The West Hollywood City Council’s June 2015 decision to eliminate its controversial deputy system left Michelle Rex unable to sleep, constantly vomiting and depressed according to her testimony today in a trial in which she is seeking a reported $3 million from the city for lost income and emotional damage.
“I’ve never had a physical reaction to stress the way I did to this,” Rex told the jury. “I couldn’t sleep, but when I did, I had nightmares. I was throwing up all the time. I was very depressed. I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning… I was crying all the time. I had never been a crier in my life, but I couldn’t stop.”
Rex said she still has trouble sleeping, and “I still throw up on occasion.”
Rex’s testimony came on day seven of the trial, which has resurrected the controversy over the deputy system that publicly exploded in January 2015 when it was discovered that Ian Owens, Rex’s friend and fellow deputy, had been monitoring the telephone conversations of deputy Fran Solomon, with whom Rex was feuding. That discovery led to an investigation of what some call “Deputygate” and the decision to dissolve the 30-year-old deputy system.
It also led to Owens suing the city, claiming his loss of a job was a result of him calling out Solomon for “electioneering” from her council office. Owens also sued his boss, Councilmember John Duran, claiming that he had been sexually harassed by Duran, who hired him after meeting him on Grindr and having sex with him. The city and Duran settled that lawsuit for $500,000 and denied all of Owens’ allegations.
“Deputygate” got media attention across the country to the consternation of City Manager Paul Arevalo and other prominent city leaders.
Rex was the sole witness in today’s testimony, in which her lawyer, Mark Quigley, tried to convince the jury that she was a charming, well-meaning person who was passionate about her job and that the city should have hired her back after the deputy system was eliminated. The city’s attorney, Steve Rothans, attacked Rex’s claims that she was fired for speaking up on behalf of Owens and that she was well-liked by other City Hall employees. He also called out the fact that it took her almost seven months to submit a signed application to be put on a list of former city employees, who are considered first for open positions.
Under questioning from Quigley, Rex said she saw a great opportunity in transitioning from Councilmember D’Amico’s campaign manager to his City Hall deputy. “In campaigns you make promises, and this was an opportunity to follow through on those promises,” she said. “People who live there, people who work there, are very passionate about West Hollywood. I’ve never seen that in a city.”
The deputies were the only City Hall employees without set hours, and Rex said she usually arrived at work from her home in Santa Clarita between 10:30 and 11 a.m. She said she worked from home before then and began her commute late to avoid the traffic.
Rex said that City Manager Arevalo reached out to her after she took the job and invited her to join him and a group of other city employees at a Dodgers game. Rex said she consulted D’Amico, who recommended she go. “Mr. Arevalo invited me to sit next to him….,” she said. “I was very uncomfortable at that game.”
As evidence of Rex’s good relationship with other City Hall employees, Quigley exhibited a few photographs that Rex had taken of herself with other smiling workers. She said she had taken those smiling “selfies” with 97 coworkers, almost half of the roughly 200 employees at City Hall.
Under questioning from Rothans, Rex admitted that she had a fraught relationship with a number of fellow employees, including Lisa Belsanti, the city’s communications director; Corey Roskin, a social services specialist; Corri Planck, then deputy to former Councilmember Abbe Land, and Kirin Hashmi, Land’s former deputy who later served in a temporary role for Councilmember Lindsey Horvath. Rex said that Roskin had complained to her boss that Rex wouldn’t talk to him. She said that in response D’Amico laughed and said he had heard complaints like that every day and that Roskin should talk directly to Rex about it.
Rothans pushed Rex to explain why she hadn’t turned to the city manager or the city’s human resources office to complain at what she described as Duran’s sexual harassment of Owens and his frequent sexual comments to her about other men.
Rex said that she did ask Duran to stop showing her photos of men he had met on Grindr and had sex with. “He laughed at me,” she said. “He was never going to stop. There was never anything that anyone in the city could do to stop him.”
“I also knew that if I brought it up (to the city manager or human resources) Ian could be fired and I could be fired. There was never anything the city could do.”
Rothans, arguing against Rex’s claim that City Hall had been retaliating against her, pointed out that Rex’s salary at City Hall had climbed 36% from when she began working for D’Amico in 2011 to when the deputy positions were officially eliminated in January 2016. At that time she was paid $104,000 a year, and also benefitted from the city’s investment in her retirement fund and its provision of health, life, dental and vision insurance. In total her compensation exceeded $190,000 a year. Rex received two $20,000 bonuses during her tenure and two bonuses of $1,000 each.
Rex, who now works as a political consultant, admitted to Rothans that she hadn’t applied for a job with any of the other 87 cities in Los Angeles County. She isn’t working again with Renee Nahum, once her partner in her political campaign management company. “I haven’t spoken with Ms. Nahum in a long time and my sense is that she was not happy with me,” Rex said. Rex said she currently is working on the campaign of former L.A. city planning commissioner Robert Lee Ahn, who is competing with Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez in a runoff for the 34th Congressional District.
Rex said it would be difficult for her to get a corporate job because of the Deputygate controversy. “The stuff that’s in a Google search is going to be with me the rest of my life.”
The trial will resume tomorrow with testimony expected from city council members Lauren Meister and Lindsey Horvath and from Paul Brotzman, who was city manager in 1985 and, in an interview with WEHOville, has described the deputy system as troubled since the beginning.