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Former lawyer for San Diego sues, alleging retaliation for testifying against city

Earlier this year, a jury awarded almost $4 million to former San Diego city prosecutor Marlea Dell’Anno in a long-running wrongful-termination case. Now a key witness in that trial has filed his own lawsuit against the city.

Mark Skeels, who served the City Attorney’s Office for more than 10 years before he was terminated last fall, is suing the city of San Diego, two private attorneys and a law firm that previously defended the Dell’Anno case.

According to the legal complaint, which was filed May 20 in San Diego Superior Court, Skeels claims he was retaliated against after refusing to provide sworn testimony in the Dell’Anno case that was favorable to the city.

“Defendant wrongfully and unlawfully retaliated against plaintiff for providing testimony in opposition to the city and reporting unethical conduct by the city’s counsel,” the lawsuit states.

“At the time plaintiff made the complaints, plaintiff had reasonable cause to believe his complaints concerned violations of state or federal law or regulations,” it adds

A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott said Skeels was relieved of duty in September for violating ethics rules.

“The attorneys who work in our office have an ethical duty to protect privileged and confidential information,” spokeswoman Leslie Wolf Branscomb said in an email.

“After an internal investigation, the City Attorney’s Office determined that Mr. Skeels breached his ethical duty and the rules of professional conduct,” Wolf wrote. “The City Attorney’s Office takes these violations seriously.”

In addition to the city, Skeels named attorneys William Price and Brian Ginter and the Burke Williams & Sorensen law firm as co-defendants in the suit. The firm was hired to defend the city in the Dell’Anno case.

Price and Ginter did not respond to requests for comment.

Now an attorney in private practice, Skeels signed a pair of sworn declarations in the Dell’Anno case last year after a meeting with Price during which Price strongly suggested Skeels tailor his testimony to benefit the city.

Price also acknowledged that he knew Skeels and Dell’Anno — his one-time boss — had a prior personal relationship. According to the lawsuit, Price said he would seek to keep that information out of the public record if Skeels helped him win the case.

In addition, the suit alleges, Price coincidentally met a woman named Kathryn McGhee at a social event in 2020. Price learned that Skeels had been dating McGhee but began flirting with her anyway, the suit said.

“When McGhee rejected his advances and informed Price that she was friends with plaintiff, Price ranted that plaintiff was ‘not a good guy’ and revealed that plaintiff previously had a relationship with Dell’Anno,” the suit states.

At his meeting with Price last year, Skeels said Price admitted he may have told McGhee that Skeels previously dated Dell’Anno.

According to the lawsuit, McGhee fabricated testimony at Price’s direction about how she had learned about Skeels’ relationship with Dell’Anno, saying in a declaration that she had looked at Skeels’ cellphone.

Price told McGhee that “people never go to prison” for perjury and that “people lie on the witness stand all the time,” the lawsuit states.

McGhee later recanted her testimony, saying she was bullied, lied to and forced to sign a declaration that was not true. An audiotape of that assertion was subsequently sent to City Attorney Mara Elliott, the entire City Council and the Burke Williams & Sorensen firm.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported the allegations in the Skeels declaration in June 2021, just before Ginter deposed Skeels in preparation for the Dell’Anno trial.

Skeels met with then-Assistant City Attorney John Hemmerling after the deposition to discuss the testimony and indicated to Skeels that he would not be penalized for testifying truthfully, the lawsuit said.

“Hemmerling assured plaintiff that everything would ‘work out okay’,” the complaint states. “Hemmerling was pleasant with plaintiff.”

But the next day, Hemmerling called to say he was “extremely disappointed” in Skeels and that Hemmerling thought they had a better relationship after working “so well together for five years,” the lawsuit said.

Skeels was then told he was being placed on leave from his job.

“Plaintiff believes that the change in Hemmerling and the abrupt decision to place him on administrative leave could only be explained by the fact that his testimony at the deposition for Dell’Anno and his declaration regarding Price’s intimidation tactics supported Dell’Anno rather than the city,” the suit said.

Hemmerling, a candidate for San Diego sheriff who is likely to make the November runoff, retired from the City Attorney’s Office late last month — one day after the Union-Tribune rescinded its endorsement.

Dell’Anno, who was terminated in 2015 and filed her lawsuit against the city in 2017, was awarded $3.9 million by a San Diego Superior Court jury in March.



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