance is covering this lawsuit. My criticism was more broadly based on how much all of this mess is going to cost the city, not just with money, but the damage to their reputation and good will to the public, the lack of trust from residents, and the embarrassing details that are coming out. It doesn’t “thrill me” to see the expensive severances they have to pay. What would “thrill me” would be if they had not let things get to this level in the first place. It looks like some of the deputies were acting like children. It looks like they lacked the proper supervision. But it was no secret that there was high drama in City Hall, long before Owens’ whistle-blowing, and it should have been dealt with then.

    You might not be specifically defending Duran here, but I see a lot of your comments that often seem to defend the city against any type of criticism, just because “they are doing well financially.” I don’t care if the city is rolling in cash. They need to be responsible with how they use that money, and their resources, which are paid for with taxpayer dollars. They work for us.

    It also bothers me that Duran and Heilman are both still in office, with the arrogance they have shown here. A good leader admits mistakes and owns up to them. They don’t just pretend like nothing happened, and that they didn’t do anything wrong. Duran should have publicly apologized (at the very least) for putting the city in this vulnerable position (whether he harassed Owens or not). Heilman should have apologized for his deputy’s illegal activity, even if he claims to not have known about it. Laws exist for a reason.

    Lauren Meister, by the way, not Meisner.

  4. Concerned – the topic here is the lawsuit, thus my point that references in posts here (understandable) about the city’s expense should be assuaged with the information that the city is mostly covered.
    As far as their severances, you should be thrilled that the council ended the current deputy system, since it means that cost will be greatly reduced over the years and save rather than cost the city money.
    But admitting that would mean that your legitimate concerns had been answered and the city once again proved that it most often does the right thing rather than prove that it is in some sort of desperate situation,which it is not.
    I have not defended Duran’s actions once ever in my numerous posts. That’s fiction. I wish he had not run and someone smart qualified and not a Meisner clone or worse might have won. You’re just making that up.
    But he was rightly reelected last year once he won because Blatt and Martin combined with Meisner would have operated on a level of incompetence, vindictiveness, spite (more of Martin’s part) and NIMBYish foolishness that would have destroyed the city.

  5. Chris, I don’t believe insurance is covering the huge severance packages these employees received. I’m not sure about the settlement with Solomon, either (probably).
    I’m not pointing the finger specifically at Heilman or Duran, as I wasn’t there to know who did what, or who to believe. But we all know there was massive dysfunction, and I don’t see how you can defend it. At the very least, this mess has reduced the trust that many people have in their elected officials.

    As for Solomon, D’Amico accused here of harassing his deputy years ago. There were all kinds of stories about drama going on. That should have been dealt with. People should have stepped in and fixed the problem (Councilmembers and/or the city manager). And I believe Solomon was reprimanded for campaigning on city time, meaning Owens’ accusations were true. Does anyone believe Heilman didn’t know she was doing that? Duran didn’t report his past sexual relationship of a new hire to HR. In both cases, they showed a tremendous level of arrogance. I don’t understand how or why you would defend that.

  6. @Shawn Thompson: And indeed it was I who “coined” the word “Deputygate” right on this site, When I wrote it, Hank Scott wrote back “Deputygate: ! I love it”.. And he continued to use it thereafter & it quickly caught on. Thought I’d clarify that

  7. Obviously paradise is an exaggeration. But WeHo has the best city government imaginable. Period.

    As for the millions – THE CITY ISN”T ON THE HOOK. Their insurance company is. They are calling the shots. And it is a county wide carrier so the city’s rates won’t skyrocket.

    Let’s have a fact based discussion. Not the typical Heilman and Duran are satan and ww are all going to hell one like the haters always fall back on.

  8. Chris, just because the city is doing well financially does not make it “paradise.” People that that live here pay taxes, parking tickets, permits, fees, etc.. I recognize that most of the city’s revenue comes from visitors, through occupancy tax. Regardless, we should not just roll over and accept poor management decisions. Even if Rex doesn’t win this lawsuit, dissolution of the deputy system is adding up to millions of dollars. That is unacceptable, and was avoidable. People have a right to be upset.

  9. Brian – the voters indeed get what they deserve – the best run city in Southern California in large part because of the city council. The city is thriving, has never been a more desirable place to live, the tax revenues are growing, it is incredibly sound financially. And all with a socially progressive government. Some people live in paradise and can’t accept it.

  10. And where is D’Amico in all this? He ran a campaign of hate against Heilman and then hired his campaign manager to continue the hate at city hall. If there was something ‘wrong’ then why didn’t Rex go to D’Amico. D’Amico’s actions are going to cost the city millions and millions of dollars and its time to DRAIN THE SWAMP!

  11. Allegedly discussing glory holes? Possible electioneering? Others would have been fired for less by any other legitimate organization. The fish rots from the head. And once again, the facade falls leaving behind a hot mess of embarrassment and wonder.

    This most recent council election looks more and more like Trump’s: icky candidates lifted by simpleton sellouts willing to look the other way.

    Their voters may get what they deserve, but those of us who chose differently sure don’t.

  12. Chris, yes. I think the biggest argument against her is that they threw everyone out (4 employees). I realize that was easy for Heilman to do, with his deputy’s resignation. And for Duran, with his deputy’s sexual harassment charges. But that doesn’t mean that they were specifically targeting Rex (or Owens, even). One of the biggest arguments she has against her is that her own boss voted to eliminate the deputy system, and in turn, her position.

  13. I fail to see anything in the first two days of testimony to prove Rex’s absurd claims that relate to what she wants to get a bonanza from. She is rehashing old news that has little to do with her claims, and then after with the expectation that the city has massive evidence to prove that she could easily have been fired apart from the fact that the position she held was eliminated not just for her but across the board.

    It’s amazing how the anti-council folks who for years denounced the system all of a sudden defend it when someone from their “side” is affected. Hypocrites much?

  14. Owens can discover the cure to cancer, but he will always be the Monica Lewinsky of West Hollywood. Simply disgusting of all parties involved and very shameful to our city.

  15. 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?

  16. What is with these council members introducing themselves as mayor when they are not the mayor? Lindsey Horvath was caught using the mayor title numerous times after her term ended while trying build herself into a TV commentator. Now Duran misuses the title for what, a second hook up?
    Both of them wear their insecurity on their sleeve.

  17. What is pitiful is that D’Amico hired his campaign manager after he was elected. Let’s see the time stamps of when she came and left. 80 hours per week? I think not.

  18. What a pitiful, sad & sordid mess. It would be amusing if not so pathetic & embarrassing. Now you know why we worked so hard for term limits. Can we please make them retroactive? Just askin’

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