101 Ash St. in downtown San Diego has been a source of controversy for San Diego city leaders and candidates.
101 Ash St. in downtown San Diego has been a source of controversy for San Diego city leaders and candidates. Photo by Chris Stone

Attorneys debated Monday over what materials seized a year ago during investigations into the acquisition of two downtown San Diego high-rises can become part of prosecutors’ criminal probe of the real estate deals.

District Attorney’s Office investigators are in the process of reviewing materials on electronic devices seized in October of 2021 from landlord Cisterra Development, Hughes Marino, and real estate broker Jason Hughes in regard to the city’s lease-to-own agreements for the 101 Ash Street and Civic Center Plaza buildings.

No criminal charges have been filed since those search warrants were served.

Attorneys for Hughes and the two companies have since argued that much of the seized information is privileged, unrelated to the DA’s investigation, and cannot be reviewed by prosecutors. That information includes communications covered by attorney-client privilege, according to lawyers for Cisterra and Hughes, which provided the D.A.’s Office with a list of names that were considered privileged.

On Monday, prosecutors told San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth So that investigators are in the process of excluding privileged information from the devices.

Michael Attanasio, an attorney representing Jason Hughes and Hughes Marino, argued his clients should be able to examine what information prosecutors intend to review after setting aside the privileged information.

The attorney asked the judge to allow for a “checks and balances” process “to make sure that the segregation (prosecutors) described worked.” Attanasio said he was concerned that some of the privileged information might have been missed during the segregation process due to either human or technological error.

Prosecutors, who said the process of providing copies of the segregated information to the claimants will take months, argued Hughes and Cisterra already know what information will be filtered out and can bring any privilege concerns before the judge in the future on a case-by-case basis.

Deputy District Attorney Martin Doyle called the request from Cisterra and Hughes “unprecedented” amid criminal investigations.

“There’s no circumstance where we would serve a search warrant and the people being searched get to say, `Ok, we’ll look at it first and let you take a look at what you’d like to see,”‘ Doyle told the judge. “That just doesn’t happen. That’s unprecedented. No other criminal suspect gets that kind of access to information.”

The judge, who said he needed to “balance all of these considerations” on both sides, ordered that prosecutors make copies of the segregated data available to Cisterra and Hughes.

Cisterra and Hughes will then have 10 days per device to review the information and bring objections to the court to argue whether the material is privileged.

In separate civil litigation, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office sued Hughes and the two companies and sought to void the city’s lease-to-own agreements for the buildings. City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office argued there was a conflict of interest because Jason Hughes allegedly represented himself as a volunteer adviser on both deals, but unbeknownst to the city, collected $9.4 million from Cisterra.

Hughes’ attorneys have maintained that he disclosed his intent to receive compensation to several city officials.

The city later settled lawsuits with Cisterra and its lender, which included agreements to buy out the 101 Ash and Civic Center Plaza leases, a move that was opposed by the City Attorney’s Office. The civil case against Hughes remains ongoing.

–City News Service