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This story has been updated.
City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office is accusing former city Chief Operating Officer Kris Michell of ordering the deletion of records about the city’s acquisition and handling of 101 Ash St. and Civic Center Plaza in her final days at City Hall.
In a Wednesday letter obtained by Voice of San Diego, Elliott’s office informed Michell that the destruction of any documents would violate the city’s municipal code and state law.
“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,” Assistant City Attorney Travis Phelps and Elliott wrote.
Phelps and Elliott also wrote that the destruction of public records could lead to penalties for the city including court-ordered sanctions and attorney’s fees if the city is “unable to produce public records to which a third party is legally entitled.”
“My office seeks your cooperation in recovering the records that were destroyed and their return to the city,” Phelps and Elliott wrote. “Please contact me by Monday, May 16, 2022, to begin the process of identifying and recovering all the city records.”
The City Attorney’s Office confirmed that Michell received the letter.
Reached Thursday afternoon, Michell said she could not speak because she was busy dealing with a personal matter. She did not respond by a 5 p.m. deadline.
As chief operating officer, Michell oversaw the city’s IT department and was in the position to direct its employees. Under the city’s strong mayor form of government, Michell was the city’s top unelected official until she abruptly resigned in September 2020.
The City Attorney’s Office did not immediately say whether it had confirmed that the documents Michell allegedly ordered to be destroyed were maintained elsewhere by the city or were original copies.
The bombshell allegation is the latest in a slew of revelations in the years after the city’s 2017 lease-to-own deal for 101 Ash St., a building it only occupied for a few weeks before rushing to evacuate city employees in January 2020 following a series of asbestos violations. The rush to evacuate city staff set off a fact-finding mission and later, a series of lawsuits. The litigation also revealed last year that as part of the city’s acquisition of 101 Ash and a similar deal for nearby Civic Center Plaza, its landlord paid volunteer city real estate adviser Jason Hughes $9.4 million for his work on the two leases – and had secret agreements with the city’s landlord. Attorneys for the city have argued the payments to Hughes violated state conflict-of -interest law and that the two leases should be voided.
In response to requests from Hughes’ attorneys, former city real estate chief Cybele Thompson recently turned over hundreds of documents that Hughes’ lawyers say they did not previously receive in response to their discovery requests of the city, an issue they have since brought up in Superior Court. A judge recently ordered the city to turn over documents it pledged to produce but hadn’t already turned over by Friday.
Elliott spokeswoman Leslie Wolf Branscomb said Thursday the city would comply with the Friday deadline, but that attorneys for the city are still reviewing documents Thompson provided and could not immediately say whether they had previously been in the city’s possession. In an April 15 deposition, Thompson said she left City Hall with documents related to the 101 Ash out of fear her actions could be mispresented by “pretty much everyone involved,” according to a draft transcript obtained by Voice.
Then, in an April 28 deposition, Thompson testified under oath that Michell provided at least some of those documents – and not at Thompson’s request, according to another draft transcript obtained by Voice.
“I just remember she gave me quite a few documents and said, ‘You might want to keep these with the other ones that you’re holding,’” Thompson recalled.
Thompson said she didn’t recall discussing with Michell why she brought her the documents.
In its letter to Michell about the allegedly ordered deletion of records, the City Attorney’s Office also had pointed questions about Michell’s decision to hand over documents to a former city employee.
“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?” Phelps and Elliott asked.
In her deposition, Thompson said she understood that Michell had obtained the records she provided as part of the city’s process for reviewing documents requested under the state Public Records Act. She did not clarify whether she understood the documents to be original copies.
Thompson resigned from the city in August 2020, less than a week after the release of a devastating review of the city’s acquisition of 101 Ash St.
Michell abruptly departed City Hall herself less than two months later – and less than three months before a new mayor was set to take office.
Michell, a City Hall veteran who had overseen city operations and employees for nearly three years, said at the time that she planned to pursue private-sector opportunities and had considered moving on “for quite some time.”
She told Voice the 101 Ash St. scandal was not the reason for her departure.
“My resignation has nothing to do with 101 Ash,” Michell said on Sept. 21, 2020, the day she revealed her plans to leave City Hall.
Update: The director of the city’s information technology department testified under oath on Aug. 31, four months after the city attorney issued its letter, that ex-Chief Operating Officer Kris Michell Michell “did not direct anyone in my department to delete any data” and said he believed the catalyst for the letter was Michell’s request to have her city-issued cell phone wiped as she prepared to leave City Hall in 2020.