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As the scandal surrounding former Centre City Development Corp. President Nancy Graham has unfolded, I’ve had several unanswered questions. When allegations were made about a potential conflict of interest, what did Graham tell CCDC’s board members? What did they know about her previous business relationship? As my investigation continued, what did she tell people around her?
I filed a California Public Records Act request the day after Graham resigned, hoping to find out. I asked for every e-mail Graham sent or received after April 1. CCDC provided some of Graham’s e-mails on Sept. 11. The 2,893 messages included her spam, campaign donation solicitations and e-mails with subjects like “Southern California Payroll Focus Day 2008.”
Hardly a word was included about her involvement in the $409-million condominium and hotel project proposed at 7th Avenue and Market Street downtown. Graham received money from an affiliate of the project’s developer at the same time she was involved in negotiations at CCDC, a revelation that led to misdemeanor charges and CCDC’s termination of the project.
A CCDC attorney hadn’t sent all of Graham’s e-mails, though, and said the rest would be reviewed by a new law firm, Los Angeles-based Kane Ballmer Berkman, which took over after the resignation of CCDC’s chief counsel, Helen Peak.
Less than a week later, CCDC’s new lawyers claimed the remaining e-mails were all private. Attorney Gus Lamanna sent me a letter late last week saying that the misdemeanor criminal charges that City Attorney Mike Aguirre filed against Graham preclude the agency from disclosing the records. Releasing them could jeopardize Graham’s right to a fair trial, Lamanna wrote.
Lamanna cited a 36-year-old court case that allowed the prison records of an inmate standing trial murder charges (with a court gag order in place) to remain secret. The court found that the public interest in avoiding prejudicial publicity outweighed the public interest in knowing specifics about his prison life.
I disagreed with Lamanna. One of the reasons listed in my response:
CCDC’s own investigation determined that Nancy Graham acted with a conflict of interest. It is hard to argue that releasing e-mails that led to that conclusion would prejudice a potential jury any more than that specific and unequivocal finding.
I asked CCDC spokesman Derek Danziger for comment today about the agency’s change of heart. He directed the call to Lamanna, who said: “CCDC has been responsive to all Public Records Act requests. They’re acting under the advice of legal counsel now.”
The change, Lamanna said, was the result of the new firm’s review. “Different legal advice,” he said. “Maybe they (the old firm) didn’t consider the whole legal issues that are confronted in a request of that nature.”
The California Public Records Act has been a vital tool in unraveling Graham’s story. A request I filed in the spring produced a copy of Graham’s calendar, which showed that she’d been scheduled to attend meetings about the 7th and Market project. Graham resigned a week after we revealed that discrepancy.
Lamanna told me he didn’t believe the calendar was public. He said he wouldn’t have released it. Legislative calendars of public officials are regularly released under state public records law.