It was impossible for Balboa Peninsula motorists to notice anything unusual when they passed Newport Beach City Hall on the afternoon of March 10, 2011. The warm sun hovering above steady beach traffic and palm trees swaying from a periodic, lazy breeze revealed just a typical, Southern California day. But not far from Pacific Coast Highway, on a sidewalk adjacent to 32nd Street–a road flanking local government offices until last year's relocation–high-ranking police officers were teaching a lesson to one of Orange County's most heroic whistleblowers and his wife: Mess with us, and you'll pay dearly.
In recent years, daily examples of faithful public service inside the Newport Beach Police Department (NBPD) have been overshadowed by alarming corruption. City officials ignore or downplay the misconduct, but NBPD bosses turned the agency into a darker, stupider version of Animal House. Court records and internal documents show the city's boys in blue have accepted gratuities in exchange for favors, gotten frat-boy drunk at work, lied under oath, passed out confidential information to pals, encouraged oral sex from female job applicants, committed wild adultery on duty, doctored official reports, hurled feces, dished out horrific domestic violence against wives and girlfriends, engaged in intoxicated bar fights, issued criminal threats, vandalized property, converted powerful agency spy equipment to personal use, and rigged promotion systems to ensure mostly see-no-evil, management-loyal employees rise–and let the hijinks continue.
One of the more honorable cops at NBPD was John Hougan, who began working at the department in 1990 and earned a promotion to sergeant in 2005. Solving more than 400 sexual assaults, Hougan enjoyed a respectable reputation. He served as the lead detective in the notorious Haidl Gang Rape case, refusing Orange County Sheriff's Department pressure to sabotage the investigation since one of the defendants was the spoiled son of Don Haidl, an assistant sheriff and wealthy used-car dealer who purchased his badge in violation of California law.
Though not perfect, Hougan was the type of cop citizens appreciated: hard-working, polite and without authoritarian impulses. In late 2008, he was summoned to Orange County Superior Court as a witness in a lawsuit filed by a colleague, Neil Harvey, who sued NBPD for illegally blocking his promotions. Police management labeled Harvey gay, a conclusion erroneously deduced, in part, because he wrote coherent incident reports, offered crime victims compassionate assistance and lived in artsy Laguna Beach. A stream of officers, including then-chief John Klein, testified there had been no anti-gay animus against Harvey, but Hougan refused to lie or suffer fake amnesia. He described unlawful harassment heaped on Harvey, and, when asked, he named the offenders: basically the entire command staff. Thanks largely to that testimony, Harvey won the $2 million case.
For nearly two decades, Hougan's personnel record glowed with commendations and praiseful letters from residents. Not a single serious reprimand or Internal Affairs (IA) probe marred his file. But in the wake of the Harvey trial and his complaints of rigged promotions, colleagues mad-dogged him, called him a "snitch" and a "traitor," stole his personal property, and even taped a picture of a bomb on his desk. Other officers began looking for ways to tarnish his career. Captain Dale Johnson, one of the cops Hougan identified in the Harvey smear, called him into his office, shut the door and said he didn't appreciate the testimony on Harvey's behalf. "I just wanted you to know that," said Johnson, according to Hougan, who replied before walking out, "Is that all?"
Which brings us back to that idyllic March 10, 2011, afternoon.
That day, the city's civil-service board held its monthly meeting to hear Hougan argue a claim alleging illegal retaliation by the NBPD. After the trial, his bosses had launched a supposedly "random" audit of office computer use that somehow focused solely on Hougan and found that, on some days, he allegedly deactivated Google's "safe search" button to surf the Internet for risqué or pornographic images. Instead of telling the sergeant to knock off the conduct, officials saw the chance to secretly build a case for severe punishment. According to IA records, Hougan's searches included "Jennifer Lopez," "scantily clad," "Tim Tebow girlfriend," "topless," "Octomom," "nude," "Brooke Mueller," "Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders," "peephole" and "Snooki."
Over the years, dozens of cops have been caught misusing NBPD computers–some far worse than Hougan's breach–without suffering any meaningful punishment. But NBPD Chief Jay Johnson, a Klein replacement, demoted Hougan from sergeant to officer (a move that resulted in about a 20 percent annual pay loss), claiming his decision was "fair" and "impartial" and entirely unrelated to the Harvey trial or his protests over promotions rigging.
Johnson wasn't done with Hougan yet. At the board meeting, the chief–thinking his words would be shielded from public consumption during a closed session–slyly enticed its old, conservative members to uphold his decision by offering erroneous, inflammatory testimony: Johnson wondered aloud if Hougan and his police-dispatcher wife, Christie, were promiscuous with other couples. In the retaliation game, the move was akin to wounding two birds with one stone.
