The law firm that represents the city of San Diego in two high profile lawsuits is the subject of a new allegation that one of its partners threatened personal and professional harm with a witness in a civil lawsuit if he was not in the city’s favor.
Senior Chief Deputy City Attorney Mark Skeels said in affidavits filed this week that attorney William Price of the law firm Burke Williams Sorenson sought to influence how Skeels was in a lawsuit against his employer, the City of San Diego, could testify. The firm represents the city in the lawsuit.
In one of two statements, Skeels said that Price wanted him to discredit Marlea Dell’Anno, a former assistant city attorney who is suing San Diego for retaliation and wrongful termination.
Skeels, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Superior Court last year, said Price emailed him in April to request a meeting to discuss the Dell’Anno case and that Price said he had “many friends in the legal community “could have a major impact on any future campaign.”
Skeels wrote in his statement: “I understood this point to mean that I should do what he wanted … or otherwise face a possible backlash in the legal community that would tarnish any possibility of seeking a judicial office.”
The 11-year-old assistant city attorney also admitted having had a previous personal relationship with Dell’Anno, who had been his boss, and noted that it could create an “uncomfortable situation” for him at work.
Skeels said Price has indicated that he may be able to keep the previous relationship out of public records if he helps the city’s legal defense.
“Mr. Price said that he would recommend avoiding this issue if I were to fully cooperate with his instructions and provide a testimony to portray Ms. Dell’Anno as a woman on both a personal and professional level made bad decisions, ”wrote Skeels.
“Again, I took this as an effort to generate positive testimony to avoid the potential embarrassment of testimonials regarding our relationship,” he wrote.
The Skeels statements were filed as evidence in support of a motion by Dell’Anno’s attorneys to exclude Burke Williams Sorenson from the dismissal case for alleged wrongdoing.
Price, who served as the assistant attorney general for 12 years before joining Burke Williams Sorenson in 2019, did not respond to a request for comment on the affidavits.
Another Burke Williams Sorenson attorney, Timothy Davis, also declined to comment on the specific allegations, but said the company plans to tackle the proposed disqualification.
“Burke alleges that the pending motion to disqualify Burke from the City Council on the Dell’Anno matter is not legally justified,” Davis said via email. “Burke will state its position on this matter when filing papers against the motion.”
A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott made a brief statement in response to questions about the statement submitted by one of her senior deputies.
“Our office has no comment on this ongoing litigation,” said spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik in an email. “For comments on how outside lawyers have handled the matter, please contact them.”
Skeels did not respond to questions about his affidavit.
Dell’Anno served as chief prosecutor under former city attorney Jan Goldsmith before she was released in late 2015, allegedly for mishandling numerous 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 believed was unjustified. She said Goldsmith’s primary concern at work was to promote his “personal, political progress”.
The motion also alleges that Price unlawfully disclosed confidential information to a third party, an attorney he was trying to date. After initially denying the disclosure, he admitted to Skeels that he “possibly” 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 explained.
“This litigation is extremely stressful because I am privy to much of the harshness that Marlea Dell’Anno imposed and my testimony is likely to upset the city attorney and my current manager,” Skeels wrote. “I worry about the adverse effects on employment by bringing to life William Price’s inappropriate behavior.”
Dell’Anno’s motion alleges that Price violated several sections of the California State Bar’s code of conduct, a set of practices lawyers across the state must adhere to that relate to fairness and conduct.
“Rule 3.4 prohibits an attorney from ‘paying, offering or accepting compensation, directly or indirectly, to a witness depending on the content of the testimony or the outcome of the proceedings,” the motion reads.
Another rule “states that it is ‘professional misconduct’ for any lawyer to ‘commit conduct that involves dishonesty, fraud, deception, or reckless or willful misrepresentation,'” she adds.
The only remedy is to take the firm out of the litigation, argued Dell’Anno’s lawyers.
“There is now uncertainty about every other witness with whom the law firm has come into contact,” says the application.
In addition to defending the city in the Dell’Anno case, Burke Williams Sorenson was hired to prepare a report for the city on the failed transaction at 101 Ash Street.
As part of a 2016 deal backed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration and signed by Elliott, the city paid tens of millions of dollars to rent a building that is now unusable due to asbestos and other issues.
Price was not one of Burke Williams Sorenson’s attorneys who worked on the city’s report on the Ash Street Project, Davis said.
This report was part of another legal battle between city officials and members of the news media. NBC 7 reported in September that a copy of the law firm’s report contained “footnote 15,” an alleged note suggesting that Elliott had falsely meddled in the external investigation into the Ash Street lease.
The footnote also implied that then-MP Todd Gloria helped enforce the lease approval during his tenure on the city council in 2016 because he knew it wasn’t worth what the seller wanted for the property.
Burke Williams Sorenson and Elliott and Gloria said the footnote was made up, presumably to make Elliott and Gloria look bad ahead of the November election, when Elliott wanted to be re-elected and Gloria ran for mayor’s office.
NBC 7 withdrew key portions of its report two and a half weeks later and publicly disciplined both journalists whose bylines appeared in the story.
Elliott and Gloria both won their campaigns.
Dell’Anno now runs her own private law firm. She is representing NBC-7 journalist Dorian Hargrove, one of the two reporters in the story of footnote 15.
Hargrove filed a defamation lawsuit against the city of San Diego after public criticism for the August report on the Burke Williams Sorenson study on the Ash Street transaction and footnote 15.
Skeels signed a second statement alleging that former city attorney Goldsmith and his senior deputy met with Skeels to discuss Dell’Anno’s job performance before she was fired.
“When I was interviewed, it appeared that the writing was on the wall and that some negative job action was going on Marlea,” he said. “I didn’t want to suffer the same fate.”
Skeels said he reluctantly told Goldsmith that working for Dell’Anno was stressful – a decision that later upset him because he knew Dell’Anno would have supported him if their roles had been reversed.
Goldsmith, who stepped down due to term restrictions in 2016, told the Union-Tribune that the interview with Skeels was one of many he had about Dell’Anno and her service to the city of San Diego prior to his decision to resign have.
“I did a review and interviewed a number of attorneys and staff,” Goldsmith said via email. “Mr. Skeels was one of those interviewed. As with other interviewees, his testimony was recorded and transcribed into a written booklet.”
The Dell’Anno civil case is due to go to court in September.