March 13, 2019 at 12:00 pm PDT | by Troy Masters
Photographer says he was not victimized by John Duran

Paulo Murillo was a photographer for WeHo Times during a Baby Trump Balloon rally at West Hollywood Park on October 27, 2018. (Photo courtesy Murillo)

Paulo Murillo, the editor of WeHoTimes, an online newspaper serving the City of West Hollywood, is annoyed at having been dragged into the center of a sex scandal which has consumed West Hollywood in recent weeks. He says at least one of the assertions made against councilman and former WeHo Mayor John Duran, an incident in which he was named, is unfair.

Murillo says he became the subject of a complaint and an investigation brought against Duran without his knowledge or consent.

Among the incidents cited as justification for Duran’s removal from the City Council during a series of public protests in February was a formal complaint filed by a city employee that Duran had made sexually suggestive remarks to an independent photographer, photographing a public event at West Hollywood Park in October, 2018.

According to the Los Angeles Times, West Hollywood City Events Services Coordinator, Mike Gerle, made the complaint in an email December 5 to Christof Schroeder in the city’s human resources department. Gerle wrote that he overheard Duran make a sexually charged comment to a photographer who was lying on the ground, saying “Paulo’s always on his back.”

The photo Paulo Murillo took while laying on his back. (Photo by Paulo Murillo)

Gerle reported that the incident had occurred while he was working at a city-sponsored rally at WeHo Park where a giant balloon depicting President Trump as an infant was floated.

In the email Gerle also complained that Duran had additionally engaged in a lengthy exchange with Gerle’s husband on the gay dating app Grindr and that Duran had made him feel uncomfortable on several occasions where Duran appeared shirtless at city public events like the Halloween parade and LA Pride.

In a reply dated Feb. 11, 2019, the City’s Human Resources department responded to Gerle: “the allegation(s) have not been sustained” and the city “recommends continuing to limit your interaction with Mayor Duran, per your request, without diminishing your job responsibilities or opportunities for advancement” and that his complaints were unsubstantiated.”

Gerle’s email complaint was part of the debate that led the Council on February 19 to consider censure of Duran. In that meeting during the time allotted for council member’s comments, Lindsey Horvath doubled down on a call for Duran to resign. The Council “cannot focus on the work of the people when we have to address new and numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, including whether our mayor used his title to solicit sexual favors,” she said.

John Duran resigned while hospitalized at Cedars Sinai Hospital for blood clots. With his resignation he posted this image. (Photo Duran’s Facebook)

On March 4, after Duran had voluntarily stepped down as Mayor in a social media announcement, the council, in a unanimous 4-0 vote during that regular session, denied Duran the right to travel on city business at the city’s expense for one year, reimbursement for city-related expenses for one year, and required the presence of a third person city employee when he is interacting with city staff. The council also voted to monitor his city emails.

A further motion to censure also passed after public comments from city residents and community business leaders who had expressed their frustrations with Duran’s alleged sexual misconduct. But the City Attorney Mike Jenkins objected to a proposed censure resolution and strongly articulated his view that allegations of sexual misconduct by Duran have not been proven.

“We have a lot of innuendo. We have a lot of unsupported allegations and I would be uncomfortable including those in any resolution of censure,” he said.

For his part, Murillo says Gerle should have discussed the incident with him before making a formal complaint which involved him. While Gerle may have felt Duran’s comments were unwanted or inappropriate, Murillo did not.

“He was so bothered and offended for me, that he ran to WeHo City’s HR department, threw my name in the hat….without even thinking about how this drama would affect me personally,” he wrote in WeHoTimes.

The City of West Hollywood communications department was contacted for this article. “HR matters are private and confidential and the City cannot provide comment,” City of West Hollywood Director of Communications Lisa Marie Belsanti wrote in an email.

In an interview Tuesday, March 12, The Los Angeles Blade questioned Murillo.

