West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran today described what he said was a conspiracy by former council deputies Michelle Rex and Ian Owens to defeat John Heilman in the 2015 City Council election and replace him with someone who would give them the third vote they needed to fire City Manager Paul Arevalo and City Attorney Mike Jenkins.
Duran made that statement on the fifth day of the L.A. Superior Court trial of Michelle Rex vs. City of West Hollywood. In her lawsuit, Rex claims that the City Council’s June 2015 decision to eliminate the 30-year-old council deputy system was an act of retaliation against her. She claims she was retaliated against for her support of her friend, Ian Owens, in his complaint of sexual harassment by Duran and retaliation against him for exposing deputy Fran Solomon’s political campaign activities in City Hall. Rex is seeking a reported $3 million for her claim of emotional suffering and loss of a well-paying job.
Duran told the court that both Rex and Owens had once been friends of his. Rex had helped manage his 2009 City Council election campaign. She also managed the 2011 campaign of Councilmember John D’Amico, who named her his deputy after he won. Duran admitted that he had met Owens in 2012 on Grindr, the gay hookup app, and had had sex with him. After that Duran effectively became Owens’ mentor, introducing the new WeHo resident to his friends, connecting him with a recruiter, helping Owens pay his rent because of his financial problems and naming him as his temporary deputy. In March 2013, after Duran won re-election, he chose Owens as his permanent deputy.
Under questioning from lawyers for Rex and for the City of West Hollywood, Duran described a beautiful relationship that turned sour. The jury was shown photos of Duran with fellow Councilmember John D’Amico and Rex and Owens on the Jungle Cruise during a trip to Disneyland in May 2013. “We played hooky and spent the day and night at Disneyland,” he said. Earlier in the trial the jury was shown a photo of Duran and Rex dancing on top of a table in New Orleans at an AIDS conference they attended with Owens.
Duran said that he and his deputy communicated constantly via email and phone texts, but that because of his job as a criminal defense attorney he wasn’t often with Owens in City Hall. He said Owens did accompany him to social events that he attended in his role as a City Council member. They also crossed paths at holiday parties and pool parties because many of Duran’s friends had become Owens’ friends. Duran said he met Owens’ mother for dinner when she visited from Stockton to see a performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, whose board Duran chairs.
Duran said Owens was very smart but had problems getting along with his co-workers. “He’s a smart guy,” he said. “I don’t want to paint him as horrible all the time. He’s a smart guy, but he went south at City Hall.” Under questioning from Steve Rothans, the attorney representing the city, Duran acknowledged that he had described Owens and Rex as “the two most detested employees in City Hall.”
Duran said he and Arevalo had sat down with Owens to conduct a review of his performance and told him that he needed to work better with others. “In terms of human relations and working well with others, he was terrible,” Duran said. He said Arevalo and human resources employees told him he should have fired Owens. But, Duran said, he didn’t want the young man to lose his job and be forced to move back to Stockton with his mother. Now, he says, he has come to realize that he should have fired him.
Duran said he had been aware of the unpleasant relationship between Rex and Fran Solomon. John D’Amico, who endorsed Solomon’s boss, John Heilman, in this year’s City Council race, had focused on Heilman in his own successful City Council race in 2011 and over the years has criticized him harshly in public. He was one of several candidates who staged a press conference the day before the 2011 election to claim that Solomon was seriously abusing a City Hall credit card for her personal benefit, an allegation that later was proven to be untrue. Duran said he also knew of Owens’ difficulties with Solomon.
Owens had objected to Duran when the council deputies were on a group telephone call with Robin Conerly of the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation to discuss fundraising for the WHCHC’s annual gala. Owens claimed that Solomon had urged her fellow deputies to press developers on the city’s Eastside to contribute to the gala. Owens also got into a spat with Solomon when four of the deputies gathered on another occasion to discuss buying a gift for another City Hall employee. Owens refused to contribute to the gift and refused to let deputy Kirin Hashmi, who was on pregnancy leave, participate in the discussion on the phone, saying the rules of the five-member deputy union stipulated that all had to be present for a vote on whether or not to make the gift.
It was in January 2015 that Duran learned from a story published by WEHOville that Owens was the source of an email sent out to the L.A. County District Attorney and media organizations under a fake name that accused Solomon of illegally campaigning for Heilman’s re-election from her City Hall office. That email included a document that listed various calls made by Solomon to invite people to attend a photo shoot for a Heilman campaign mailer. An investigation found that Solomon did violate city rules, for which she was punished by having her pay docked for two days, but had not broken any law.
Duran denied Owens’ allegation that he had complained to him previously about electioneering by Solomon from City Hall. Duran said he had interpreted an email from Owens on December 2014 that alleged Solomon was soliciting contributions over the phone as another reference to fundraising for WHCHC.
Duran said it took a while before he began to see actions by Owens and Rex as a conspiracy to defeat John Heilman. However, he said Rex had often said she wanted to get Arevalo and Jenkins fired. Duran noted that the effort to defeat Heilman had some success when he lost his bid for re-election in March 2015, a campaign in which Rex was helping challenger Heidi Shink, who had said she would work to fire Arevalo. Heilman however was re-elected in the special June election that year to fill the seat of Jeffrey Prang.
The conspiracy that Duran alluded to would have been to add a third person to the City Council who would side with Councilmembers D’Amico and Lauren Meister in ousting Arevalo and Jenkins, both of whom report directly to the City Council.
Duran described the current council as being divided, with Heilman and Councilmember Lindsey Horvath on one side, D’Amico and Meister on the other, and him in the middle. “When the two Johns ran in the same cycle, I endorsed both of them, even though they are like oil and water,” Duran said, while acknowledging that Heilman and D’Amico have a better relationship now. “I’m the poor sucker in the center who tries to get along with both sides.”
Duran, who has known D’Amico before both got engaged in city politics and has been seen as his ally in the past, acknowledged when asked by Rothans that D’Amico is a friend, “for the most part.”
He criticized D’Amico’s impassioned defense at a City Council meeting of Owens after he was put on administrative leave during an investigation of his alleging spying on Solomon’s phone calls. Duran said D’Amico had not had access to an unredacted version of a report by the private investigator at that point.
Duran also said he was unhappy that the controversy over the deputy system had shifted from a focus on the behavior of some deputies to a focus on him and allegations that he had sexually harassed Owens.
“They eavesdropped on Fran Solomon and then, when they got caught, they flipped the story to focus on you?” asked Rothans. “Yes,” Duran said.
Duran told the jury that he had not had sex with Owens since the night they first met. He conceded that he had shown him photos on his cellphone of men he had been with, but said the Owens did the same with him. “We all have these iPhones now…,” Duran said. “It was pretty common for us to pull out our iPhones and share with one another about events. …..”
He said that a couple of times Owens had joked that he could sue Duran for sexual harassment when they shared photos and talking about their dating life. Duran said he joked back that it was clear Owens was consenting. He also denied Owens’ allegation that Duran exposed him to sexually explicit photos and words by making him update Duran’s address book. Duran said Owens should not have looked at his personal contact list and only was supposed to update the address book he maintained for city business.
The trial will resume tomorrow with Duran as a witness. Rex and Councilmember D’Amico also are expected to testify.