"I have reviewed some of the websites and things that [Hougan] was looking at," Johnson said, according to a transcript obtained by the Weekly. "And I know that some of the websites he was interested in [were related to] wife swapping. So, if that is something that he and his wife were comfortable with, maybe she does know about [his illicit web use]. I don't know."
[I wanted to ask the police chief what pornography he'd watched in anticipation of making this point and how he understood the sexual interaction to be wife swapping, but he did not respond to three attempts for an interview.]
Hougan sent Christie, who was off-duty and waiting in the lobby of the board meeting, a text message about Johnson's remarks. When the chief and Lieutenant Jeff Lu emerged on the sidewalk at 32nd Street, she confronted them. Cops can only surreptitiously record a conversation for a criminal investigation, but Johnson turned on his iPhone voice recorder to capture her words without getting permission.
Christie wanted to know why he'd tainted her with a wife-swapping suggestion after repeatedly reassuring her on earlier occasions that he was her ally.
"If it's any consolation, I didn't say that," the chief replied. "I said that . . . Well, I'm not going to tell what I said, but I don't think it's appropriate to talk about it."
Christie seethed. "Oh, I got it, hun," she said. "You know what? This is not going to be pretty. Not after those comments. It's not going to be pretty."
Johnson asked what she meant.
"This whole thing, it's not going to end well," she replied.
"Are you threatening me, Christie? I don't get this."
"Am I threatening you?" she asked. "I'm not at work. I'm a private person right now. You're not paying me. I'm having a discussion with you."
Her husband walked up, and she told the chief, "When I get back to work and tell everybody what you're saying about me in the courtroom, your credibility is gonna go through the floor."
Lu ordered her to keep her mouth shut about the accusation. "How do you know I said anything about you?" Johnson fired back.
As he demanded she reveal her source, Hougan pulled her away.
The next day, at the continued civil-service board hearing, Hougan's lawyer, Saku Ethir, got Johnson to admit the demotion of her client was the harshest discipline he'd ever imposed for improper computer use and, more important, that the wife-swapping tale was bogus.
"In that entire [IA] report, was there any reference to any searches done by Sergeant Hougan that pertained to wife swapping?"
"No, ma'am," the chief conceded.
Civil-service board hearings contain a confidentiality provision designed to protect the accused officer. But members displayed their coziness to Johnson by ridiculously lecturing Hougan for violating the chief's right to confidentiality when he told Christie about the lame accusation. Not surprisingly, the board–stacked with well-connected, political-appointee hacks–approved the demotion.
After the sidewalk incident, Johnson ordered Lu to make a record of Christie's "inappropriate" and "demeaning" comments. The chief followed up with a memo outlining his victimhood and forwarded the tape recording to his trusty IA unit. Those investigators refused to determine if the recording violated state law or to consider if the unfounded wife-swapping line was a form of sexual harassment or a simple policy-violating lie.
But, soon, John and Christie Hougan would find absurdly trivial matters sculpted into unforgivable firing offenses–and the NBPD's top brass would successfully push out more whistleblowers from its ranks.
A 2012 survey of rank-and-file NBPD officers conducted in advance of a police "team-building workshop" revealed a desire to "eliminate the good ole [sic] boy system." The sentiment had lingered for decades, stemming from the 1980s, when cops had used the radio call "NIN"–"Nigger in Newport"–whenever a black person was spotted in the upscale, overwhelmingly white city. All of the department's highest ranks have been occupied for years by men, almost entirely Caucasian males. Asked earlier this year to identify all the women in his chain of command, Johnson could only name his secretary.
Other tactics to maintain the status quo were subtler. It was no secret inside the agency that senior officials employed multiple, shifting systems to bypass civil-service rules over who won promotions. One scheme ensured that the top three scoring candidates in the various tests for, say, a captain's post finished in a tie. The scenario gave cover for the police chief to select candidates most loyal to the cause, not most qualified or honest. Another plot, launched during Chief Bob McDonell's reign (1993 to 2007), gave retiring management allies secret, side employment agreements that inflated their benefits packages and also kept top slots technically occupied until the bosses could maneuver a particular acceptable candidate into play.
