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October 21, 2021

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Lawyer for NBC 7 journalist accuses San Diego city officials of withholding key Ash Street information

The lawyer representing a San Diego journalist who reported on the city’s acquisition of a downtown office tower accused the City Attorney’s Office on Tuesday of withholding key details of that transaction from the City Council.

Marlea Dell’Anno, who represents NBC 7 employee Dorian Hargrove in a claim against the city of San Diego, told council members that City Attorney Mara Elliott, former Mayor Kevin Faulconer and others removed sections of a city report into the 101 Ash Street purchase.

“We have emails from city staff showing that council, as well as members of the public, were given a forensic report that was missing vital information,” Dell’Anno said in a statement to the council.

“We now have proof that some city leaders and staff tried their best to hide the suffocatingly ugly truths about a building that sits vacant across the street from your chambers,” she added. “City Attorney Elliott and Mayor Faulconer would have gotten away with hiding this information from you and the public, but there was one problem … my client.”

She spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting and later sent an email with documents to each council member.

The City Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Dell’Anno’s statement refers to the city’s handling of the former Sempra Energy building just north of City Hall, which Faulconer recommended the city acquire in late 2016 under a 20-year lease-to-own arrangement.

The idea was to move up to 1,100 city employees into the high rise within six months, but asbestos contaminations and other issues have prevented the building from being occupied.

The city paid more than $23 million on the lease before suspending payments in September. It previously invested more than $30 million in various upgrades to the vacant building.

While the transaction has received widespread media scrutiny and criticism from people in and out of City Hall, NBC 7 reported last summer that it had acquired a set of reports detailing what went wrong with the building.

Among other things, the July news report disclosed a footnote in a consultant’s analysis appearing to show that Mayor Todd Gloria withheld information about the building from the council and public in 2016, when he served on the council.

The same footnote asserted that Elliott prevented investigators from interviewing Gloria.

Both Gloria and Elliott strongly denied those allegations and said the footnote was fabricated. They criticized the reporters and demanded the story be retracted.

The law firm that authored the study similarly said the footnote was falsified.

A little over a week after the story was published, NBC 7 retracted those elements of its story that were based on the footnote, stating publicly that reporter Tom Jones and producer Hargrove had not met the station’s journalistic standards and noting that both men would be suspended.

Earlier this week, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that newly released public records confirmed that multiple versions of the law firm’s report existed last summer even though public officials never acknowledged the multiple versions.

The law firm acknowledged that it transmitted its findings in a Microsoft Word format, meaning that its report could have been altered by any number of people.

Dell’Anno said Tuesday that she obtained emails between senior city officials describing “a few technical edits from the City Attorney’s Office that may require some further explanation” of the independent investigation into the 101 Ash St. purchase.

“This shows that the City Attorney Elliott’s office had access and the ability to manipulate the reports and did so,” Dell’Anno stated.

Dell’Anno said the sale price of the building was represented as $72.5 million, when it was actually closer to $92 million — “an incredulous fact known only to a select few at the time,” she said.

Before the City Council was asked to approve the lease in late 2016, council members were told the building would cost $72.5 million amortized over 20 years — for a total of $128 million, not including later improvements and other costs.

The 19-story high rise was occupied for only a few weeks, between December 2019 and January 2020, when employees were evacuated due to an ongoing asbestos violation issued by county regulators.

Since then, the city has been sued by a resident claiming the lease was illegal. The city also sued the landlord, who earlier this year filed a cross-complaint. Meanwhile dozens of city workers and contractors are suing the city for asbestos exposures.

The legal claim Hargrove filed against the city last fall alleges that city officials wrongly tarnished his professional reputation when they publicly questioned his reporting and demanded a retraction to the NBC 7 report last July.

A senior aide to Elliott also threatened Hargrove with criminal prosecution for possessing records to which the city said Hargrove was not legally entitled. The threat was withdrawn hours after the threat was disclosed on social media platforms.

The City Attorney’s Office has yet to respond to the claim, which Hargrove filed five months ago.

Dell’Anno is a former deputy city attorney who also is suing the city on her unrelated employment complaint.

The City Council took no action on Dell’Anno’s statements. The council, which includes five new members elected in November, is legally prohibited from acting on issues not placed on the agenda prior to a meeting.