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On the Saturday night three days before the November election, KPBS reporter Claire Trageser was at dinner with her fiancé when she got a call from Justin Harper, a former staffer for then-congressional candidate Carl DeMaio.
Harper had already detailed for her an encounter he had with DeMaio. He had described how, on July 10, as he finished up at a urinal down the hall from the campaign’s second-floor headquarters, DeMaio hovered behind him and exposed himself, grabbing his genitals. Harper quit the campaign two days later. He left on good terms, with a recommendation from DeMaio.
Harper would not let Trageser use his name, though, in that earlier interview. And so, she would not run the story.
That Saturday night, he told her he was ready to go public.
Trageser and her editors now faced some big decisions. It was only a couple of days before the election — reporters generally hold off on major exposes immediately before an election. If you get something wrong in a late report like that, there is no time to make amends before the election is over. Also, any calls she would need to make would have to be done on a Sunday.
Trageser called DeMaio’s campaign spokesman, Dave McCulloch, early the next morning.
McCulloch said it was a lie, and he zeroed in on the urinal in question. It was broken, he said. How could Harper’s story be true if the urinal was broken?
Trageser called the owner of the building, who said the urinal had been broken since January. She also verified that the landlord was a donor to DeMaio’s campaign. Then she called other businesses in the building, finally connecting with a receptionist at Babies First Ultrasound. There were no men there. The receptionist told her she would send the first man she could find in there to check.
Trageser called three times. Finally, the receptionist called back and said a man had gone in to check and, yes, the urinal was working. That was 1:30 p.m. KPBS posted the story at 1:50 p.m. Nov. 2.
It exploded. DeMaio had already been accused of sexual harassment by one former staffer. Any doubts about the accuser’s story were now alleviated by a second claim. The bathroom story also seemed to corroborate an earlier questionable accusation from a sitting state senator, Ben Hueso, who said he saw DeMaio masturbate in a City Council bathroom when they were colleagues.
10News ran a story. U-T San Diego also talked to Harper. The story went national. It was the worst possible thing that could happen to DeMaio right before the election.
McCulloch attacked KPBS in his official response: “KPBS is reckless in reporting this outrageous lie because our office has not even had a urinal to use – a fact confirmed to KPBS by our landlord.”
The urinal. As DeMaio tries to recover his reputation and rebut these accusations, which he calls lies and smears, the broken urinal is what he’s still clinging to.
That is, it’s the story he’s clinging to after another claim — that the guy with whom Trageser spoke wasn’t really Justin Harper at all — fell apart.
That’s Not Justin Harper
On Nov. 11, as DeMaio began to methodically try to rebuild his reputation, McCulloch sent me a statement about Harper’s allegation.
“Nothing in Justin Harper’s behavior makes sense, most importantly the fact that his allegation is a complete lie. Campaign staff do not recognize the voice in the phone interview run by the media, and to date there has been no verification that this individual is Justin Harper,” McCulloch said.
Later, at a forum put on by the Society of Professional Journalists, McCulloch repeated the charge, essentially alleging that not only KPBS, but U-T San Diego, 10News and many others had played into an elaborate hoax.
It didn’t go well.
Trageser called Harper, and he went on camera. He also called me, and took a picture of his identification.
Who Is Justin Harper?
That effort to prove he was real was the latest in an awkward series of public outings of the young man.
Harper was born in La Mesa and moved away. He returned to San Diego with the Navy. He was a master at arms, served five years. He got out in 2012.
He’s a “full-blooded Republican,” he told me. When I asked him about a message he posted on Twitter praising DeMaio’s service on the City Council, even after this alleged incident, he stood by it.
“I don’t think Scott Peters was a terrible city councilman, but I think DeMaio was better,” he said.
He says he was deeply confused after the incident with DeMaio in the bathroom.
“I thought what happened between me and DeMaio was a mistake,” he said. It was an anomaly, he thought. Then Politico and CNN surfaced the sexual harassment allegations of another staffer, Todd Bosnich, against DeMaio. Harper told me that, at that point, he realized he wasn’t alone.
Harper is clearly uncomfortable. He did not want what he says happened to him to become public. He had connected with Bosnich, who, showing a lack of self-control, outed Harper on Twitter — naming him as a second accuser. Reporters raced to contact him. That’s why, he says, he decided to call Trageser and let her go forward with the interview.
I asked Harper about the claim that the urinal he said he was using was broken, thus belying his entire story. “I don’t know why they’re saying that. It was working,” he said. He said occasionally it would be broken but it wasn’t for an extended period of time.
