Witness in lawsuit against San Diego recants, says she was bullied into signing untrue declaration

A wrongful termination lawsuit brought by a former supervisor in the San Diego City Attorney’s Office took an unexpected turn Thursday, when the plaintiff publicly released a recording by a key witness saying she was lied to, bullied and forced to sign an untrue declaration by lawyers on the city’s defense team.

A 20-minute audio file was distributed by email Thursday morning to the entire City Council, City Attorney Mara Elliott and the private law firm she hired to defend the city in the civil case, Burke Williams Sorensen. The person who recorded the tape is Kathryn McGhee, a local woman who previously dated a lawyer in the City Attorney’s Office named Mark Skeels.

Skeels used to work for Marlea Dell’Anno, a former senior prosecutor who was fired in 2015 and accused of mishandling case files. Dell’Anno sued in 2017, saying she was fired for refusing to pursue a misdemeanor case she felt was unwarranted.

In recent weeks, Skeels accused William Price, an attorney with Burke Williams Sorensen, of witness tampering. Skeels said in a declaration that Price threatened him in an effort to get him to testify in the city’s favor.

Price denied the allegations.

A motion filed by Dell’Anno’s legal team also claims Price improperly disclosed confidential information to a third party, a woman he wanted to date. After initially denying the disclosure, Price admitted to Skeels that he “may” have shared information about the case, the motion said.

A judge heard arguments about whether to dismiss the law firm from the case and on Friday denied the motion, saying the matter should be considered by the jury.

The case was originally filed more than four years ago and is currently scheduled to go to trial later this year.

In her recording, McGhee recants her declaration, saying she was strong-armed into signing a declaration she did not write nor fully understand.

McGhee also said Price repeatedly told her she had to fix the problem she created and that it was all right to lie in the statement because no one was ever locked up for committing perjury.

“He (Price) told me I had to do it because we had to stick together with our story, and he had already been called up to his L.A. office and his declaration had to say the same thing mine did,” she says in the recording through a series of sobs.

“He reassured me that nobody goes to prison” for lying in court documents, McGhee said. “People lie on those (declarations) all the time, and people lie on the witness stand all the time,” she quoted Price as telling her.

Elliott’s office issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying that Burke Williams Sorensen is no longer defending the city in the Dell’Anno wrongful termination case.

“On July 2, 2021, the city terminated Burke Williams Sorensen as its representative in this matter,” spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik said in an email. “We have no comment on the ongoing litigation.”

Nemchik did not answer a question about why the city ended its relationship with Burke Williams Sorensen a day after prevailing in the recusal motion.

“Our decision to terminate Burke Williams Sorensen’s representation in this case was made in the best interests of the City,” she said.

Price did not respond to a request for comment on McGhee’s taped recording Thursday. Also a Burke Williams Sorensen partner who last month issued a statement about the Skeels declaration did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The office of City Council President Jennifer Campbell also did not respond to questions about the recording.

Skeels is an 11-year attorney for the city of San Diego and a former candidate for Superior Court judge. He said in his declaration last month that Price contacted him and urged him to discredit Dell’Anno in her civil case against the city.

Skeels said he agreed to meet with Price in April to discuss the Dell’Anno case, presumably because he may be called to testify.

During the meeting, Skeels declared, Price told him that Price knew a lot of people in the legal community and that he could help Skeels in his career if he testified that Dell’Anno was not a good supervisor.

“I took this point to mean that I should do what he wanted … or else face the potential backlash in the legal community which would tarnish any opportunity to seek judicial office,” Skeels said in the declaration.

Skeels also said Price suggested he could omit from the public record details about a personal relationship Skeels had with Dell’Anno. At the time they dated, Dell’Anno was Skeels’ boss.

McGhee said Thursday that Price and another Burke Williams Sorensen lawyer named Brian Ginter never fully explained to her why she needed to sign a declaration in response to the document Skeels submitted earlier last month.

She said both Price and Ginter said it was critical that she explain how she learned details of the Dell’Anno case. Among other things, they wanted her to swear that she accessed Skeels’ cellphone without his permission, she said.

“I feel very manipulated,” McGhee said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I signed that declaration under extreme duress. The recording was me telling the truth.”

According to San Diego attorney Josh Gruenberg, who now represents Skeels, his client was placed on paid administrative leave days after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported the allegations in his declaration last month.

Gruenberg said the city cited an earlier decision by Skeels to provide Dell’Anno’s lawyer and Burke Williams Sorensen copies of emails that had been requested by the plaintiff as part of the wrongful termination proceeding.

Skeels’ attorney said his client wants to return to his position at the City Attorney’s Office.

”It is Mark’s desire to keep his job,” Gruenberg said. “He loves his job as a city attorney and intends to work there until he retires. We are hoping the city does the right thing and brings him back.”

In the email sent to most of the city’s elected leadership Thursday, Dell’Anno’s legal team argues that the recording shows Burke Williams Sorensen lawyers acted improperly. They said they released the audio tape to alert elected officials about the recent developments in the litigation.

“We feel very strongly councilmembers and decision-makers within the city need to know what has transpired, so we are providing you with the direct evidence of witness tampering in this case,” wrote Christina Denning, one of the attorneys representing Dell’Anno.

“The fact that Mr. Price still has his job and Mr. Skeels has been placed on administrative leave is wrong,” Denning added. “The fact that Ms. Dell’Anno has had to endure years of similar mistreatment is wrong. We expect the city to now finally do what is right.”

The wrongful termination case is slated to go to trial Sept. 17. It was not immediately clear if Elliott’s decision to end Burke Williams Sorensen’s representation in the case might further delay the proceeding.