Is Ian Owens a hero? While some may dismiss the notion as preposterous, time may yet vindicate John Duran’s former deputy.
On the outside chance you missed the headlines, Ian Owens is the guy suing the City of West Hollywood and John Duran, in his official capacity, for sexual harassment. This strikes some as being a bit hypocritical given that Owens met Duran through Grinder and three months after their tryst was hired as Duran’s City Council deputy at a generous six-figure salary. More than a few folks are incredulous that Owens would not believe that he was hired by Duran as a deputy “with benefits.”
Yet the lawsuit filed last May has not only sparked outrage and shaken City Hall, it has already changed the city’s political landscape. Thanks to Ian Owens, the press and public focused on the antics on the third floor at City Hall. It wasn’t just the sex for jobs aspect of the case. Suddenly Council deputies’ outlandish six-figure salaries, the hiring of former campaign managers, petty back biting, Council campaign managers concurrently serving as lobbyists for developers and campaigning by Council deputies at City Hall came under the glare of public scrutiny. The picture wasn’t pretty.
While many are celebrating the Council’s decision in June to eliminate the Council members’ full time deputies, it would not have happened had Ian Owens not blown the whistle. Although the full consequences of this hurried vote are not yet apparent, it did represent a step toward moving to a less politicized City Hall. While it is easy to disparage Owens for leveraging a sexual encounter into a lucrative City Hall job, had Owens not stepped forward, the discussion about the dysfunction at City Hall would have never occurred.
While the press coverage of Owens’ civil suit have predictably focused on the more titillating allegations contained in the pleadings, once you move past the tabloid aspects of the case, there are some very serious revelations of the sleazy underside of the third floor.
Of course I don’t want to sound pretentious, I enjoyed the sexual allegations contained in the pleadings as much as anyone else. If you take all the allegations at face value, there is something about Duran showing nude photos of recent sexual partners to City Hall employees, fondling the ample breasts of the Director of Human Resources and offering Owens special employee benefits, that is immensely entertaining. I can just picture John Duran frantically deleting scores of photos from his city-subsidized phone on the day he was served with the summons and complaint.
Although these allegations of immature antics are disturbing, they are really just the tip of the iceberg.
Owens’ suit describes a deeply dysfunctional culture on the third floor that is seriously out of control. There appears to be almost a complete abdication by management to assert any meaningful control over what are clearly egregious ethical and legal violations.
Apparently disillusion set in soon after Owns was hired. Aside from Duran’s incessant pestering, Owens was troubled to discover that all of the City Council deputies had been assigned to meet at City Hall as part of a fund raising sub-committee for the West Hollywood Housing Corporation, which is supposedly a distinct legal entity separate and apart from the City of West Hollywood.
At the first meeting, John Heilman’s deputy, Fran Solomon, suggested that the deputies contact every developer with a pending project and solicit a donation for the Housing Corporation’s annual event. She suggested that special “attention” should be given to developers of projects on the city’s Eastside. Owens was troubled by what appeared to be an implicit quid pro quo because when the deputies were contacting potential donors there would be an expectation that a donation would garner favor for their projects. In his legal complaint, Owens states that Fran Solomon was “essentially soliciting bribes.” He states that he and two other Council deputies complained to management but their complaints were ignored.
Attached to the Complaint as an exhibit is a copy of an email Owens sent to John Duran dated Oct. 15, 2013, only two months after Owens started working at City Hall. The email states that the Housing Corporation staff met with the five City Council deputies regarding their annual fund raising event. The email claims that Housing Corporation officials requested that the deputies “reach out to developers and ask for $25,000.00 donations to the gala.” It further states that Fran Solomon “suggested” that a contractor associated with projects on the Eastside and who was being considered for a newly approved project should be “asked for a larger donation.”
In his email to Duran, Owens states, “the overtone of extortion was unmistakable.” He further wrote, “I feel this conversation dangerously skirts that line, and I am profoundly uncomfortable being put in this position. I feel that this puts you, as an elected official, in a very bad position as well.”
Duran emailed his response later that day: “Best that you resign from the host committee without comment.”
My first question is why were Council deputies being involuntarily placed on a fund raising host committee for the Housing Corporation and meeting to discuss this fundraising at City Hall on city time? Was the City Manager aware of this situation? Regardless of the good works of the West Hollywood Housing Corporation, Owens’ email succinctly states the ethical issues at stake.
