Attorneys

In sworn assertion, a San Diego metropolis attorney says lawyer threatened him over testimony

The law firm representing the city of San Diego in a pair of high-profile legal disputes is the subject of a new allegation, that one of its partners threatened a witness in a civil case with personal and professional harm if he did not testify in the city’s favor.

Senior Chief Deputy City Attorney Mark Skeels said in sworn declarations filed this week that attorney William Price, of the Burke Williams Sorenson law firm, sought to influence how Skeels might testify in a lawsuit against his employer, the city of San Diego. The law firm is representing the city in the lawsuit.

Skeels said in one of two declarations that Price wanted him to discredit Marlea Dell’Anno, a former deputy city attorney who is suing San Diego for retaliation and wrongful termination.

Skeels, who ran unsuccessfully for a Superior Court seat last year, said Price emailed him in April to ask for a meeting to discuss the Dell’Anno case and that Price said he had “a lot of friends in the legal community” and “he could have a lot of influence over any future campaign.”

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

The 11-year deputy city attorney also acknowledged having a prior personal relationship with Dell’Anno, who had been his boss, and noted it could create an “awkward situation” for him at his workplace.

Skeels said Price indicated he may be able to keep the prior relationship out of the public record if he helped the city’s legal defense.

“Mr. Price said that he would recommend avoiding this subject if I fully cooperated with his instructions and provided testimony to paint Ms. Dell’Anno as a woman who made bad decisions on both a personal and professional level,” Skeels wrote.

“Again, I took this as an effort to engender favorable testimony in order to avoid the potential embarrassment of testimony related to our relationship,” he wrote.

The Skeels declarations were filed as exhibits to a motion by Dell’Anno’s lawyers seeking to disqualify Burke Williams Sorenson from the wrongful-termination case due to the alleged misconduct.

Price, who worked as a deputy state attorney general for 12 years before joining Burke Williams Sorenson in 2019, did not respond to a request for comment about the sworn declarations.

Another Burke Williams Sorenson lawyer, Timothy Davis, also declined to comment on the specific allegations but said the firm plans to fight the proposed disqualification.

“Burke contends that the pending motion to disqualify Burke from representing the city in the Dell’Anno matter lacks legal merit,” Davis said by email. “Burke will set forth its position on the matter when it files papers in opposition to the motion.”

A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott issued a brief statement in response to questions about the declaration filed by one of her senior chief deputies.

“Our office has no comment on this ongoing litigation,” spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik said in an email. “For comment on how outside counsel handled the matter, please contact them.”

Skeels did not respond to questions about his sworn testimony.

Dell’Anno was a senior prosecutor under former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith before she was terminated in late 2015, allegedly for mishandling scores of domestic violence cases and taking files home.

She sued Goldsmith and the city in 2017, accusing her former boss of firing her for refusing to pursue a case she felt was unwarranted. She said Goldsmith’s chief concern at work was promoting his “personal, political advancement.”

The motion also claims Price improperly disclosed confidential information to a third party, a lawyer he wanted to date. After initially denying the disclosure, he admitted to Skeels that he “may” have shared information about the case, the motion said.

At the end of their meeting, Price advised him not to tell anyone about the discussion, Skeels declared.

“This litigation is extremely stressful because I am privy to much of the hardship that was placed upon Marlea Dell’Anno and my testimony will likely upset the city attorney and my current supervisor,” Skeels wrote. “I worry about adverse employment consequences by bringing to life the improper behavior of William Price.”

Dell’Anno’s motion asserts that Price violated multiple sections of the California State Bar’s rules for professional conduct, a set of practices that lawyers across the state are required to meet, that relate to fairness and conduct.

“Rule 3.4 prohibits a lawyer from ‘directly or indirectly pay(ing), offer(ing) to pay or acquiesc(ing) in the payment of compensation to a witness contingent upon the content of the witness’s testimony or the outcome of the case,” the motion states.

Another rule “states it is ‘professional misconduct’ for any attorney to ‘engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or reckless or intentional misrepresentation,’” it adds.

The only remedy is to remove the firm from the litigation, Dell’Anno’s lawyers argued.

“There now exists uncertainty about every other witness with whom the firm has come into contact,” the motion states.

In addition to defending the city in the Dell’Anno case, Burke Williams Sorenson was hired to prepare a report for the city about its failed 101 Ash Street transaction.

Under a 2016 deal championed by the administration of Mayor Kevin Faulconer and signed off on by Elliott, the city paid tens of millions of dollars to lease a building that now cannot be occupied due to asbestos and other issues.

Price was not one of the Burke Williams Sorenson attorneys who worked on the city’s report on the Ash Street project, Davis said.

That report was part of another legal dispute between city officials and members of the news media. NBC 7 reported in September that a copy of the law firm’s report included “Footnote 15,” an alleged notation that suggested Elliott had wrongly interfered in the outside investigation of the Ash Street lease.

The footnote also implied that then-Assemblyman Todd Gloria helped push through approval of the lease while serving on the City Council in 2016 because he knew it was not worth what the seller wanted for the property.

Burke Williams Sorenson, as well as Elliott and Gloria have said the footnote was fabricated, presumably to make Elliott and Gloria look bad ahead of the November ballot, when Elliott was seeking re-election and Gloria was running for mayor.

NBC 7 retracted key parts of its report two and a half weeks later and publicly disciplined both journalists whose bylines appeared on the story.

Elliott and Gloria both won their campaigns.

Dell’Anno now runs her own private legal practice. She is representing NBC 7 journalist Dorian Hargrove, one of the two reporters on the Footnote 15 story.

Hargrove filed a defamation claim against the city of San Diego after he was publicly criticized for the August report on the Burke Williams Sorenson study of the Ash Street transaction and Footnote 15.

Skeels signed a second declaration asserting that former city attorney Goldsmith and his top deputy met with Skeels to talk about Dell’Anno’s work performance before she was fired.

“By the time I was interviewed, it appeared that the writing was on the wall and that a negative job action was coming Marlea’s way,” he stated. “I did not want to suffer the same fate.”

Skeels said he reluctantly told Goldsmith that working for Dell’Anno was stressful — a decision he said upset him afterward because he knew Dell’Anno would have supported him had their roles been reversed.

Goldsmith, who left office in 2016 due to term limits, told the Union-Tribune that the interview with Skeels was one of many he conducted about Dell’Anno and her service to the city of San Diego in advance of his decision to terminate her.

“I conducted a review and questioned a number of attorneys and staff,” Goldsmith said by email. “Mr. Skeels was one of those questioned. As with other interviewees, his statement was recorded and transcribed into a written booklet.”

The Dell’Anno civil case is scheduled for a jury trial in September.

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