Lawyers for the City of West Hollywood and for former City Council deputy Michelle Rex made their closing arguments to the jury today, leaving both sides tense in anticipation of its final decision in a lawsuit that has resurrected allegations of electioneering in City Hall and misbehavior by city employees and a City Council member.
The key question before the jury is whether the City Council’s decision to eliminate the 30-year-old deputy system was done in retaliation for Rex’s testimony in defense of her friend and fellow deputy, Ian Owens.
The controversy known as “Deputygate,” which sparked the City Council’s decision to eliminate the deputy system, came after WEHOville revealed in January 2015 that Owens had been listening to telephone conversations by deputy Fran Solomon. Owens sent an email under a fake name to various news media, the L.A. County District Attorney and the state Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging Solomon was illegally electioneering from her city office. In a lawsuit that he filed against the city after the deputy system was eliminated, Owens also alleged that he had been sexually harassed by his boss, Councilmember John Duran.
In his statement to the jury, Mark Quigley, Rex’s attorney, argued that Rex got “swept up” in the controversy when Owens “blew the lid off the City of West Hollywood” with his allegations about Solomon.
As examples of the city’s attempt to retaliate against Rex, Quigley cited the city’s decision to put Owens on paid leave while a private investigator looked into Solomon’s allegations that Owens was spying on her. That investigation by Steve Rodig expanded into whether or not Solomon was improperly campaigning for her boss, John Heilman, and whether Duran had sexually harassed Owens. Both were subjects about which Rex testified to Rodig.
“That gives them the motivation and the animus to get rid of Ian Owens and Michelle Rex because they know that they have testified badly about John Duran,” Quigley said, referring to Rodig’s interviews with those deputies.
Quigely said City Manager Paul Arevalo also was motivated to push for eliminating the system because of the negative publicity and public outrage associated with Deputygate.
Quigley also argued that the city’s failure to offer Rex another job at City Hall, and particularly one in the pool of support staff that replaced the deputy system, was more evidence of that retaliation was its motive for ending the deputy system.
Jill Williams, an attorney representing the city, said 10 days of testimony by various witnesses and a review by the jury of tapes of City Council meetings made clear that the council was intent on eliminating the system regardless of what Rex said to Rodig.
She noted testimony by Councilmembers John D’Amico and Lindsey Horvath that problems with the deputy system were an issue raised by voters in the 2015 City Council election.
“To buy into the story spun by Ms. Rex that the whole system was eliminated that she wasn’t able to get a job at the City of West Hollywood requires us to believe that a … conspiracy took place in the City of West Hollywood — involving other deputies, HR, the city manager, Mike Jenkins (the city attorney), every City Council member who voted to eliminate the program. Finally, the conspiracy would include the people of the City of West Hollywood because they voted for the council members who decided to end the program.”
As further evidence that the city wasn’t retaliating against Rex, Williams noted that when the City Council voted in June 2015 to eliminate the deputy system its members had not received the private investigator’s report and had no knowledge of the allegations by Rex said she said prompted retaliation. Rex acknowledged in her trial testimony that she hadn’t reported concerns about Solomon campaigning or about Duran sexually harassing Owens to the city’s human resources officers or other city officials.
Williams also noted that Rex had failed for many months after her deputy position was eliminated at the end of 2015 to file a required application to be placed on a list of former city employees to be given priority consideration for new job openings. It wasn’t until July 1, 2016, that Rex finally returned her application, which she failed to sign.
The jury will resume deliberations tomorrow morning. Rex is rumored to be seeking compensation for emotional and physical damage and lost wages of $3 million. However Quigley said he would leave to the jury the decision of how much to award Rex for emotional distress, which Rex had said caused her sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, vomiting and nightmares.