The city of San Diego’s lawyers coordinated with attorneys representing defendants in the Ash Street case, slowing down a key deposition in the litigation, records show.
Emails obtained by the legal team representing taxpayer John Gordon, who is suing the city over the disputed Ash Street lease, show lawyers for City Attorney Mara Elliott mocking Gordon’s team as they worked with attorneys for Cisterra Development and Jason Hughes to request a referee, delaying Hughes’ deposition.
Elliott has accused Cisterra and Hughes of fraud in the city’s lawsuits to get out of the Ash Street and Civic Center leases.
The emails, written over several days in February, show attorneys for the city, Hughes and other parties in the city’s lawsuits discussing depositions and their effort to get a judge to approve a third-party referee for future depositions after accusations arose of unprofessional behavior at a prior deposition.
“Thanks Mike — they are simply ridiculous,” wrote Dick Semerdjian, the city’s outside lawyer, to Hughes’ lawyer, Michael Attanasio, referring to Gordon’s attorneys, Michael Aguirre and Maria Severson.
“It would be good if you or Bill could attend the ex parte on 15th February to lend support” Semerdjian added, referring to the request for a referee. “We will figure out a date in March that works.”
Attanasio did attend the hearing, but Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil declined to order a referee to monitor depositions.
The city sued Cisterra and Hughes for fraud last year after Hughes admitted collecting $9.4 million from the Ash Street lease and another deal for the nearby Civic Center Plaza while he was a volunteer consultant to the city.
The Gordon case, which claims the Ash Street transaction is illegal because it indebted the city without a public vote, names the city, Cisterra subsidiary 101 Ash LLC and the company’s lender as defendants. Hughes is a witness.
The City Attorney’s Office said the emails show the effort to get the Gordon depositions to comply with orderly behavior.
“What the communications actually exhibit is responsible legal counsel seeking to have the court bring order to the chaos wrought by Mr. Aguirre through his harassment via mocking witnesses, yelling, cursing, walking out, and more,” said Leslie Wolf Branscomb, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office.
Attorneys for Cisterra and CGA Capital, the investors who paid Cisterra $92 million for the assignment of the city’s Ash Street lease payments, did not reply to a request for comment Wednesday.
Attanasio, who twice agreed to delay Hughes’ deposition at the city’s request, said he did not want to be caught in the middle of the legal dispute between the city and Gordon’s legal team.
“As I’ve said from the beginning, Mr. Hughes keeps giving dates for his deposition, and lawyers for Mr. Gordon and the city keep getting in the way,” he said Wednesday. “It seems to me that your readers would want to know why the city attorney doesn’t want to hear that testimony under oath.”
District Attorney Summer Stephen opened a criminal investigation into the city’s real estate deals with Hughes last fall and executed at least five search warrants in October, although no charges have been filed.
The email exchanges between the city’s attorneys and lawyers representing the defendants were obtained by Severson through a California Public Records Act request.
Severson said she threatened to file a lawsuit to obtain the communications because city officials first claimed they were privileged communications, not subject to the act.
“It begs the question: why are the city’s lawyers working with Hughes — the city volunteer who secretly took $4.4 million from the city and who is under criminal investigation by the DA — against the taxpayer seeking to void the deal?” Severson said.
The City Attorney’s Office has twice delayed Hughes’ scheduled deposition.
Last month, Attanasio agreed to delay an agreed-upon appearance at Semerdjian’s request. And last week, Attanasio withdrew Hughes from a deposition scheduled for Tuesday after Semerdjian told him Aguirre agreed to a postponement. Aguirre and Severson said they did not agree to a delay.
The litigation over the Ash Street lease has been complicated from the start.
The Gordon case against the city, Cisterra and its lender seeks to void the contract as illegal under the state constitution. The city’s cases allege fraud, but Elliott and Mayor Todd Gloria have been working to settle the litigation out of court.
The 19-story Ash Street property was acquired on a 20-year lease-to-own deal for $128 million, even though it was appraised for $67 million just weeks before Faulconer recommended the deal to the City Council.
Despite more than $60 million in payments and other costs to San Diego taxpayers, the property cannot be safely occupied due to asbestos and other issues.
A hearing is scheduled Thursday in the Gordon case. Aguirre and Severson are asking a judge to compel lobbyist Chris Wahl to answer questions that he refused to answer at his deposition last month. He had claimed privilege because he is on the Cisterra mediation team.
Hughes’ deposition has now been pushed to early next month.