The Los Angeles Blade: Why does it matter that you were named in this investigation?
Paulo Murillo: I was named as a victim of sexual impropriety without my knowledge or consent. My phone number was given to WeHo City Human Resources and I was an unwilling bystander in this drama.

Q: Do you think your story helps Duran?
Murillo: No. The Trump Balloon incident is only a small fraction of his problems. I’m not interested in helping or destroying Duran. I just want to set the record straight. The joke that transpired between us was not sexually charged and a third person was involved who was edited from the story. Duran did not walk up to me while I was laying on the ground, suggest I was a whore, and then walked away. The whole thing was taken out of context.

Q: Does being sober play into this directly or indirectly?
Murillo: My sponsor advised me not to come forward with this. He said it would mess with my peace and serenity, but I didn’t get much serenity by staying quiet and watching the drama unfold and knowing that people out there knew I was the photographer and I wasn’t saying anything. That did not sit well with me.

Q: In your article you say Jussie Smollet has taught us that people make false allegations like the one that was made in your case to get attention. How does this apply in your case?
Murillo: We wouldn’t know what we know about Smollette if everyone just took his word on the alleged attack. He’d be writing a hit single about overcoming MAGA hate and none would be the wiser. Gerle misread the situation. He went straight to the press and got his name in the papers. He was not interested in running anything by me.

Q: Have you spoken to Mike Gerle?
Murillo: I have not. That may change after this comes out. An apology would be nice.

Q: Do you feel the apparent ‘see something say something’ policy should be re-examined?
Murillo: Yes. At the February 19 City Council Meeting, Gerle suggested that the City needed to implement a Sexual Harassment Hotline, so people can make anonymous tips. That would be a mess. The City would be opening itself up for more false allegations and innuendos. Sometimes people misread situations.

Q: Do you feel you were used in a political agenda against Duran?
Murillo: I think it’s more personal than political with Gerle. Duran’s alleged GMCLA sexual misconduct took place outside of the city. So did the Grindr encounter between Duran and his boyfriend. All that changed with the Trump Balloon Rally. Gerle brought sexual impropriety home to a city-sponsored event and then he inserted the Grindr encounter at the city council meetings.

Q: What made you come forward?
Murillo: What I witnessed at the city council meeting on March 4 is what did it for me. If the alleged incident at the Balloon Rally had any weight in the outcome, then I felt I should say something.

Q: In your article you say “I sat at the City Council meeting on March 4 and witnessed the Council have an uncomfortable debate about how to handle Duran. It made me sick to my stomach to think that the Trump Balloon incident had any impact on what was being decided that night.” Why didn’t you speak out at the meeting?
Murillo: People don’t want to hear anything that goes against their narrative. They were there to do their thing with their anti-Duran signage and their calls for his resignation. Anything that would challenge that was going to get booed and heckled at the podium. The short answer to this question is, I was afraid.

Q: What do you say to those who say Duran’s behavior has been unbecoming of his public office, regardless of how you might have been used to make that point?
Murillo: Duran owns his bawdy sense of humor. He admits he’s a big flirt and that he’s inappropriate. People act like they’re just learning this about him in the past few weeks. If you don’t like the way he behaves, then don’t vote for him. I think that’s what burns up Hank Scott at WeHoVille the most and why he’s so obsessed with Duran. All that time he invested in writing all those blog posts about Ian Owens, the sex scandal, the drama and a payoff of half a mil, and the residents of West Hollywood didn’t care: they still voted Duran into office.

It’s too bad Duran has brought so much criticism on himself lately. He has not been his best spokesperson these past few weeks.

Q: How has this impacted your life?
Murillo: Oh God, I have been so spun out over this. It’s been paralyzing and embarrassing. Should I say something? Should I keep my mouth shut? They’re going to hate me. I’m a coward. I want to cover the news, I don’t want to be the news. And so on.

Q: What do you hope to achieve?
Murillo: I hope I can just say my peace and move on, but something tells me that’s not going to happen.

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