By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Photo by Jack GouldHey Chief,
Allow me to introduce myself: I'm the reporter who broke the story that Pamela Julien Houchen, a member of the Huntington Beach City Council, illegally converted a four-unit apartment building into four separate condominiums for a gross—and I mean that in the worst sense—profit of $500,000. That story came out last October. Since then, your detectives have interviewed at least one unsuspecting couple who bought their bogus condo from Houchen and who now suspect they've been royally screwed.
As both a council member and real-estate agent, it's pretty obvious Houchen knew—or at least should have known—the city has an ordinance that requires people to apply for a $7,000 city permit when they convert apartment buildings into condos. Something about protecting the city's affordable-housing stock, making sure the units are really up to code, and giving the poor saps renting them a chance to buy them.
Anyway, you've publicly announced that your investigation is focused on not just real-estate fraud, but also grand theft. Oops. Did I say investigation? I know you scolded the LA Times when they used that word in a follow-up article to my story—and they apologized. Apparently, the correct word is probe. Whatever you call it, it sounds as if you've had more than enough time to review the evidence. That's why I'm sure you agree it's high time to arrest Houchen for real-estate fraud.
I realize that arresting Houchen sounds pretty extreme and you want to make sure the charges stick before you besmirch her good name. And, truthfully, the condo-conversion ordinance she violated is pretty obscure. That reminds me of another obscure city ordinance, the one that defined people's front lawns as public property unless surrounded by a three-foot fence.
Several years ago—as the city braced for another Independence Day after previous July 4s saw riots, drunken brawls in the streets and squad cars set ablaze—the city attorney happened to discover that ordinance and realized it could be used to justify arresting people on their front lawns for drinking in public. On July 4, 1996, Surf City's finest arrested 549 people, including 236 who were busted for drinking cocktails on their own property. Most of these citizens you're now sworn to protect and serve had to serve a night in an outdoor holding cell, Guantanamo-style, shortly after a bunch of City Council members showed up for a thumbs-up photo op with the police, right in front of the chicken wire.
But I digress. Arresting Houchen would send a strong message that holding an elected office in Huntington Beach doesn't mean you're above the law. You're pretty new around here, but I bet you've heard about ex-mayor Dave Garofalo, who resigned from his job and pleaded guilty to charges of corruption after the Weekly made a big fuss over his habit of voting to give his political contributors lucrative city contracts. Houchen's no Garofalo, but she's still slimy. Remember how she voted to allow a paintball competition on the city beach? An event that would financially benefit a company whose offices were renovated by her husband, Bryan Houchen, a contractor who also refurbished the bogus condos his old ball and chain sold?
Whassat? You're worried the charges won't stick? Stick, schmick. A lot of the folks who got arrested for drinking in public later had the charges dropped—after they had already spent the night pissing on one another in a toilet-free holding cell. On the bright side, nobody will ever forget that Surf City doesn't tolerate public intoxication on July 4. All of which proves that protecting public safety and preventing future crimes sometimes requires arresting innocent people (see the USA Patriot Act). The same adage goes for arresting Houchen—everything except for the innocent part, that is.
Have a bitchen summer!—Nick Schou