San Diego city officials are facing a lawsuit and a potential lawsuit over how they dealt with journalists seeking information on the 101 Ash Street scandal, especially a “fabricated” footnote.
On Feb. 18, Arturo “Art” Castañares, publisher of La Prensa San Diego, filed a state Public Records Act request for documents about the ill-fated and still-empty city building that became an issue in the mayor’s race.
When the city’s response was deemed unacceptable, former San Diego city attorney candidate Cory Briggs on Monday sued on behalf of Castañares in San Diego Superior Court.
The case, assigned to Judge Timothy Taylor, focuses on a purported Footnote 15 of an independent investigation into the city’s acquisition of the former Sempra Energy headquarters beset by asbestos and other problems.
Based on a leaked document, Dorian Hargrove and Tom Jones of NBC San Diego published a blockbuster story alleging misdeeds by mayoral candidate Todd Gloria and City Attorney Mara Elliott.
Gloria and Elliott, along with attorneys who authored a report on 101 Ash, blasted the KNSD story, saying the footnote was fabricated, leading to a retraction and a suspension of the reporters.
On Oct. 12, 2020, Hargrove filed a claim against the city for an unspecified amount exceeding $25,000, saying he had “suffered damage to his reputation as a journalist, loss of income and likely the loss of his career as a journalist and severe emotional distress.”
Besides the fabrication allegation, Hargrove said he was wrongfully threatened with criminal prosecution by Assistant City Attorney John Hemmerling.
Elliott and other city employees made “baseless, inflammatory and unsupported defamatory statements about Mr. Hargrove with the intent to discredit him and destroy his career as a journalist,” says the claim obtained by Times of San Diego.
City officials, it said, engaged in a civil conspiracy to conceal wrongdoing with respect to the 101 Ash St. deal; intentional misrepresentation; negligent misrepresentation; intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress against Hargrove.
“We are informed and believe that Ms. Elliott and other City employees made false, misleading and baseless statements to NBC in an effort to have him publicly discredited — again all to gain advantage in an election,” says the claim, submitted by Marlea F. Dell’Anno on Hargrove’s behalf. “Ms. Elliott and other city employees used the power of the City Attorney’s office to give credibility to assertions for which she had no factual basis.”
The Castañares suit seeks a court order to share more documents on an investigation by the Burke Williams Sorenson law firm.
He said he’d undertaken his own investigation into the accusations against other journalists to “figure out whether Mr. Gloria, Ms. Elliott, or both of them lied when they claimed that Footnote 15 had been fabricated.”
Castañares said he then discovered “irregularities” in the accusations made by Gloria and Elliott.
He alleged that the City Attorney’s Office falsely denied the existence of more than one version of the BWS investigatory report.
But a document shared with La Prensa suggested otherwise.
The city’s public records administrator on Sept. 30, 2020, wrote to staff that: “Per City Attorney’s Office, the actual memo/report provided by Burke Williams Sorenson is privileged in its original or edited version” — meaning it couldn’t be made public.
Hilary Nemchik, spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, said Thursday that “we’ll review the [La Prensa] complaint and respond through the courts.”
Regarding the 4-month-old Hargrove claim — which is supposed to be addressed within 45 days — Nemchik said: “I believe the claim is still with Risk Management, so I’d refer you to City Communications.”
City Communications didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did Mayor Gloria’s office nor NBC San Diego General Manager Todd Mokhtari.
A question on the city’s FAQ asks: “Once I file my claim, how long does it take to hear from Risk Management?”
The city’s answer: “The Claims Representative will move quickly to resolve your claim. State law allows a 45-day period to conduct the investigative process. As soon as the Claims Representative has all the necessary information, you will be advised if your claim is approved or denied.”
Hargrove attorney Dell’Anno has yet to reply to a new request for comment on the October claim, earlier reported by The San Diego Union-Tribune. But she told the U-T: “In an effort to stop him from reporting on what is undoubtedly the worst land deal in San Diego history, City Attorney Mara Elliott dropped the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb on my client and his career.”
Two months before he defeated Barbara Bry for mayor, Gloria said the NBC San Diego report about his role in the city’s 101 Ash Street purchase was based in part on fabricated information.
The report said then-Councilman Gloria promoted the controversial purchase to fellow council members despite potentially knowing of problems. The city stopped making payments on the 19-story building, which remains vacant because of asbestos and other problems.
But the law firm Burke, Williams, & Sorensen, which investigated the purchase for the city in 2017, said a key footnote in a document cited in the TV report had been “completely fabricated.”
“I am disappointed that some are choosing to sink so low, using fraudulent and altered documents, to try and influence the San Diego mayor’s race. This is journalism and politics at its worst,” said Gloria in a statement at the time.
Following Gloria’s criticism, the station said the document was obtained from a reliable source and asked the city to produce the document for verification.
“We will continue to investigate this story and are working on identifying the memorandum the city claims is different from the documents we’ve obtained,” the station said.
On Sept. 21, however, the station posted a retraction on the story originally headlined “Investigation Into 101 Ash Looked At Whether City Staff, Former Councilmember Todd Gloria Misled Public.”
In a 170-word note, station GM Mokhtari began: “Following the retraction of a story involving the 101 Ash Street building, our station conducted an internal investigation to find out what went wrong. Our investigation revealed missteps in our reporting and in our process for checks and balances.”
The Castañares suit alleges: “Having obtained evidence from CITY indicating that the accusations made by Mr. Gloria and Ms. Elliott against the two journalists were themselves false, PLAINTIFF made two separate requests for public records.
“At a minimum, PLAINTIFF wanted to ascertain the dates, author(s), and recipient(s) of the original and edited versions of the BWS investigatory reports. Unfortunately, CITY provided absolutely nothing.”
Last week, Castañares posted a story headlined: “SD Mayor Gloria Continues to Avoid 101 Ash St & Secret Police Funding Issues.”
It asked: “What did Todd Gloria know about the building deal, and when did he know it?”
“After more than 60 days in office, Mayor Gloria has avoided both the issue of his role in the 101 Ash deal and how the City will deal with the financial fallout of the building debacle,” Castañares wrote.