Sex! Sexual harassment! Stalking! Bullying! Vebal altercations! Electioneering! Wiretapping! Retaliation! No, we’re not talking about the latest episode of The Young and the Restless. We’re talking about the real-life soap opera that has come to be known as “Deputygate.”
The ongoing saga on the third floor of West Hollywood City Hall reached a climatic ending last week, after the melodrama moved to a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. There, a jury had to decide whether Michelle Rex, the former assistant to Councilmember John D’Amico, was fired from her job as an act of retaliation.
Lawyers for both sides had spent two weeks catching jurors up on the backstory.
“Michelle Rex was never the problem,” city manager Paul Arevalo testified. “The [council deputy] program was the problem.”
The jurors probably needed a flow chart to keep up with the ins and outs of the complicated story, but we’re providing you with handy reference guide of the major plot points.
Backstory: Council assistants, known as “deputies,” once served as full-time employees to the part-time West Hollywood City Council members. The deputies dealt with constituent concerns and helped draft legislation, while also serving as the eyes and ears within City Hall for their councilmembers, who have full-time jobs elsewhere and are in City Hall for only a few hours each month.
The job of council deputy was unique for the city of 35,000 people; no other similarly sized California city had such positions. The jobs were created in 1985, shortly after West Hollywood was incorporated, to help deal with the numerous media requests curious about the new city that had a majority of councilmembers who were openly gay or lesbian (at a time when the number of openly gay politicians nationwide could be counted on one hand).
Paul Brotzman, West Hollywood’s first city manager, testified that he warned against creating the deputy positions, since they were political in nature. Although the deputies technically answered to the city manager, in reality, they only really answered to the councilmember they served.
Over the years, deputies did a lot of good work, offering quick help with residents’ issues and carefully researching issues and prepping their respective councilmembers. However, the deputies sometimes ended up feuding among themselves, were known to give conflicting orders to city staffers, and were rumored to engage in campaign-related activities while on the city’s clock. Over the years, the actions of the deputies and their councilmembers provided an endless source of gossip for residents.
Electioneering: The gossip moved to the headlines in late January 2015, when Ian Owens, the deputy to Councilmember John Duran, claims to have overhead Fran Solomon, the deputy to Councilmember John Heilman (who was up for re-election in March 2015), making campaign-related phone calls in her office and began keeping a log of her calls. Owens sent that spreadsheet, under an anonymous name, to local media and the district attorney. However, right-clicking on the Excel file showed Owens had created the spreadsheet. Solomon initially denied the charges, but later admitted that she had indeed returned campaign-related phone calls regarding a photo shoot for a campaign mailer from her office and was docked two days’ pay.
Wiretapping: As part of her initial denial, Solomon charged Owens with bugging her office. Owens was immediately suspended, with pay, while the sheriff’s department investigated, but no evidence of wiretapping was found. Solomon and Owens had adjacent offices, and the walls in City Hall are thin.
Bullying and stalking: Solomon filed a complaint charging that the wiretapping was part of a larger “relentless pattern of harassment, bullying and stalking and attempted intimidation by Councilmember D’Amico and council deputies Rex and Owens.” Rex, who became D’Amico’s deputy in 2011 after serving as his campaign manager, and Solomon, who had been Heilman’s deputy since 1992, had never gotten along. In fact, Rex and Solomon did not speak to each other for almost two years; their relationship mimicked that of their councilmembers, D’Amico and Heilman, who, aside from council meetings, also did not speak to each other for two years. The city eventually settled the complaint with a $25,000 payout to Solomon.
Sex: Meanwhile, the suspended Owens charged his councilmember, Duran, with sexual harassment (more on that shortly). Owens also revealed that he and Duran had met in April 2012 via Grindr, a hook-up app for gay men, and had sex the night they met. On the witness stand, Duran said the two only had sex that one time and became friends afterward. Duran invited the new-to-town, twentysomething Owens into his circle of friends and even loaned Owens money for his rent at one point, according to testimony. In August 2012, when Owens was unable to find work and about to move home to Stockton, Duran offered him the position as his council deputy.
However, Duran failed to disclose the previous sexual encounter with Owens to human resources. The city was unable to discipline Duran for this oversight since he was an elected official rather than an employee, but his colleagues chastised him and opted to skip Duran’s turn as mayor in the annual mayoral rotation among the five councilmembers. While some residents expressed outrage at Duran’s actions, the voters felt otherwise and re-elected him in March 2017.
Verbal altercations: During trial testimony, current City Manager Arevalo revealed that in fall 2014, Scott Svonkin, the deputy to then Councilmember Jeff Prang (now the Los Angeles County Assessor), got into a verbal altercation with Ian Owens during a council meeting after Owens mocked Prang’s style of speaking.
