San Diego city attorney accuses former COO of ordering destruction of Ash Street documents
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott is publicly accusing former Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s chief operating officer of ordering employees to scrub emails and other records of the Ash Street lease in the days before she resigned.
According to a two-page letter Elliott and Assistant City Attorney Travis Phelps sent to Kris Michell earlier this week, the former COO told technology workers at City Hall to delete communications referencing the deal that is now the basis of multiple lawsuits and a criminal investigation.
“We recently learned that in the final days of your employment with the city of San Diego you directed city staff in the Information Technology department to erase from your cell phone(s) and computer public records found in email, text messages and other chat tools relating to this litigation,” the letter said.
Michell was a longtime city official who served three Republican mayors before submitting her resignation in September 2020. She could not be reached for comment Friday about the letter and its allegation.
The accusation, which was first reported by the Voice of San Diego, includes the admonition that destroying public records is a violation of both the municipal code and state law.
“My office seeks your cooperation in recovering the records that were destroyed and their return to the city,” the letter concluded. “Please contact me by Monday, May 16, 2022, to begin the process of identifying and recovering all city records.”
The correspondence was delivered to Michell as the City Attorney’s Office works to implement a recent judicial order to turn over emails and other communications related to the lease-to-own agreement the city approved for the 19-story building at 101 Ash St. in 2016.
Two weeks ago, Judge Timothy Taylor ordered the City Attorney’s Office to turn over documents that had been requested by lawyers representing former mayoral adviser Jason Hughes.
Hughes’ lawyers accused the city of wrongly withholding emails and other communications from their client, who was accused of engaging in a fraud to collect nearly $10 million in fees for the Ash Street deal and a similar lease for Civic Center Plaza.
The judge ordered the city to turn records over to the Hughes legal team by May 13.
The City Attorney’s Office letter to Michell also cited recent deposition testimony from Cybele Thompson, the former director of the city’s real estate assets who resigned in August 2020 after a consultant’s report cited numerous lapses in the lease process.
According to the letter, Thompson testified that Michell sent her copies of city records related to the Ash Street litigation after Thompson quit but while Michell was still the chief operating officer.
“We would like to understand your actions, which records were shared, for what reason, and were copies or originals of those records maintained by the city,” the letter to Michell said.
The city lawsuits accuse Hughes and landlord Cisterra Development of having a secret agreement to share profits from real estate deals at the same time Hughes was acting as a “volunteer” adviser to Faulconer.
Hughes has said he told city officials numerous times that he expected to be paid for his consulting work, but Faulconer and others have said they did not know about the compensation, which totaled $9.4 million for the two city leases.
Cisterra, the landlord in both the Ash Street deal and the lease-to-own contract for the Civic Center Plaza, has denied any wrongdoing and defended the transactions as good investments for the city.
District Attorney Summer Stephan acknowledged that she opened a criminal investigation into the transaction last year, when her office executed a series of search warrants.
The city is a co-defendant in another lawsuit brought by San Diego taxpayer John Gordon, who said the Ash Street lease violated the state constitution by indebting the city without a public vote.
All three cases are scheduled to go to trial early next year.
Michell would not be the first senior aide to Faulconer to destroy emails, texts and other communications that were supposed to be preserved as public records.
According to deposition testimony from Stephen Puetz earlier this year, Faulconer’s former chief of staff regularly deleted messages from his phone, including multiple exchange he had with Hughes.
He said he set his cellphone to automatically erase the messages every 30 days.
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