It was under this system that dozens of examples of incompetence began piling up in state and federal court cases. For example, veteran Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Jeri de la Torre felt shock when she transferred to NBPD and believed her training officers, Jerry Lowe and Randy Querry, were demeaning and condescending. Though she'd received honors for her LAPD work on dangerous gang assignments, she was berated in Newport Beach as unqualified to match their supposedly tougher standards. Other officers made clear they wanted her gone, and she feared for her safety. "On two occasions, I had my tires on my car punctured in the [gated] parking lot at the department," de la Torre–who retired two years ago–testified in a June 2014 deposition in the Christie Hougan case. When she asked to inspect surveillance video of the parking lot, management told her tapes for the days of the vandalism were missing.
During this period, two important developments happened that perpetuated the good ol' boys scheme. After McDonell retired, he and Homer Bludau (the city manager who'd eventually get caught taking free meals from a Balboa Bay restaurant that won the quiet, unapproved conversion of 11 public parking spaces into private valet slots) saw to it that McDonell confidante John Klein would become chief. In Klein, Captain Jim Kaminsky had a buddy. The two men took trips together to attend Chicago Cubs games and Los Angeles Angels' spring-training events in Arizona.
NBPD officers such as Hougan discovered and documented allegations that Kaminsky also enjoyed the finer things in life–especially if individuals seeking police favors were paying. For example, he accepted free hotel rooms, bar tabs, sports tickets and massages at the swank Island Hotel in Newport Center near Fashion Island, according to allegations contained in court files. Those same records assert that Kaminsky destroyed valid parking-violation tickets at the request of that hotel's management and eased license requirements for their massage-service providers. Police and city management had no apparent concerns about Kaminsky's numerous transgressions, which court records show included substantial pornographic-website browsing on duty.
In 2010, California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) fined Kaminsky $1,000 for failing to declare several years worth of gifts on public-disclosure forms. He was allowed to retire with full benefits and, unlike Hougan, without departmental discipline. City attorney Aaron Harp insisted to a Los Angeles Times reporter in the embarrassing FPPC aftermath that "there's no evidence of any wrongdoing by any members of the [NBPD]." Evidence sometimes just disappears. City officials had agreed to a confidential contract with Kaminsky, compelling them to erase his personnel file as soon as legally possible; not wanting the public to know the depths of their police cesspool, they complied.
Klein had been forced to resign in June 2009, in the wake of an investigation into how he received his promotion to chief. But even with an interim chief in charge for about a year, management-favored cops continued to win special treatment despite misconduct allegations. In a court deposition for the Christie Hougan case, Michael O'Beirne–who worked as a NBPD cop for 11 years until suffering an on-duty motorcycle accident–shared examples of the department's warped ethics. "In January 2010, I learned that fellow officer Damon Psaros became so intoxicated he took his own fecal matter [after defecating in his hand] and threw it on another officer, Detective Bob Watts," O'Beirne testified. He said the incident resulted in no punishment. Psaros is now a lieutenant and Chief Johnson's training officer.
O'Beirne–who served as a police-union official–also revealed a 2012 incident involving Captain Johnson (no relation to the current chief) at a Palm Desert resort hosting a police-management decision-making conference. "He was so drunk that he made a mess, spilling the contents of his cooler when he arrived at the hotel," testified O'Beirne, who said the event resulted in no discipline.
In case it's not clear how justice works in NBPD, there's the federal case of Zachary McEligot, who had a friend working at the Island Hotel and reported Kaminsky's arrangement. According to court records, McEligot additionally claimed McDonell took a $10,000 luxury weekend at the establishment for free and NBPD management wanted the hotel-security staff to erase surveillance-camera recordings on certain dates so there would be no record of the identities of who accompanied the cops during their visits.
There was no reward for honesty. More than a decade of positive employment reviews ended for McEligot. Management moved his shift 30 minutes earlier without telling him, then issued a formal reprimand when he showed up at the usual time. IA investigations were launched and determined that his civilian uniform, while neat, had not been in perfect compliance with policy. In 2012, department officials claimed McEligot deserved firing.
"It was clear that defendants sought to terminate the plaintiff in retaliation for his disclosures of illegal activities by high-ranking members of the NBPD," McEligot's pending federal lawsuit states. "The basis given for the termination are disingenuous and pretext for the true reasons which motivated plaintiff's termination."
In June 2010, Jay Johnson replaced Klein. If Klein played country bumpkin, Johnson is more city slicker. He graduated from high school with honors and began college interested in mechanical engineering before deciding on a law-enforcement career enhanced by a master's degree from Cal State Long Beach. Tall, trim and possessing a toothy smile, Johnson's intellectual confidence is often displayed by a willingness to engage in verbal chess matches, according to NBPD sources. There are reports he has imperial impulses, too. According to court records, he once ordered officers to clear traffic congestion for his family to attend a Back Bay party. He has also been known to play dumb. Though bitter tensions dominated the department during his arrival, Johnson claimed under oath that he "didn't see any animosity."
Shortly after becoming chief, Johnson had demoted Hougan, leading to the officer's October 2010 complaint and the dramatic March 2011 confrontation outside Newport Beach City Hall after the civil-service board meeting. By then, Johnson had already played one final ace against Hougan. In February 2011, a demoted, heavily medicated Hougan was at home recovering from a serious injury that happened during an altercation days earlier with a hostile suspect. Lieutenant Lu, Johnson's right-hand man, called to inform Hougan he was suspected of running over a bird on the beach earlier that year.
Newport Beach has some of the nation's best lifeguards patrolling 6.2 miles of gorgeous Pacific Ocean coastline. In certain sections, the beach is wide, with pockets of hilly sand mounds that can hide the presence of small animals such as birds. Lifeguards in city vehicles accidentally run over and kill the birds dozens of times a year. Within lifeguard management, the incidents have never merited an employee reprimand. But Hougan was different. Lu, who never recovered the alleged dead bird, told him he was now the target of another IA investigation.
No Newport cop had ever been singled out for such an act. Immediately inside NBPD, Lu's move was recognized by officers as an "RF," meaning "rat fuck," according to court records. The department fired Hougan five months later for allegedly not living up to the department's ethical standards.
Next up on Chief Johnson's hot seat? Christie Hougan.
We've all seen TV news stories in which an unprofessional police dispatcher rudely treats a frantic caller in a life-or-death emergency, but Christie perfected the job she loved. Her personnel file is loaded with more than a decade of accolades showing her performances consistently earned "exceeds expectations" grades. To her credit, she maintained that record while undergoing severe experiences. In the 1990s, she found her mother raped and murdered, an event that left her with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition returned years later when three men working for Sit 'N Sleep tried to rob Christie in the presence of her infant child during a mattress delivery.
Though painful, the traumas reinforced her determination to be a caring dispatcher. In one case, a 13-year-old boy arrived home from school, found his mother unresponsive and called 911. On a telephone line involving several dispatchers at different emergency-services agencies, Christie was the most calming voice for the boy, according to NBPD reports. After the call concluded, she wept, knowing the kid's mother was dead, but quickly regained her composure when new calls for help came from other citizens.
"That poor kid will remember for the rest of his life hearing her voice and hearing somebody who sounded very caring," said Kathy McGlinchey, a 20-year colleague who described Christie as a "great" dispatcher. "I love her. Everybody felt the same way."
Well, not everybody at NBPD shared the affection. Pro-management cops increased Christie's tension by talking disparagingly about her husband in her presence. Senior officials played their role, too. Johnson's command staff secretly monitored the Hougans' email exchanges that revealed how the department's hostility drove the couple emotionally apart. John wanted the retaliation to end; Christie wanted a swift conclusion to the nightmare and, in some communications, voiced her contempt that her husband had landed them on the verge of financial doom. McGlinchey observed the situation was "difficult" for Christie. "I don't think she felt safe," she said.
John had been fired, Christie was under IA investigation, there were bills to pay and children to raise, and their frustration with each other was mounting. Chief Johnson began standing behind her in the dispatch room, breathing heavily on her neck and telling her he was there for her if she needed consolation, according to Christie. In another incident, the chief's brother, a Long Beach cop, noted his appreciation of her legs during a tour of NBPD facilities.
Christie filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the department in April 2013, having been fired a year earlier. City lawyers tried to mock her on allegations of sexual harassment during a deposition, but she declared she'd spent most of her adult life around "alpha male" cops and easily recognized their romantic advances. She also asserted the chief talked in front of women about the size of his hands as an indicator of sexual prowess. When the two met in the chief's office, he allegedly sat inches from her while insisting he was looking out for her, according to court records.
Though the chief denied inappropriate conduct in depositions, his IA unit busily worked to nail Christie. With the intensity of a serial-killer probe, seasoned felony detectives Mark Hamilton and Joe Cartwright interrogated her about confronting the chief over his wife-swapping remarks. They built an insubordination case by digging through her emails and finding that she'd told her best friend, who had no NBPD connection, about the chief's remark. They created a case for unprofessionalism because of a single cuss word uttered a year earlier, though numerous cops attest to the fact that profanity is a daily staple of police work. They manufactured a case that claimed she'd said "disparaging" remarks about the chief, a frequent occurrence among staffers that had never before resulted in an IA probe, much less firing. They concluded Christie had been "inappropriate" for protesting the chief's brother's comment about her legs. They even claimed she had disrupted dispatch. Though IA didn't bother to interview everybody in the unit, her reviews remained outstanding and an internal memo documented it was another employee, a man, who mostly created tension in the unit.