Fixing the mess: With continuous media reports about the deputies, who were receiving six-figure salaries, residents were fuming and demanded a quick fix. On June 15, 2015, the council decided to eliminate all the deputy positions in a 4-1 vote. While the brouhaha may have prompted that vote, several councilmembers said at the trial that it was also the optimum time to get rid of the dysfunctional deputy program, since there were only two permanent deputies on staff at that point (Rex and Owens). Solomon had retired when Heilman was defeated in the March 2015 election (Heilman rejoined the council in June 2015 after winning the special election to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Prang when he became the county assessor). Meanwhile, the newly elected councilmembers, Lindsey Horvath and Lauren Meister, were using interim deputies at that point.
Layoffs: The individual deputies received layoff notices, while their duties were given to a pool of employees who would serve the entire council rather than individual councilmembers.
Rex testified that she “loved every aspect of [her] job” and received glowing performance reviews, as well as several bonuses during her four years at City Hall. She was eligible to apply for other positions within City Hall (in the past ten years, four other council deputies have made lateral moves and are still employed at City Hall today). However, Rex testified that upon receiving the layoff notice, the city removed her from the all-staff email list, which included notices of internal openings, and would not allow her to come into City Hall, where she could check in the break room for internal postings.
Meanwhile, the five-member deputies union, the Association of Council Deputies, said the terms of their contract required the city “meet and confer” with them before eliminating their jobs, something the city failed to do prior to the Council’s vote. Consequently, the city rescinded the layoff notices in late July 2015 and began negotiations.
After negotiations reached an impasse, the City Council again voted to eliminate the deputy positions, this time with a 5-0 vote. The deputies were officially terminated on Jan. 22, 2016. Shortly after that, Rex filed a $3 million lawsuit against the city. She testified that between the humiliating layoff experience and the “demonization” of her by commenters on media sites (primarily the WEHOville website), she felt traumatized, was depressed, reluctant to leave her house, crying uncontrollably, nauseous, unable to sleep and when she could sleep, often had nightmares.
Sexual Harassment: Owens’ sexual harassment lawsuit against the city and Duran never went to trial; the city’s insurance carrier settled the case with a $500,000 payout to Owens. However, Rex’s trial ended up serving as the de-facto trial for those sexual harassment charges, since her lawsuit was entangled in that sexual harassment case. Rex asserted that her job was eliminated as retaliation because she had said in a deposition that she believed Duran was sexually harassing Owens.
At the trial, D’Amico testified that “sex is part of who John Duran is,” while Rex described him as “always sexually charged.” Under oath, Duran — a criminal defense attorney in his day job — made no apologies for openly discussing his sex life, explaining that sexual freedom is very much a part of West Hollywood. “Sexual discussions that happen in West Hollywood, you’re not going to see in West Covina, but it’s pretty common in West Hollywood,” Duran said on the stand. Duran also said he never engaged in sexual talk while in City Hall. However, an investigation conducted by independent investigator Steve Rodig concluded that Duran had sexual discussions that were inappropriate for the workplace, but that it did not go so far as being sexual harassment.
Duran has also been accused, by residents and his colleague D’Amico, of using his Grindr phone app during City Council meetings and other city events. At the trial, Duran stated he was never on Grindr during meetings but sometimes received messages on his phone via the Grindr app.
Rex, who worked on Duran’s 2009 election campaign, testified that she was uncomfortable with Duran’s mentioning sex and showing her photos of naked men and asked him to stop. “He laughed at me,” Rex said. “He was never going to stop. There was nothing that anyone in the city could do to discipline him.” She said she told investigator Steve Rodig that she knew Owens was subjected to the same behavior whenever he and Duran were alone, and she viewed that as sexual harassment. Rex said she did not feel comfortable reporting it to City Manager Arevalo since Duran, as a councilmember, was Arevalo’s boss. Similarly, she did not go to human resources because Duran and LuNita Bock, the city’s HR director, were longtime friends. Rex also feared she and/or Owens might be fired if she accused Duran of sexual harassment.
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Owens testified that in addition to the frequent sex talk, Duran would routinely ask who he was dating, compliment him on his appearance and remark how nicely his clothes fit him. Duran did not deny any of that. He also admitted that during his sexual banter, Owens would occasionally warn him to be careful or he could charge him with sexual harassment. Duran said he interpreted that as just joking.
Verdict: After ten days of testimony, the case went to the jury, which spent five hours deliberating before rendering its decision on May 19. The jury said that the city’s conduct had been a “substantial motivating factor in harming Michelle Rex.” However, they also ruled that her termination was not retaliation — that the city would have eliminated the deputy positions anyway.
With the jury’s verdict, Rex received no money and the “Deputygate” soap opera seems to be officially finished. However, soap operas, in one form or another, always seem to develop in West Hollywood. So stay tuned for the next incarnation of a WeHo melodrama, coming sooner or later (but probably sooner).
Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented the altercation between council deputy Ian Owens and council deputy Scott Svonkin. It was verbal, not physical.