But the larger scandal involved Fran Solomon campaigning for her boss, John Heilman, from her desk at City Hall during business hours. Owens states that he frequently overhead Ms. Solomon’s phone conversations which sounded suspiciously like campaigning. When I was on City Council, my office adjoined John Heilman’s, and you did not need to eavesdrop to overhear many of Solomon’s conversations; the walls are practically transparent.
Owens made a rough transcript of a series of phone calls made by Solomon on Jan. 14, 2015. It appears that Solomon is organizing photo ops for John Heilman’s March re-election campaign. She calls to remind someone that the photo shoot was in 40 minutes and John “would love to have you there, sweetie.” She makes a point of telling one person that she was calling while on her lunch hour. While talking to one person about the photo op, she interrupts the call to talk to John Heilman himself, confirming the time and location of the event. During the scheduled time, Solomon was out of the office and presumably present at the photo shoot.
When Owens brought this information to John Duran’s attention, Duran’s response was to “leave it alone.” Owens complaint to management was ignored. In frustration, Owens filed a complaint with the Political Ethics section of the District Attorney’s office. At that point, things hit the fan.
Confronted with the campaigning accusations, Solomon cleverly turned tables on Owens by claiming that he had planted electronic eavesdropping devices in Heilman’s office and filed a complaint with the Sheriff. Needless to say, management gave this outlandish accusation credence and suspended Owens. While the concocted eavesdropping charges went nowhere, it never seemed to occur to management that the eavesdropping charges themselves were practically an admission that Owens’ version of events was accurate.
Indeed Fran Solomon’s quote in WEHOville about the incident was tantamount to an admission that she was, in fact, campaigning. While denying that any campaigning occurred she lent a caveat that gave away the lie, by stating that if any campaigning occurred it was “accidental,” “incidental” and “not done on City time.”
For the record, it is illegal for a city employee to campaign at City Hall, whether the employee is on or off the clock. It is difficult to envision “accidental” campaigning at City Hall; you’re either doing it or you’re not. Being “off the clock” is not a defense if City Hall and municipal phones were being used for campaign purposes.
While Owens suffered suspension and the full onslaught of a disinformation campaign by city insiders, Solomon was allowed to take “early retirement.” Upon her retirement, the city apparently then took no actions to investigate whether Owens’ allegations were true. Obviously our City Attorney was not looking to investigate anything against our longest serving Council member, particularly with an election looming.
I predict that this case will never go to trial. A jury will never get past the Grinder thing. Duran’s failure to tell management he had been sleeping with the new hire would be damning. A trial would require a full airing of the campaigning by Fran Solomon. Discovery may involve a subpoena of the nude photos on Duran’s phone, which may be problematic for a number of West Hollywood constituents. The collateral damage from a trial in this case might prove costly to a number of careers.
A trial could also re-open the District Attorney’s investigation about Duran’s use of city credit cards. That probe was dropped when the City asserted that Duran’s use of thousands of dollars was legitimate as the meals charged were for himself and his deputy to discuss City Council agendas. But when a deputy is making over $10,000 a month it is difficult to understand why the taxpayers needed to pick up the tab.
Thus, in order to spare John Heilman from having to perjure himself about his role in the City Hall campaigning, the City Attorney is going to throw Duran under the bus. It is just a matter of time and wrangling over settlement money. Of course the money we are talking about is taxpayer money, since legally the City must pick up the tab for Duran’s antics. Even if that were not true, Duran is essentially judgment proof and the plaintiff’s attorneys are always more interested in the party with the deep pockets. In this case, those deep pockets happen to be ours.
Although Owens has been thoroughly vilified for leveraging his Grinder encounter into a lucrative City Hall position, in some ways he was rather innocent, believing that he was going to be part of a progressive organization that anyone would be proud to work for. Instead he found a cesspool of corruption and a culture where elected officials believe that the rules don’t apply to them. His complaint reflects the view of someone who is surprised and, indeed, shocked by that is going on. While there is an obvious aspect of self-interest in filing suit against the City, taking a stand for what is right is always heroic.
Ian Owens’ lawsuit against the City may be accessed at www.lacourt.org/index.aspx
Entitled Owens vs. City of West Hollywood, case number BC 582 519.