Tuesday, March 22, 2010 | Costa Mesa Mayor Gary Monahan has come under intense scrutiny in recent days for continuing to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at the local pub he owns for hours after other council members arrived at City Hall in response to the suicide of Huy Pham, a 29-year old maintenance worker scheduled to receive a layoff notice.
“You were less than a mile away at City Hall, sir. Why didn’t you come?” asked one television reporter loudly during a hastily arranged press conference Friday, the day after Pham’s suicide.
Photos of a smiling Monahan dressed in a kilt and other Irish folk wear outside his bar, “Skosh Monahans,” were taken by Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino more than an hour after officials were first made aware of the suicide.
Berardino emailed the photos to others and then went back to City Hall to show them to the assembled media. “This is what the mayor’s doing right now,” said Berardino to the throng of reporters at the scene.
On Friday, Monahan issued a statement saying that the photos were a union setup.
“Had I known what transpired, I never would have agreed to pose for photos or engage in any revelry,” Monahan said through a statement.
Except interviews with eyewitnesses at the scene clearly show that Monahan remained in costume throughout the day, well after being informed of the suicide. And a Voice of OC reporter also witnessed Monahan yelling and celebrating well after the death.
And though Monahan insists that he did not know of Pham’s death at the time he posed for Berardino, other council members — Jim Righeimer, Stephen Mesinger and Wendy Leece — had already arrived at City Hall.
Furthermore, Berardino said Monahan told him that he knew about the deaths immediately after Berardino took the pictures, saying that what happened was a tragedy, but that he had a business to run.
Others corroborated Berardino’s account.
Geoff West, a local blogger who writes the Bubbling Cauldron blog on Costa Mesa civic affairs, was one of the first observers on the scene at City Hall.
He distinctly remembered Berardino confronting Costa Mesa CEO Tom Hatch shortly after the death, as well as seeing other city council members at City Hall before Berardino departed. When Berardino returned, West said, he was showing off pictures of Monahan to gathered reporters.
On Monday, Berardino laughed at Monahan’s suggestion of a set-up.
“I set him up?” said Berardino. “I dressed him in a kilt? Drove him to a saloon and had him stand out there laughing and waving people, 90 minutes after an employee jumped off the roof at the City Hall?”
Berardino said the impetus to drive to Monahan’s bar came after he noticed that other council members were at City Hall within about an hour of the death, but the mayor was not. He was then informed him that Monahan was at his bar, dressed in costume greeting customers.
“I thought, that is incredible, almost unbelievable,” Berardino said. “So I proceeded to his (Monahan’s) saloon, and there he was, laughing with his arm around two women he had in front near the sidewalk. I began to take pictures of him as he waved people coming in. And he posed for the pictures.”
After Berardino finished taking the photos, he said Monahan asked him to see them. “I told him that he’d be seeing the pictures,” Berardino said. “And then I identified myself from the union.”
Monahan, who eventually did go to City Hall that evening, has not returned several calls for comment. He has told others that after talking with the council members who did go to the scene in the immediate aftermath he decided not to because he felt his presence would inflame an already tense situation.
West said the photo has resonated and would likely impact Monahan’s political future. “I think he made a fatal career move by not getting out of a kilt and putting on a sport coat,” West said.
He noted that Monahan could have avoided the entire issue by simply showing up to City Hall for an hour and then returning to his business.
Fox News reporter Al Naipo, was one of several reporters who quickly took up Berardino’s challenge and ventured over to Monahan’s pub to confront him on his appearance and tone.
When interviewed, Monahan also acknowledged to Naipo the death of the worker.
“We have some major budget issues in Costa Mesa and we’re trying to make it work. What happened today is incredibly tragic. My heart goes out to everybody. And we’re going to do what we can,” Monahan said.
Later, when Voice of OC reporter Adam Elmahrek interviewed Monahan outside of his bar after the photos were taken, Monahan was still in a celebratory mood. After finishing an interview with another reporter, he laughed sarcastically and said “next.” Then he shouted, “Woo-hoo, it’s St. Patrick’s Day!”
A short time after, Monahan was seen wheeling a keg from around the back of his bar, and stopped to exchange hugs with a bar patron. Then as he acknowledged the reporter, Monahan once again got behind the dolly with the beer keg and yelled, “Take a picture of that!”