The rise and fall of former Huntington Beach Mayor Pamela Julien-Houchen is full of ironies, awe-inspiring arrogance and tragedy. Of the latter, there's the fact that the mother of three young triplets will now spend three years in federal prison. But all three qualities asserted themselves most vividly about four hours into Houchen's Sept. 25 sentencing hearing inside U.S. District Judge David O. Carter's courtroom: a victim of Houchen's illegal condominium conversion scheme had to remind the court how—and when—the whole thing started.
Earlier that morning, Houchen's attorneys had told Carter their client had been cooperative with the U.S. government from the moment the scandal broke in 2004. But Renee Tarnow, one of several Huntington Beach residents who had purchased bogus condos from Houchen and still has no legal title to her home—saw things differently. "It was an OC Weekly article . . . that came out in October 2003 that blew this thing wide open," Tarnow told Carter. "Her crimes have ruined my marriage. And they will scar my children forever . . . [Houchen] is not sorry for what she did, she is sorry she got caught."
Tarnow's history lesson was immediately lost on most of the reporters in the courtroom. According to the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, the scandal that removed Houchen from office and will send her to a federal prison on Nov. 6 didn't actually start until 2004. "Houchen, 49, was one of four defendants sentenced Monday in the scandal, which broke in 2004 after the city learned that as many as 120 apartment units had been illegally converted to condominiums without proper permits or modifications," the Times reported two days ago.
That's funny, seeing as how the Weekly first revealed the "scandal" on Oct. 17, 2003—several months and several articles before either the Times or the Registerpaid any attention to the story. That first article, "Condo-mania," revealed that even as Houchen was leading efforts on the Huntington Beach City Council in 2002 to remove Dave Garofalo from office—after the Weekly revealed his involvement in a conflict-of-interest scandal that led to his indictment on a felony and several misdemeanor corruption charges—Houchen herself had already broken the law.
In May 2001, Houchen purchased a fourplex on Green Street near Huntington Harbor for $500,300. Within a few months, Houchen had refurbished and sold each of the four units as condos—for a total sale price of $1,102,500—without ever declaring her ownership of the property at city hall. The article quoted Howard Zelefsky, the city's planning director, who said that because condo conversions deplete the stock of affordable housing, city law requires property owners to give 180 days notice to tenants, thus giving them a chance to buy the condo or find new housing. Houchen never did that.
Houchen, who failed to answer half a dozen telephone calls from the Weekly,had every reason to expect the bad publicity over her real estate shenanigans would blow over: both the Times and the Register printed nary a word about it. In May 2004, the Weekly ran another article about Houchen: "Putting the Con in Condo." The story included a detailed interview with one of Houchen's unhappy customers, Vincent Periolat, who didn't know his apartment unit wasn't really a condo until we told him.
Although Houchen would later claim she was the first conspirator in the scheme to recognize her crime, it was actually Houchen's boss at Pier Realty, Jan Shomaker, who holds that honor. On May 12, 2004, the Weekly reported that Shomaker, who was never charged in the scheme, resigned her position as Houchen's appointed planning commissioner just days after Huntington Beach police announced they were investigating Houchen. That story also pointed out a crucial piece of evidence that Houchen knew what she was doing was illegal: a Jan. 2, 2002, disclosure form in which she told Periolat that the property was "in a condominium conversion."
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Still the daily papers remained silent. They didn't jump on the story until a week after the Weekly published an open letter to Huntington Beach Police Chief Kenneth Small titled "Arrest Houchen Now, Ask Questions Later," when Small leaked the Register details of his investigation. Houchen promptly resigned her position on the council and signed a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office several months later admitting her guilt.
Houchen's plea deal kept her from spending six years in federal prison, but it didn't keep Judge Carter from handing her the stiffest possible sentence: 37 months in prison—seven more months than prosecutors had asked for. Both Houchen and her husband audibly gasped with shock. While Carter told a tearful Houchen he had "much sympathy" for her status as a mother of three young girls, he also felt she was "awfully culpable" in the case. "You and I both know that public officials will never be looked at the same way—that's a stain on the trust the voters gave us," he said.
Asked if he was surprised by the severity of the sentence, John Barnett, Houchen's defense attorney, seemed at a loss for words. "I don't think 'surprised' is the word I'd use," he said. For her part, Houchen donned a pair of dark sunglasses and fled the courtroom with her husband. As they left the building, she tried to hide behind him. But this time, there was no escaping the prying eyes of the press. Two photographers surrounded the couple, snapping pictures. Both she and her husband put their hands against the camera lenses, then jumped into an SUV parked across the street and sped away.