At the final City Council meeting of 2017, Larry Block recited his annual holiday poem to commemorate the events of the year. Block delightedly recounted how Michelle Rex, John D’Amico’s former deputy, lost her lawsuit against the City of West Hollywood for wrongful termination. He went on to say that Rex’s loss represented a vindication, not only for the city and its decision to eliminate the council deputy system, but also a vindication of the sexual harassment claims against John Duran.
This is patently absurd; nothing more than fake news. There is no vindication for John Duran. The city settled Ian Owens’ sexual harassment claim for half a million dollars. That says it all.
While some delude themselves into believing the line that this $500,000 was not an admission of guilt but merely a payment to avoid the “nuisance” of taking the case to trial, that simply does not make sense. John Conyers, one of the longest serving members of Congress, recently resigned when it was revealed he paid $27,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim of a female staff member 17 years ago. A 2016 Time magazine cover story on sexual harassment reported that the average recovery in such cases was $95,000. These figures help put some perspective on why the city’s insurance carrier insisted on settling the case for half a million dollars; it feared that based upon the state of the evidence, if the case went to trial Ian’s recovery may have been even greater.
While Duran himself proclaimed his vindication to the Los Angeles Times in the story reporting the verdict in the Rex case, as an attorney he is aware that Rex’s loss in no way disproved Ian Owens’ accusations of sexual harassment and hostile work environment. That issue was not decided by the jury. If Duran wanted vindication, he had the legal right to have the Owens case taken to trial. Obviously Duran was afraid to take that step. Personally I believe if elected officials are falsely accused of such conduct, they have not only a right but a legal obligation to seek vindication before a judge and jury, not only to save their reputations and integrity but to discourage fabricated allegations. But Duran was a coward and knew that taking this case to trial would be a disaster.
But what is lost in all the salacious allegations revealed in the Owens and Rex lawsuits is that we really only know two relevant uncontroverted facts about this controversy. First is that is that John Duran had a consensual sexual relationship with Owens and that a few months later Owens was hired as Duran’s deputy, with a six-figure salary. Duran violated his moral and ethical obligation as an elected official to inform to inform the City Manager or the head of Human Resources of his sexual relationship with Owens before Owens was hired. Indeed Owens alleged in his lawsuit that Duran specifically told him not to mention their encounter when he was interviewed for the job.
As an attorney John Duran is aware that a supervisor should inform the Human Relations Department of a prior romantic or sexual relationship for any person applying for a job where that person would be under his direct supervision. Such relationships can (and in this case did) expose the employer to an expensive law suit. In the private sector a violation of this requirement often results in instant termination. West Hollywood’s own sexual harassment training includes alerting employees of this mandatory disclosure.
This mandatory disclosure is meant to prevent disruptive office romances with their potential for blackmail and to protect employers from sexual harassment lawsuits arising when romantic relationship sour. Thus when Duran failed to inform the city about his prior sexual relationship with Ian Owens he violated his oath of office and his fiduciary duty to the citizens of West Hollywood.
Duran’s failure to report the relationship ultimately prejudiced the city’s legal position in the Owens lawsuit. When the L.A. Times reported the Ian Owens settlement on Feb. 23, 2016, Duran complained that “people are trying to make him (Owens) sound like he was unqualified for the job” and believed Duran was using Grindr as an employee search app. Ironically during the Rex trial, Duran changed his tune and alleged that the city’s Human Resources department was slack in not discovering that Owens had inflated his “qualifications” in his employment application. Like most members of the public I thought Owens passed his interview during the Grindr hook up. But like most narcissists, Duran simply cannot take responsibility for his actions.
I first became aware of Ian Owens in August 2012, during National Night Out. I was at the Norma Triangle event talking to a friend when I saw John Duran happily in the embrace of a handsome young man. Duran was insisting residents take selfies with him and Owens; their cheek to cheek pose would ultimately become infamous. I mentioned to my friends that it looked like Duran had a new boyfriend. My friend corrected me saying Ian was his new City Council deputy. He then said “this looks like it’s going to be trouble.”
As predicted, it was trouble. Owens turned out not to be a completely starstruck sycophant. Once installed on the third floor he rapidly became disillusioned with the antics and back biting. This was not the progressive workplace he had envisioned. According to his lawsuit, Owens was troubled by what appeared to be inappropriate fundraising at City Hall. When he brought his concerns to Duran, he was blown off. He was troubled by Duran’s conduct, which reduced him to a sexual cipher, a mere ornament that was subject to Duran’s incessant exploitation. Owens’ physique was a constant source of comment by Duran who would allegedly describe Owens to constituents as “hot” and an “A-list” item, as if to bask in the reflection of Owens’ youthful glow. According to Owens he has constantly being badgered for sexual favors; “I’ll bottom for you” being the most memorable quote attributed to Duran in the lawsuit. Duran apparently characterized the offer as some sort of employee bonus.
While Owens claims he was subjected to a least a hundred instances of harassment, Duran’s defense was astounding: He claimed that since he only comes to City Hall a couple of times of month, so Owens’ numbers are a fabrication. Most council members come to City Hall two or three times a week. Clearly Duran’s dedication to his public position is called into doubt by this admission.
That lack of dedication to the public has been repeatedly chronicled. On April 11, 2016, the Los Angeles Times also quoted John D’Amico, who described Duran as regularly “trolling for men on Grinder,” the gay sex app, during City Council meetings,” something that had been rumored for years and makes a mockery of the Council’s public comment period. “This is not gay life excuse time” an exasperated D’Amico stated, venting his frustration with Duran’s immature lack of focus on the business of the city.
During the Rex trial Duran tried to rationalize his conduct with Owens by telling a slack-jawed jury that his conduct was simply typical gay male behavior and that gay men can’t be held to the same legal sexual harassment standards because we live by different rules. Obviously this is not the state of the law, and it is embarrassing that a member of the Bar would stoop to such self-serving perversions of the truth. This absurd tirade, which Rex’s attorneys did not bother to refute, is the basis of Duran’s claim of “vindication.”
As we enter the second year of the Trump Dark Ages, West Hollywood has positioned itself as a leader in the Resist movement, leading the charge against the sexually harassing narcissistic sociopath who currently occupies the White House. But how can progressive West Hollywood lead when one of our own leaders is a sexually harassing narcissist, a Donald Trump mini-me?
It is hard reconcile our community’s progressive values while we continue to embrace John Duran. The Ian Owens controversy is not just an example of how power can be abused. It exemplifies how the powerful know they can abuse their power and count on the silent acquiesce of those around them, who find no incentive to identify with the victim and every incentive to either rationalize or ignore the conduct of the abuser. In the case of sexual harassment, silence equals acquiescence. That silence, the silence of the cowardly, the silence of the self interested, legitimizes both the abuse and the abuser, making all of us guilty.
We cannot proclaim our progressive values and have a mayor who clearly mocks those values. Mayor Pro Tem Duran’s tenure has been marked by bringing pay to play politics to West Hollywood, misogyny, alleged abuse of city credit cards, sexual harassment and repeated betrayals of the LGBTQ community. In Year Two of the Age of Trump, we cannot have an irresponsible and immature mayor who so closely mirrors the destructive narcissism of our Commander in Chief.
Our City Council does not have the courage of its self-proclaimed convictions and will promote Duran to become our next mayor. Unless we stand up and put our own house in order, West Hollywood will have abdicated all claims to moral and progressive legitimacy, and we will be no better than the people who put Donald Trump in the White House.
Opinion pieces such as this reflect the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of West Hollywood Media Company or WEHOville unless they carry the byline of publisher and editor Henry E. (Hank) Scott.