A former Newport Beach police dispatcher claims in a lawsuit that she was sexually harassed by the police chief, discriminated against and wrongfully terminated.
As is common, the city and Police Department are also named as defendants in the suit, but most of the allegations involve the chief.
The city attorney, police chief and city manager on Thursday flatly denied the complaint filed in Orange County Superior Court.
Christine Hougan alleges that Police Chief Jay Johnson made inappropriate comments and used his position to intimidate her after her husband, a former police officer, testified against department officials in a separate 2008 case.
Hougan was fired Feb. 15, 2012. She had been employed by the city since 1990, working part-time since 2001, according to city officials.
Hougan filed an administrative appeal contesting her termination, which is still pending.
Her husband, former police officer John Hougan, was fired in 2011. He sued the city in July, also alleging retaliation and wrongful termination.
That litigation is pending, City Attorney Aaron Harp said.
Officials said they couldn’t comment on the circumstances of either firing because they are personnel matters.
Nevertheless, Harp said, “We don’t believe there’s any truth in the allegations of Mr. or Mrs. Hougan.”
The case in which John Hougan testified was one of several alleging misconduct in a department that officers at the time said was fraught with corruption and cronyism. When Johnson took over as chief almost three years ago, it was seen as something of a new era.
However, John Hougan allegedly faced retaliatory internal investigations during Johnson’s tenure, according to his separate lawsuit against the city and the department.
Christine Hougan’s suit alleges that after those investigations ultimately led to her husband’s termination, she was harassed.
It claims that in August 2010, Johnson and Hougan had a “90-minute closed-door meeting,” during which he talked about an investigation into her husband’s conduct, which allegedly included not following the department’s computer-use policies.
During that meeting, a court document says, Johnson “sat within inches of [Hougan] and used his position of authority to intimidate her.”
In the months that followed, the document describes similar encounters, where Johnson allegedly “leaned against [Hougan’s] console, often standing very physically close to her,” and told her, “I like you. I REALLY like you,” making Hougan feel “uncomfortable and intimidated.”
Hougan allegedly reported the incidents to no avail.
In March 2011, the suit says, Hougan suffered emotional distress after handling a difficult call.
Hougan allegedly “engaged in conduct that was extremely disruptive to the Communications Center” as a result, according to the document.
Instead of “ordering [Hougan] to see a psychologist for a debriefing (as dictated by policy), the department chose to use her symptoms against her 11 months later in her termination,” it says.
City officials said that Hougan’s claims came to light well after both she and her husband were fired and that an independent investigation in September found that the allegations were baseless.
“I was really saddened to see [the lawsuit], because I think [Johnson] has been a great police chief and a good family man,” City Manager Dave Kiff said. “That he has to respond to this is just very sad.”
Kiff added that the lawsuit read “like a work of fiction” and that the allegations were especially disheartening for the department, “given all it had been through” before Johnson stepped in as chief.
Johnson said Thursday that he fully cooperated with the investigation, adding that he had little contact with Hougan, who he said worked part-time.
“Hopefully, you can see when you read through this how frivolous it is,” Johnson said. He called the claims “pretty outlandish.”
All the allegations, he said, are “completely frivolous and unfounded. None of them are true. I’m confident that will come out in the civil action.”
“The frustrating thing for me is that she can say anything she wants,” Johnson said. “You can’t un-ring the bell.”
In any case, Johnson said he hoped to convey to the public that he plans to be “an open book on this.”
Still, he said, “It’s very disheartening that this is the route this is going.”
Hougan’s attorney, Sierra Madre-based Melanie R. Savarese, was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon.