Newport police chief denies harassment accusations

13 May
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The dispatch room of the Newport Beach Police Department. Former dispatcher Christine Hougan is suing the department, the city and Chief Jay Johnson, alleging harassment.

Last week news spread that Newport Beach police Chief Jay Johnson had been accused of sexual harassment and intimidation by fired NBPD dispatcher Christine Hougan.

In the lawsuit, filed April 29 in Orange County Superior Court, Hougan cites several instances in which the chief’s behavior made her uncomfortable.

She claims he’d come into dispatch 90 percent of the time she worked. On more than one occasion he leaned into her console and said, “I like you, I really like you,” she said her in suit.

She also claims she “could feel his breath on the back of her neck.”

When the chief’s brother visited and was introduced to her, he remarked, “Ooh, I like that uniform,” and stared at her legs, she said in the suit.

Hougan says Johnson did nothing to chastise or object to what his brother said.

I talked to Johnson and he told me he’s done nothing wrong.

He said an independent investigation by the city into these allegations cleared him.

Hougan acknowledges in her lawsuit that she “engaged in conduct that was extremely disruptive to the Command Center, and ultimately it was offered as evidence in support of her termination many months later.”

Her main allegation in the suit, filed against Johnson, the Newport Beach Police Department and the city, is that that Johnson used his rank and power to intimidate her after her husband John Hougan, a former NBPD officer, had been fired in 2011.

John Hougan filed a lawsuit in July claiming retaliation after testifying on behalf of Sgt. Neil Harvey, who won a $1.2 million judgment against the department. Harvey said the department discriminated against him because he was gay.

A lot of what’s in Christine Hougan’s complaint is about how she and her husband were treated after he testified.

Johnson wasn’t even working for Newport Beach police then, but was ultimately the one who fired them.

I wanted to ask Hougan about her suit but calls to her attorney went unanswered.

Johnson told me that after Hougan’s husband was fired, he tried to talk to Christine Hougan and make her as comfortable about the situation as possible.

He told me he rarely saw Hougan since she worked part-time on the weekends, when he was off.

Rather than appeal her firing, Hougan sent a letter to Newport City Manager Dave Kiff about her claims of harassment and intimidation.

Johnson says he insisted the city hire an outside investigator to thoroughly examine the allegations.

The investigators interviewed witnesses and Johnson as well.

“I completely cooperated. In the end, all these allegations were proven to be frivolous and unfounded. I was cleared of all of this,” Johnson told me.

I asked city attorney Aaron Harp for a copy of the investigation. He told me they don’t release these reports because witnesses are more forthright when they know what they say will be kept confidential.

He wouldn’t comment on the investigation.

“It is important for the city to determine what really happened when charges are leveled against our employees,” he said.

I find it hard to believe Johnson would do anything off-color to Hougan after her husband filed such a high-profile lawsuit.

Those who intimidate and harass have a pattern of this behavior. By all accounts Johnson he has no history of this.

And as far as Johnson standing so close to her that she felt his breath on her neck, that’s not washing for me, either.

If you’re familiar with NBPD dispatch, there’s anywhere from three to four people sitting close to each other at all times.

Johnson’s more than 6 feet tall and would’ve had to bend way down to breathe on anyone seated, and be in full view of other dispatchers

But I’m not the only one who thinks this lawsuit doesn’t pass the smell test.

Former NBPD captain and now Costa Mesa’s police Chief Tom Gazsi told me, “During my year working for Jay I saw strong character and high integrity and think highly of the man.”

“I believe these characterizations of Chief Jay Johnson are false,” said Steve Rasmussen, president of the Newport Beach Police Management Association. “It is sad that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”

Rasmussen says when the facts come out; the public will know what he already does: That Johnson is a fair, decent and ethical man, he said.

Before you say all cops stick together, that hasn’t been my experience with NBPD.

In 2008-09 I wrote several articles in which cops of all ranks candidly discussed allegations of the cronyism regarding the promotional process within the department.

When Johnson became NBPD chief, decades of distrust between the rank and file and management ended. He ushered in a new era for this department.

“When I first got this job I made a promise to the community that I would be accessible, responsible and transparent. The community needs to know I have nothing to hide,” he told me.



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