Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008 | For years, Richard Chase has been the public face of the Gregory Canyon landfill. It’s not actually a landfill yet, but arguments about the controversial project near Fallbrook have been a part of the local political fabric for years.

Lawsuits have, so far, kept it from becoming a true garbage dump. And it’s still quite a struggle that will rage for probably more years to come.

Chase is the guy you call to talk about it. Newspapers in town have called a number of different things from “representative” to “spokesman” and even “chief executive officer” of Gregory Canyon. In a report about how it will handle waste in the future, San Diego County called Chase the “owner” of Gregory Canyon.

Chase told me on the phone that he was “the project manager” of the enterprise.

But there’s a law firm right now arguing that he’s not that involved with the project at all.

Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis is a big law firm. As Gregory Canyon fights the environmentalists and American Indian tribes that want to stop it from building its big dump, it has retained Allen Matkins to represent it.

Richard Chase, in fact, signed the notice to the court last year that stipulated that Allen Matkins is Gregory Canyon’s lawyer in all the legal tangling.

But Allen Matkins representatives are arguing right now that Richard Chase isn’t a “decision maker” for Gregory Canyon.

Why would they do that?

Because if Chase is a decision maker for Gregory Canyon, that would mean Allen Matkins represents both him and a party he’s fighting against in court. And that could mean serious trouble for the firm.

Let’s go back a bit. Allen Matkins has a lot of clients. One of those clients right now is the port of San Diego. Allen Matkins is helping the port of San Diego fight with Richard Chase.

From his experience with Gregory Canyon, Chase has perfected the art of using the ballot box to force through controversial land-use projects. And he is using a similar process to foist upon the port a whole new planning process. Chase is doing that so that he and his investors can provoke a massive change to the most valuable section of bay-front land in San Diego.

That land is the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal. Chase is the one leading the charge to build a deck on top of it. It’s one of two terminals in San Diego that looks and feels like a real working port. Yet it’s also at the corner of downtown with beautiful views, solid infrastructure and access that has had developers and proponents of things like new stadiums drooling for years.

On top of the deck, Chase would put any number of things. He’s let people dream of putting a new football stadium up there. Perhaps they might put a hotel. Maybe a football stadium, a hotel, and a sports arena. Maybe we could stick a new airport up there. Who knows. The sky is, quite literally, the limit.

This idea has angered people who use the cargo terminal and workers who work there. They have allies at the port. The port sued to keep this idea off the ballot. Chase’s attorneys are arguing the opposing side.

To represent it in court, the port hired an attorney from Allen Matkins.

This could prove to be awkward for Allen Matkins. When a lawyer represents one client, his or her entire law firm represents that client. And the firm pledges to be loyal to that client.

A firm simply could not promise undying loyalty to two people who are fighting each other. A lawyer needs to be able to access all information possible. They need to be able to make use of their firms entire set of resources.

“Knowledge is imputed to other lawyers,” said Diane Karpman, a legal ethics expert from Beverly Hills. “You can’t represent a client in one matter and in another matter sue it.”

Karpman says firms can find themselves in serious trouble if they take on clients who are in conflicts with other clients. They can be sued for malpractice or have to return all fees paid after the conflict began.

The rules are taken so seriously that firms now even refuse to hire associates who have represented certain clients in the past for fear of running afoul of the rules.

So what does Allen Matkins say?

Marvin Garrett, the law firm’s chief legal counsel, is in charge of making sure his colleagues don’t get into trouble with the ethics laws that govern the fiduciary responsibilities of lawyers.

Garrett said that Chase simply is “not an owner, not an officer, not a director, not an employee” of Gregory Canyon. Therefore he’s not the firm’s “client.” And, that means one of their clients is not in conflict with one of their other clients.

“[Chase] is an independent contractor and his responsibilities are consulting with the project site. It does not, under the law, create any attorney-client relationship,” Garrett told me.

But, again, Chase has said he is the project manager of Gregory Canyon. And he was the one who, on behalf of the landfill-to-be, signed the document that “stipulated and agreed” that Allen Matkins was Gregory Canyon’s legal counsel.

I don’t know about you, but court documents aren’t something I usually let just anyone sign on my behalf.

Let’s take the first point. Garrett said Allen Matkins’ client is Gregory Canyon, the entity — not Chase.

I asked him at what point Chase’s involvement in the firm would cross over into him becoming a client of Allen Matkins.

“If he was the whole 100 percent owner or manager it wouldn’t necessarily include him or exclude him. The law is determined by legal relationship. His relationship would cross the line if he was a control person — if he was controlling the activities of the entity; if he was the decision maker,” Garrett said.

Apparently the project manager is not the decision maker.

How about the document Chase signed on behalf of Gregory Canyon which confirmed for the court that the entity had hired Allen Matkins?

“There’s an easy answer for that,” Garrett said. “The principles of Gregory Canyon are located in San Francisco. As a convenience, and only as a convenience, [Chase] was designated on behalf of Gregory Canyon to sign that document.”

How convenient indeed.

Garrett said that the document is merely a “ministerial” filing that means little in this discussion.

“It’s very common to designate a representative to sign documents like this. That’s very customary,” he said.

Nothing to see here, folks.

What does the port think of this?

Port spokesman John Gilmore told me that someone at the port had known and raised questions about whether Allen Matkins could represent the port in its dispute with Chase given that it also represented Gregory Canyon.

“The question was raised and the port asked Allen Matkins about this and whether this was a possible conflict. The law firm went to the general counsel of Gregory Canyon and asked them specifically if Chase was involved and they said no,” Gilmore said.

Nope, he was just the project manager.

Gilmore said the port’s staff was “surprised” to see the document Chase signed on behalf of Gregory Canyon that confirmed Allen Matkins was the dump’s lawyer.

“There could be a lot of implications for the law firm, but that’s what our attorneys are trying to ascertain,” Gilmore said.

I’m no legal ethics expert. So I don’t know what to make of it. I do know that it’s impossible to have followed local politics closely over the last several years and not have heard about Gregory Canyon. And few if any discussions about Gregory Canyon have not mentioned Richard Chase.

Regardless of his title, he’s Gregory Canyon.

Until, that is, he becomes Tenth Avenue.

Please contact Scott Lewis (scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org) directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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