This is why I ended up walking around the office building that housed DeMaio’s headquarters earlier this week, asking people about their urinal.
My first stop: the second-floor men’s bathroom. Several of DeMaio’s staffers told me the urinal was broken the whole time they worked for him. But two of them also said it was such an unpleasant place, they did not like using it and would often go either upstairs or downstairs.
When I visited, the urinal was fine. It was clearly operational. The bathroom is unpleasant but not nearly as bad as I pictured after talking to DeMaio’s staff. The door to it does not fully close. Two of the three lights above the sink were out.
It was dark and I did not want to spend much time there.
J.D. Bols, the owner of the building, told me the urinal is waterless. If you don’t maintain the pipes, they seize up. He didn’t maintain it well, he admitted, and had to replace the drain pipe. He said it wasn’t a priority.
That changed when TV cameras came to shoot his neglected urinal. Bols was embarrassed.
I visited nearby tenants. One, who would not let me use his name, confirmed that urinal was broken over the summer. He was certain.
Another, Brad Davis of American National Insurance, said the urinal was frequently broken but that it “possibly” was operational during the time Harper said his encounter with DeMaio occurred.
This brought me back to Babies First Ultrasound, the company whose receptionist gave Trageser a final detail for her story.
I called Babies First and a man answered. He knew exactly what I was asking about and said they were not interested in talking about the issue at all.
“Honestly, in all the time I’ve worked here, I don’t recall it ever working,” he said of the urinal. I asked him for his name, he refused to give it and asked to be left alone.
Can’t blame him. It’s unclear what Babies First really added to the issue. If the functionality of the urinal is important to unraveling this mystery, then the question is whether the urinal was working in July – not in November, when their secretary helped confirm it was working.
“The alleged broken urinal wasn’t enough to withhold the story,” Trageser told me when I asked her about that. “We had already backgrounded Justin and found him credible. The receptionist added to the story, but we were publishing anyway.”
So, to review, the landlord, McCulloch and three of DeMaio’s employees and two nearby tenants all say, with certainty, the urinal was broken. The landlord said he fixed it Nov. 11 after it got so much attention.
On the other hand, Harper says it was working in July. Another tenant, Davis, says it possibly was working but that it was well known to be broken often. And an unnamed client of Babies First Ultrasound confirmed for KPBS says it was working Nov. 2 when Trageser called.
The Motive? Really?
Honestly, I don’t know how big of a deal the urinal is. It seems like that notorious OJ Simpson moment: “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.”
The glove may not have fit Simpson, but they maybe should not have acquitted.
The bathrooms on each floor are identical. Perhaps Harper was confused or perhaps the urinal was indeed broken but wasn’t covered with a plastic bag for some period of time.
But let’s put that aside and do an exercise where we agree with DeMaio that it is devastating to Harper’s story. That just provokes the question: Why would he lie? Why would he fabricate such a weird and brutal accusation against a boss he liked? Why would he go through all of this? If you listen to him, you can’t help but feel how painful it is.
He was not a disgruntled employee who was fired. He left with a recommendation.
DeMaio’s team points to Harper’s ex-girlfriend, Alison Rentschler. Unlike Harper, Rentschler did not leave the campaign on good terms. She left at about the same time Bosnich did.
The claim is that Rentschler somehow manipulated Harper into saying these things as part of a revenge plot. Harper told me that a private investigator working for DeMaio contacted him and pushed this theory. Others did too.
“She would openly brag about her ability to dominate and control Justin (Harper),” Alex Lee, a DeMaio staffer and recent UC San Diego graduate, told me. He worked for Rentschler.
I called Rentschler. She said she and Harper broke up in July. She is in Washington D.C. now. He’s in Ohio.
“Our break-up was already hard enough, I can’t believe it’s in the news,” she told me. “Any insinuation that I pushed him into this is insulting and not true.”
At one point, DeMaio asked me to imagine myself in that situation. Wouldn’t I do something for my girlfriend like that? No, no I would not.
Were it not compared with the saga of a urinal’s functionality, I would think this theory about the relationship was the weirdest of the rabbit holes this story led me down.
DeMaio also suggested to me that maybe Harper was after money.
I asked Harper if he had hired lawyers. He said he had. But they had not filed anything yet.
Like every step in trying to solve this mystery, nothing emerges as conclusive. There are problems with everyone’s stories.
I’m not sure what kind of closure I can provide. But before we wrap this up, we can take a step back and look at everything we know about the allegations and counter allegations. We can draw out what you have to accept as fact to believe one side or the other.
And that’s what I’ll work on next.