In a deposition conducted by Melanie R. Savarese, Christie's attorney, Lieutenant Jon Lewis–the man who was in charge of the IA probe and agreed he'd "always" respected the dispatcher's job performance–admitted "it never occurred to me" that she was protected under state law from retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment.
Savarese asked Lewis a hypothetical question: "If, tomorrow, a subordinate comes to you and says, 'Lieutenant, another co-worker is accusing me and my husband of wife swapping,' would you expect that under the policies of the police department and the city, that the employee would be free from retaliation?"
Lewis answered, "Yes."
Then the lieutenant bumbled an explanation for Christie's January 2012 firing, saying, "Well, we'll go back and look at it. I mean, I can't, this is, in terms of, if you want to go through the whole analysis, I mean, it's been documented. You have those documents. I mean, it's there. I mean, I think it speaks for itself."
Christie's attorney got Lewis to admit employees have been framed in the past by their NBPD enemies, who threw "mud against the wall to see what sticks."
"It happens," the lieutenant replied.
Three weeks before the firing, Christie's boss sent Lewis a draft of her annual performance review to allow him to make edits, but he didn't. The review mentioned the 10-month-old cuss-word incident and stated, "Christie appears to have been putting her best foot forward in an attempt to maintain positive working relationships with her co-workers, and it has not gone unnoticed. This is the type of behavior that is expected of our employees, and it's refreshing to see her continue to move in a positive direction."
Savarese asked Lewis if he disagreed with the review. "I mean, she, you know, his comments there, I don't have any issues with," he replied.
Who had Lewis consulted before ignoring the good performance review and making the termination recommendation?
"I may have spoken to Dale Johnson about it," he said–naming the very captain who'd confronted John Hougan after his testimony in the Harvey trial.
Lewis sent his recommendation to the man who'd initiated the IA probe, Chief Johnson. He approved what he called a "serious" move.
Christie's conduct, the chief explained in a June 6 deposition in Los Angeles, was "very derogatory and defamatory and harmful to the city."
Elaborating, he said, "The overall assumption that I had was that she was going to try [to] hurt my reputation, falsely accuse me of things that I didn't do or say."
Asked if he tied the Hougans to promiscuity, Chief Johnson answered, "I did not. I have no idea if they've engaged in wife swapping."
He likes and cares for both Hougans, he testified.
Nine months ago, Newport Beach and the city's liability-insurance carrier decided they didn't want future juries to consider lawsuits filed by Craig Frizzell, Steven Shulman and Rob Morton. The trio of longtime, well-respected NBPD officers alleged they could prove rampant department corruption robbed them of fair promotions. They received a combined total of about $1 million in a settlement, and taxpayers got a bill of more than $650,000 in city legal expenses.
In the Hougan cases, NBPD lawyers have adopted a hardball strategy designed to extend the litigation by protesting every step. They've argued that John Hougan should not get his day in court after the civil-service board couldn't fathom the possibility of retaliation against him. They've fought the merging of his and Christie's lawsuits as completely unrelated matters, and they've vigorously blocked the Hougans' lawyers–Jack Girardi, Lawrence Lennemann and Savarese–from inspecting police personnel files that show brazen inconsistencies in officer punishments. Ex-judge Francisco Firmat served as a discovery referee and overruled the city's secrecy demands for clearly relevant records.
But at a Nov. 12 appeal hearing with Judge Franz Miller, Kyle Rowen–a privately retained city attorney–acknowledged that NBPD destroyed Kaminsky's file and argued that parts of a duplicate file remaining at another law firm used by Newport Beach should be kept secret.
"This court doesn't have jurisdiction over that [file]," Rowen claimed. "The city can't be forced to drive up to [that firm] and say, 'Give us the records.' . . . They aren't involved in the John Hougan litigation."
Miller didn't buy the reasoning, asking, "What precludes me from ordering the city to get the records back?"
A visibly flustered Rowan didn't want to do it. "There's nothing nefarious going on," he said. "There's no intention to cover up the Kaminsky files."
The judge nonetheless ordered existing records to be surrendered to the court by early December.
But the NBPD is losing. Christie's case is scheduled for jury trial on Jan. 5. Her husband's trial is set for March. A jury will hear McEligot's case in July. Whether any reform follows remains to be seen.