By Alberto Garcia
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott has denied legal representation to a former City official in an apparent attempt to hinder her from speaking with investigators from the District Attorney’s office looking into the growing scandal surrounding the 101 Ash St building.
Cybele Thompson, who served as the City’s Director of Real Estate Assets from 2014 to 2020, has requested legal representation by the City of San Diego in lawsuits related to the building deal.
She worked directly on the acquisition and subsequent remodeling of the 19-story office tower during her tenure at the City.
Thompson requested separate legal representation in the lawsuits as is required under state law when the actions of the individual occurred while performing her official duties.
Specifically, California Government Code Section 995 requires that ”upon request of an employee or former employee, a public entity shall provide for the defense of any civil action or proceeding brought against him, in his official or individual capacity or both, on account of an act or omission in the scope of his employment as an employee of the public entity.”
The City Attorney’s office agreed to pay for Thompson’s lawyer for meetings requested by the City Attorney’s office.
In early December 2021, Thompson attended a Zoom meeting with representative from the City Attorney’s office to discuss her role in the leases which are now the subject of several lawsuits.
Investigators from of the San Diego County District Attorney’s office sat in on that meeting and, after the call ended, requested a separate interview with Thompson at their offices.
Thompson’s attorney then asked the City Attorney’s office to confirm that they would approve additional legal fees she would incur in meeting with the DA’s office, but the request was not answered at the time.
Thompson did not agree to meet with the DA investigators in December without confirmation of legal representation, and negotiations to arrange a meeting fizzled.
Last week, Thompson’s attorney spoke with the City Attorney’s office to confirm they would agree to pay the legal costs for an upcoming deposition in one of the lawsuits. Assistant City Attorney Travis Phelps agreed that the City would cover those costs.
Thompson has been called for a deposition by Michael Attannasio, the defense attorney representing Jason Hughes, who represented the City in several building transactions, including the acquisition of 101 Ash and the Civic Center Plaza buildings through long-term leases.
That deposition is scheduled for April 15th.
But Thompson’s attorney also asked Phelps if the City would agree to cover her legal fees to meet with the DA’s office, and Phelps flatly rejected the request, saying Thompson would have to pay any legal fees herself if she chose to meet with the investigators because the meeting is not mandatory under a subpoena or court order.
The City Attorney’s office has now officially rejected Thompson’s request for legal representation to meet with the DA’s office as part of its investigation into the 101 Ash scandal.
The DA’s office has been conducting a investigation into possible criminal violations since at least last summer.
In October 2021, DA investigators raided the offices and home of Jason Hughes, as well as the offices of Cisterra Development, the City’s landlord in both of the City leases.
Hughes had been appointed as a special advisor to the Mayor for real estate services in 2013 by then-Mayor Bob Filner, and continued in that role through the entirety of Kevin Faulconer’s tenure, and after Todd Gloria became Mayor in December 2020.
A letter from Mayor Filner sent to Hughes upon his appointment in 2013 highlighted that the Mayor appreciated “Jason’s commitment to public service in this advisory role, which he will perform without compensation from any party.“
After months of dodging media questions last year, Hughes admitted that he received more than $9.44 million in profit-splits from Cisterra. Hughes had not previously disclosed his financial participation in the leases he helped negotiate while he was supposedly representing the City.
Hughes later claimed that he had informed the City in 2014 that he would seek when the City was negotiating the lease for Civic Center Plaza in 2014.
Hughes provided a November 19, 2014 letter on his company stationary addressed to Thompson announcing that he would “seek to be paid customary compensation from any other parties in the transaction”, but has not provided any evidence that he disclosed to the City that he had reached a definitive agreement to participate in the profits or identifying his financial interest in the leases.
That letter, signed by Hughes, also included an acknowledgement from Thompson with her signature, stating that she “read, agree with, and accept the foregoing” contents of the letter.
Thompson interacted with Hughes on a near-daily basis during the negotiations on the 101 Ash building in 2016. Emails obtained through California Public Records Act request document that Hughes represented himself as the City’s broker and never admitted to City staff that he had a profit-sharing agreement with Cisterra.
In early 2017, after the City closed on the acquisition of 101 Ash and Hughes had earned a $4.41 million profit-split from Cisterra, he sought a contract with the City to manage the renovation project at the building. Hughes told City staff at that time that he had not been paid on the lease transaction so he was looking to at least make money from a project management contract.
Hughes had also received a $5 million profit split from Cisterra after the City signed a nearly identical lease for the Civic Center Plaza building in 2015.
City staff forwarded Hughes’ project management request to the City Attorney’s office which concluded that he had a conflict in managing the project after he had participated in negotiations to acquire it, although the City Attorney’s office maintains they did not know at the time that Hughes had received millions of dollars in compensation from Cisterra. Hughes was not given any project management contract.
But the following year, when issues began arising with the renovations and the budget jumped from a projected $5 million to over $20 million, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office again attempted to install Hughes as the project manager at the building. Again, according to City sources, the City Attorney’s office rejected the proposed arrangement over a conflict-of-interest.
The City Attorney’s office will not release any correspondence relate to the decision on Hughes’ proposed project management contracts.
The City did not contract for any project management services with Hughes.
The renovations were completed in early December 2019 and City staff moved into the building around December 16th.
Less than a month later, the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District deemed the building to be a “public nuisance” after repeated violations of air quality standards due to loose asbestos material. The City evacuated the building in mid-January and has not reoccupied the building since.
The building is now the subject of several lawsuits, including one filed by the City Attorney’s office to invalidate both the 101 Ash and Civic Center Plaza leases because of Hughes’ conflict-of-interest in having a financial interest in a public contract he helped to negotiate.
California’s Government Code Section 1090 prohibits public officials, staff, and even consultants like Hughes from benefiting from public contracts in which they participate in the “making”, including voting on, negotiating, advising, or recommending.
To date, no official notice has been released from the City of San Diego clarifying whether Hughes continues to serve in his role as a special advisor to the Mayor. Hughes continues to list that he is “Appointed by the mayor as Special Assistant for Real Estate Services to the City of San Diego” on the Hughes Marino website.
Thompson left her position at the City in August 2020.