By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
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Photo by Jack GouldMired in an illegal-condominium-conversion scandal that sparked an FBI investigation, real-estate agent Pamela Houchen abruptly resigned from the Huntington Beach City Council on Sept. 2 due to unspecified "personal reasons."
But will Houchen's departure—which came almost a year after the Weekly revealed she had apparently converted apartment units into condominiums illegally—protect her from the possibility of facing federal charges of bank fraud?
"Of course not," said a source close to the FBI probe.
Houchen's self-removal from city politics also does nothing to solve the mess left by the condo-conversion scandal in the middle of which she finds herself. About 120 people have been left with bogus condos and had their life savings jeopardized. The city has also been cut out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in affordable housing funds and other permit-related fees.
Some close to City Hall celebrated Houchen's resignation, saying it was the best thing to happen since former Mayor Dave Garofalo quit the council before pleading guilty to one felony and 15 misdemeanor counts of political corruption. He was disallowed from ever seeking political office again.
"Things might calm down a bit now that she's gone," said City Planning Commissioner Bob Dingwall, who noted that Houchen served as the point person for developers hell-bent on virtually eliminating the Huntington Beach Planning Commission. "For the city as a whole, it's a good thing. It doesn't do our local government any good to have somebody almost under indictment and all that bad publicity. It's Dave Garofalo all over again."
But Dingwall did not lay all the blame for the condo-conversion scandal at Houchen's pedicured feet. "I think the stroke of the brush needs to be broader," he said. "There are a bunch of people who bought those illegal condos and are victims and are going to get hurt. And that's wrong."
City Attorney Jennifer McGrath said her office was researching whether it could waive half the fees owed by the victims in the scandal, which would leave city taxpayers on the hook for the rest. Although the Weekly has reported that city officials knew about the illegal conversions as far back as three years ago—well before many victims were screwed—McGrath denied that anything more could have been done.
Asked why the city hadn't stopped the illegal conversions from continuing until just a few months before the Weekly broke the story of Houchen's involvement last October, McGrath said, "Those efforts were made." Specifically, McGrath said, she personally met with the title companies involved in the illegal conversions and asked them to stop what they were doing.
"I subsequently found out they were still doing it," she said. "I met with them again and said, 'You can't do this.' To the best of my knowledge, we had stopped it. We didn't know the gravity of what was happening."
A source close to City Hall doesn't buy that version of events. "This is a total indictment of how incompetent every facet of government is in Huntington Beach," the source said. "What a fucking mess these jackasses have made."
The ongoing condo-conversion scandal could send an elected official to federal prison for the first time in Huntington Beach history. But it is just the latest episode in the protracted political soap opera that has given Surf City a reputation for unparalleled sleaze within Orange County. Before the Houchen controversy, there was Garofalo, who repeatedly used his council position to vote on matters that financially benefited people who advertised in his local newspaper.
Things weren't always this way: Surf City's elected representatives used to have a reputation for wackiness, not slime.
Back in the 1980s, there was Mayor Jack Kelly, who played Bart on the CBS show Maverick starring James Garner. Kelly, a hard drinker who ran a throwaway rag that read like The New York Timescompared to Garofalo's, died in 1992.
Then there was Huntington Beach Police Chief Earl Robitaille, a hard-nosed, crew-cut loudmouth who joined the council after retiring from the force and routinely berated members of the public who had the audacity to say things he didn't agree with. "Screw you and the horse you rode in on" was one of his favorite refrains before he left Surf City a decade ago for Baja California, where he is now a quasi-vigilante leader for trailer-park gringos.