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West Hollywood council deputy suspended in eavesdropping case

West Hollywood council deputy suspended in eavesdropping case

A West Hollywood City Council aide has been suspended and is being investigated by sheriff’s detectives on charges of eavesdropping on another council deputy and then e-mailing portions of her private conversations to local bloggers and residents in the city.

Ian Owens, a deputy to Councilman John Duran, is accused of bugging the City Hall office of Fran Solomon, the deputy to Councilman John Heilman, said city officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Owens allegedly suspected that Solomon was soliciting campaign contributions for her boss, who is running for reelection, on city time.

The deputy is on paid administrative leave while the allegations are being investigated, said Lisa Belsanti, a city spokeswoman. Belsanti said she could not comment on the specific assertions because it’s a personnel matter.

Los Angeles Sheriff Lt. Martin Rodriguez said the department’s major crimes bureau is investigating to determine if any “inappropriate or criminal activity” occurred.

In January, a spreadsheet including quotes from Solomon’s office telephone conversations was sent to numerous e-mail accounts in the city, including the hyperlocal West Hollywood news website WEHOville, said its publisher, Henry Scott, who shared the document with The Times.

The Excel spreadsheet, which city officials said they believe was e-mailed by Owens, lists him as the creator of the document in its metadata and indicates it was made with city software. The document was sent in an e-mail that read, “Fran Solomon is illegally campaigning from Councilman Heilman’s office at City Hall...see attached.”

The document lists times, dates and details of Solomon’s phone calls, such as:

“Fran Solomon uses city phone from John Heilman’s council office to call someone for John Heilman’s council campaign photo shoot. Informs the call recipient that the shoot will take approx. 40 minutes and, ‘he would love to have you there, sweetie!’ ”

It also lists a call in which Solomon and Heilman “discuss two dogs named Pearl and Rocky” and lists times of the day when Solomon left and returned to her office.

Aanand Ghods-Mehtani, Owens’ attorney, said in an e-mail that Owens was a “victim in this situation.” Solomon, who has been Heilman’s deputy since 1993, also declined to comment.

City observers say the incident is just the latest flare-up with the full-time deputies who work for the city’s five part-time council members. The deputies often are the public face of the council members, meeting with constituents and providing legislative research and other support for the elected officials.

The deputies are paid $99,838 to $137,487 annually, get full benefits and have even formed their own five-person union, the West Hollywood Council Deputies Assn., which sometimes takes positions on items pending before the City Council.

Several city officials said ongoing feuds between deputies sometimes make staff meetings difficult and there is a push to reform the deputy system.

“The deputies get paid so well the expectations of them should be higher,” said Jeff Prang, a longtime City Council member who stepped down in December when he became Los Angeles County assessor. The eavesdropping allegation, he said, “is symptomatic of a broken system.”

Prang said the deputies don’t have much direct supervision because they answer to the city manager and to individual council members – who have other jobs and are typically not present at City Hall during the day.

The atmosphere at City Hall, Prang said, has become “toxic” as the highly competitive March 3 City Council election approaches.There will be three open at-large council seats, which could dramatically change the council’s makeup.

Last month, City Council candidate Larry Block was sued by celebrity spray tanner Jimmy Jimmy Coco. The professional tanner, whose real name is James W. Snyder, claimed in his suit that Block was his landlord, that he wrongly evicted him and that he had installed “spy cameras” to catch him in the nude. Block said the lawsuit was “politically motivated” and aimed at derailing his candidacy.

For more West Hollywood news, follow @haileybranson on Twitter.

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