Thursday, July 17, 2008 | When questions were raised earlier this year about Centre City Development Corp. President Nancy Graham’s previous business relationship with a downtown developer, she responded adamantly.

She had not negotiated the developer’s deal to build a 41-story, $409 million East Village skyscraper, she said. Graham, who oversees the city of San Diego’s downtown redevelopment agency, said she was not involved in the specifics of the Seventh Avenue and Market Street project. In fact, she said she’d been concerned enough about the perception of a conflict with the company, Related of California, to hire two consultants to handle negotiations. She described it as an unnecessary precaution.

But her calendar, obtained by through the California Public Records Act, shows otherwise. Graham, whose long connection to Related caused a controversy that led to her resignation from a similar post in Florida, met with the company and CCDC staffers as negotiations with the city advanced.

In March 2007, two weeks before Related and CityLink Investment Corp. were awarded the rights to negotiate the development at Seventh and Market downtown, Graham held an early morning meeting in her office with one of her board members to discuss the effort. (That board member, Kim Kilkenny, said he did not recall the meeting and declined further comment.)

Graham’s involvement didn’t stop there. She went to a discussion about the negotiations in May 2007, despite her assertions that she wasn’t involved. She attended a staff lunch in July 2007 to discuss the project and a meeting about how to value CCDC’s contribution to the deal in February 2008. The same day, she also met with the developers about their agreement to build the project.

The company’s proposal, if approved, will mix retail shops, a hotel, public parking and condominiums in a block of the downtown core that CCDC is responsible for redeveloping. Under the current terms of the deal, which has not been finalized, the city will give the developers an $8.7 million subsidy to construct affordable housing in the building.

As the negotiations advanced, Graham continued attending meetings about the project, documents show. An e-mail sent to Graham from Westfield Corp. executive Jonathan Bradhurst suggests she traveled to San Francisco to meet with Related officials in June 2007. The trip is on her calendar; the specific meeting is not. Bradhurst said in the e-mail that he had talked to a CCDC staffer about her trip. “I understand you have a meeting with the people from Related Companies that morning and that we can expect to see you early afternoon,” Bradhurst wrote.

Graham has had a long-running connection to Related and its sister companies, first as an elected official in Florida. While serving as mayor of West Palm Beach, Fla. from 1991 to 1999, Graham led efforts to redevelop the city’s downtown, which culminated with Related of New York, the California company’s parent, constructing a $500 million revitalization project that built homes, restaurants and businesses in the city’s downtown.

After leaving office, Graham became business partners with the Related Group of Florida, a separate subsidiary, jointly developing a $100 million waterfront condominium project in Lantana, a city 10 miles south of West Palm Beach. N-K Ventures, the development company she formed with her husband, shared in the profits from the condo construction. Graham has said her company flipped the site to Related of Florida and Lennar Homes.

The flap over her relationship with Related led to her resignation as executive director of West Palm Beach’s Downtown Development Authority.

The CCDC president’s account of her involvement in Related’s downtown San Diego project has shifted in recent months as new documents have surfaced.

Graham said in May that she had no connection to Related’s current effort and had acknowledged her previous relationship when the company was selected. City law prohibits public officials from influencing any decisions that could benefit themselves or family members. They’re also barred from influencing a decision relating to anyone they’ve received income for a year after.

She said she divested her interest in her former company in 2006; court records show she subsequently divorced her husband and former business partner in 2007.

Because of that prior relationship, she said she had kept away from the project. “I did not negotiate this thing on purpose,” she said.

After a memo about the project signed by Graham surfaced in late June, she acknowledged having been involved in “some minor things.” But she still maintained she had not been involved in any substantive issues related to the skyscraper proposal. “As far as the significant negotiations or terms or deals I was not (involved),” she said.

Her routine calendar appointments, sandwiched among hundreds of entries from her two-and-a-half years in office, contradict that.

She now claims she divulged the meetings to a reporter and others. In a statement, she said: “I have always been clear with [] as well as others that have asked that I did sit in several meetings with the selected developer.”

Graham didn’t divulge those meetings. She didn’t acknowledge them until obtained her calendar.

Fred Maas, CCDC’s chairman, said he was concerned by Graham’s responses.

“I’m troubled with the chain of events,” he said. “And what I’m most troubled about is the integrity of our organization as it relates to the media. You should feel as if you’re getting a straight answer from us.”

Graham now says she has recused herself from the project, a step she took after began inquiring about her involvement.

“At the moment a suggestion was made several months ago, and in an abundance of caution,” she wrote, “I have since recused myself from the matter and have had no substantive discussions with our staff or Board on this topic.”

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