City report: Pham, though hardworking, struggled with emotional problems

COSTA MESA — Huy Pham, the Costa Mesa city maintenance worker who committed suicide in March, struggled with emotional problems in the months before his death, according to his personnel file.

The records, which became public after he died, were provided to media outlets by city officials this week.


While nobody will know exactly why the 29-year-old from Fountain Valley leaped off the five stories of City Hall's roof, many have speculated that he was reacting to the City Council's outsourcing plans. These documents, which span the four years he worked for the city, provide a slightly fuller picture of the man and his mental health.

Pham comes across as a hardworking, thorough employee who last summer began to exhibit signs of stress. After a supervisor found him sleeping while on the clock, Pham told city officials he was overloaded with work, school and side jobs, as well as friend and family issues.


"It just ended up being too much at one point," he told Public Services Director Peter Naghavi and Human Resources Administrator Lance Nakamoto during a September 2010 disciplinary hearing.

Pham comes off as distraught and tired in a recording of the 15-minute meeting.

Administrators recommended that Pham contact the counseling services offered through the city's health insurance, and take off work if necessary.

"Take any precaution that you have to take in order to get your life back on line, because you're too young to lose it," Naghavi said compassionately.


The Orange County Register, which filed a California Public Records Act request for the personnel files, first reported on their contents Thursday.

Outside of work, Pham wasn't exhibiting signs of stress, his brother John said Friday.

Pham was busy taking community college courses for a contracting license, and performing side jobs for relatives and other city employees, but "he never complained about it," John said.

After being disciplined for sleeping, Pham told his family about an issue at work, but John said "it didn't seem like it was anything too serious."

The one time John remembers Pham complaining about work was when he heard about pending citywide layoffs.

"That was the only thing that he was stressed about," John said.

Orange County Employees Assn. spokeswoman Jennifer Muir said the release of the personnel records were "just a sad attempt to diminish his memory."

Pham's regular performance reviews show he was commended for his detailed work. When he renovated meeting rooms at the senior center, a supervisor wrote that he displayed "superior workmanship."


"Your quality of work is exemplary and I am very lucky to have you on staff," supervisor Doug Lovell wrote in July 2010.

In the same review, he wrote to Pham that, with city cutbacks, we "will need you to be at 100% and I believe I can count on you."

Not long after, Pham started to display problems with tardiness and sleeping on the job. The July review also noted that he had been taking more sick time than usual during the preceding year.

"There are a lot of emotional things going on in my life right now," Pham said at the September hearing.

Pham said he planned to cut back on prescription medications and find someone else to fix up his relatives' properties to improve his "personal health."

Pham was taking Vicodin for back pain, John said, possibly for injuries from construction work. He declined to say if Pham was being treated for mental-health issues.

In the weeks before Pham's death, he was on medical leave with a broken ankle incurred while training for a trip to scale Mt. Everest this year.

A county coroner toxicology report found that Pham had traces of cocaine — .44 milligrams per liter of blood — in his system at the time of his death, which was the day he was to receive his layoff notice.

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said Pham's record shows that he had troubles, and that no single problem caused him to take his life.

"A person who commits suicide usually has a lot of issues in life," Righeimer said. "This is no different from the norm."