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Riding High, Wiping Out in Surf City

In business, politics and at home, Pam Houchen was a success. Now she has quit her council seat and faces divorce and a criminal investigation.

September 26, 2004|Stanley Allison and Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writers

For years, Pam Julien Houchen projected success on three fronts: as the can-do mother of triplets, a busy real estate businesswoman and a respected member of the Huntington Beach City Council.

Today, she watches from her home a block from City Hall as the world she commanded seems to be collapsing: She is being sued for divorce, is under criminal investigation for her alleged role in the conversion of apartments into condominiums without city permission, and last month resigned her council seat, just weeks before the end of her second term.

Houchen's fall from grace was as swift as her ascension eight years ago, when the former furniture company executive catapulted into municipal politics with confidence that belied her inexperience in government.

In her role as a real estate agent, Houchen, 47, is caught in a sweeping investigation into the conversion of at least 120 Huntington Beach condominiums without city permits.

Homeowners who bought the former apartment units have been unable to refinance or sell them -- and face assessments of about $20,000 per building to compensate for the city's loss of affordable rental housing.

The FBI, the Orange County district attorney and police are investigating Houchen's role in the conversions, according to a well-placed law enforcement source. Officials have declined to comment on the investigation.

Houchen and her attorney, John Barnett, also have declined to comment.

As Pam Julien, she first gained visibility in Huntington Beach as chairwoman of the executive board of the city's Fourth of July Parade Committee, and as president of the Bolsa Chica Alliance, a group that favored large-scale development of the Bolsa Chica mesa. She often attended council meetings, lobbying for development.

In 1996, Julien ran for City Council. With $44,000 in contributions, she mounted a polished campaign that touted her experience as a corporate vice president of Catalina Furniture, a La Mirada manufacturer. She took one of three contested seats.

Two years later, while volunteering for the city's parade committee, she met building contractor Brian Houchen. They were married in 2000, and in 2002 she gave birth to three girls.

She also began to forge her own political identity. Early in her council career, Houchen was seen as a shadow of fellow council member Dave Garofalo, who had supported her election.

But when Garofalo was accused of violating conflict-of-interest laws as the publisher of a local promotions magazine, Houchen led those applying pressure that prompted him to resign.

Houchen was criticized for possible conflict of interest when she voted to allow organizations -- including one that sponsored paintball tournaments -- to use city beaches, then leased office space to the paintball league.

At the time, Houchen -- who by this time had taken up a new career in real estate -- denied any wrongdoing, noting that the council vote was unanimous and that other organizations benefited from it. Nothing further came of the complaints.

The current allegations involving the illegal conversions of apartments to condominiums have had a more serious effect.

After the story surfaced last fall in the alternative newspaper OC Weekly, Houchen stopped attending council meetings and was barred by the city attorney from deliberating on how the city planned to bring some 120 units back into compliance.

The sales of the converted units had at least one thing in common: a single real estate office, -- Pier Realty, where Houchen worked as an agent.

The company is owned by real estate broker Jan Shomaker, whom Houchen had named as the councilwoman's representative on the city planning commission.

Among the buildings under investigation, according to police and property records, is a fourplex Houchen bought in 2001 for $530,000. The building was converted into condos and Houchen sold it without conversion permits 10 months later for a total of $1.1 million.

In July, months after the criminal investigation began, Houchen's husband filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences

Weeks later, on Sept. 1, Houchen -- who was termed out and due to step down after the November election -- resigned her council seat.

Ralph Bauer, a former councilman, echoes others in Huntington Beach who say they had come to admire Houchen for her civic work while raising children. "I feel badly," Bauer said. "I like her. She did a good job and worked hard."

But, he said, "if she did make a mistake, she's going to have to pay for it."

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