You Didnt Read It Here First

Register naps on Houchen story, then takes credit for her resignation

Photo by Jack GouldAccording to The Orange County, Pamela Houchen resigned from the Huntington Beach City Council last month because of the fish wrap's hard-hitting investigative reporting. On Sept. 2, the day she left office, the Register wrote that Houchen had violated state law by secretly converting a condo inside a city redevelopment zone. Houchen's resignation letter declared she was quitting her job for "personal reasons."

Because of the timing of that story, the Register has attempted to take credit for unseating Houchen. Yet despite writing numerous articles about the city's investigation of dozens of illegal conversions, the Register never reported Houchen's involvement in the scandal until May 1, 2004, several months after the Weekly broke the story in October 2003. That Regarticle ran under the headline "Council member Part of Condo Dispute," and like the newspaper's subsequent follow-up stories, the Reg never credited the Weekly for the scoop.

In journalism, we call that really fucking rude.

Here's some background: having apparently been notified of Houchen's involvement in the scandal by the Weekly, Huntington Beach Police began investigating her early this year. But after several months passed with no indication the cops were going to bust Houchen—and with both the Times and Reg taking a nap on the story—the Weekly on July 16 ran an open letter addressed to Surf City Police Chief Kenneth Small titled "Arrest Houchen Now; Ask Questions Later." Embarrassed by that story, Small subsequently leaked word to the Register that he had already handed his probe over to the Orange County district attorney's office and the FBI.

"Chief Small wasn't happy with the [Weekly] article," said a source close to the investigation. "So he started leaking information."

The latest of those leaks led to the Oct. 15 Register article "Condo Papers Appear Forged" by Zaheera Wahid and Tony Saavedra. The story mentions Houchen in the third paragraph, for the apparent sole purpose of crediting the Register with unseating her. But the article itself—about illegal conversions going back more than a decade and the possibility that some of the paperwork from those antiquated transactions were forged—had nothing to do with Houchen.

Most of those transactions involved real-estate broker and agent Phil Benson, founder of Huntington Beach-based Pier Realty (he later sold the firm to Jan Shomaker, Houchen's hand-picked city planning commissioner, who is also being investigated by the FBI and resigned her post months ago). Benson is recovering from chemotherapy in Idaho and has refused to comment on the scandal to the Weekly, the Times and the Register.

The questionable sales took place, as the Register article itself concedes, "years before Houchen became involved." You could also say they took place years before Houchen was even a real-estate agent. Until 1996, when she first joined the City Council, Houchen was a furniture saleswoman.

All of this is old news. In fact, just about the only new information contained in the Register article concerned certain notary signatures—as well as a notary's stamp—that were apparently forged. The notary in question, Kristi Bowling, told the Reg her signature and stamp was forged on numerous documents involving 72 transactions.

Careless readers of this story—which ran with a photo of one of Houchen's illegally converted buildings—might assume she had something to do with the forgeries. In fact, she wasn't involved. But that's probably because she didn't need to forge anything, since her pal (and boss and alleged co-conspirator) at Pier Realty, Shomaker, is also a public notary. Call it an inside job: instead of forging signatures, she just had Shomaker sign the paperwork.

Uncovering decades-old forgeries involving retired real-estate agents and low-profile public notaries isn't bad journalism, but suggesting that has something to do with Houchen's resignation is. And failing to credit us? It's amateur hour on Grand Avenue.

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