The lawyer representing NBC 7 journalist Dorian Hargrove is citing a new report in La Prensa San Diego in trying to convince a federal judge that his lawsuit against the city of San Diego should proceed.
Attorney Lawrence Shea submitted the filing in U.S. District Court late Tuesday, even as Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo is due to rule any day on a request by the City Attorney’s Office to dismiss the claim.
La Prensa reported this week that it had obtained an earlier, April 2020 version of a confidential law firm report on the city’s lease-to-own deal for the 101 Ash Street building.
Hargrove had relied on a similar but later version of the report for a September 2020 story implying that City Attorney Mara Elliott interfered in an independent review of the city’s acquisition of the former Sempra Energy headquarters at 101 Ash St.
According to the NBC 7 report, a footnote in the June 2020 document by the law firm Burke Williams & Sorensen said, among other things, that Elliott did not allow outside investigators to interview Todd Gloria, the then-state assemblyman who was running for San Diego mayor.
Both Elliott and Gloria denied those allegations in the NBC 7 story, saying that Footnote 15 had been fabricated.
NBC 7 later retracted a portion of its story, saying it could not verify the authenticity of the document it had based its story on. Company officials also said the story did not meet their journalistic standards.
Elliott and her team later posted messages on social media criticizing Hargrove. Those messages are part of Hargrove’s defamation claims against Elliott and one of her top assistants, John Hemmerling.
Shea wrote in his latest court filing that the April 2020 document cited in the latest La Prensa story adds important context to the lingering questions about the Ash Street transaction and subsequent reviews.
“The implication of this new information is that the investigators were finding themselves unable to answer the core question, which is why the city made the decision to pay an extra and undisclosed $20 million” for the property, the filing states.
The April 2020 version of the Burke report obtained by La Prensa included a series of pointed questions for the City Attorney’s Office — many of which were not included in the June version that NBC 7 relied on in its story.
It also raised questions about why the city turned to a lease-to-own option for the Ash Street property instead of a straight purchase.
Records released since the NBC 7 story was published more than a year ago show that the city agreed to pay $128 million over 20 years under a lease-purchase arrangement even though the property was appraised for $67.5 million.
Hargrove and his colleague were suspended from their jobs at NBC 7 until after the November election, which saw Elliott re-elected and Gloria elected San Diego mayor.
The television news outlet also prohibited Hargrove from any future reporting on San Diego City Hall and from filing requests for documents under the California Public Records Act.
According to Hargrove’s defamation case against Elliott and Hemmerling, the City Attorney’s Office pressured NBC 7 to impose a significant penalty against the two journalists and to announce the punishment publicly.
Elliott and her defense team denied doing that. They also asserted in court papers that they are immune from civil lawsuits under the theory of qualified immunity, which prevents public employees from being sued for doing their jobs.
“There is no dispute that Mara Elliott and John Hemmerling were exercising policy-making functions within the course and scope of their official duties,” their lawyer wrote.
If the case is allowed to proceed, Shea would be entitled to begin the discovery process of the litigation. That means he could begin issuing subpoenas for testimony under oath and requests for documents that have not yet been released publicly.
Hargrove, who is seeking unspecified damages in the case, has returned to work at NBC 7, although Shea said his client’s professional responsibilities and job title have been reduced.
His colleague who also worked on the September 2020 report has since left the station.