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This story has been updated.
City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office dropped a bombshell in May when it alleged former Chief Operating Officer Kris Michell ordered a purge of computer and cell phone records about the city’s handling of 101 Ash St. and Civic Center Plaza.
Yet the former top city bureaucrat’s July testimony under oath contested allegations from a May 11 letter that Michell described as “inaccurate” and politically motivated.
Elliott’s office said it sent the May letter after learning from San Diego police that Michell directed the city’s Department of Information Technology to erase cell phone and computer records related to the two buildings in her final days at City Hall in fall 2020.
A draft transcript of Michell’s July 21 deposition, obtained by Voice of San Diego showed Michell denied issuing any such orders.
San Diego police and the City Attorney’s Office have declined to detail evidence the city may have to back up its allegations or to explain when they uncovered it.
Michell said under oath that she didn’t direct the city’s IT department to erase anything on her cell phone or computer before she left City Hall and that she only deleted working documents, drafts and duplicate records from her computer.
Michell said she did have her assistant shred multiple drafts of 101 Ash related investigations being conducted by outside law firms.
Michell, who also said during the deposition that she gave a physical copy of a law firm’s 101 Ash St. analysis to then-city attorney candidate Cory Briggs, testified that she had her assistant shred the drafts to minimize confusion and clutter..
“It’s appropriate to do given our policy, but more importantly it looked a mess,” Michell testified. “It was a mess, and I didn’t want to leave someone with a mess walking in.”
Michell and her attorney Pamela Naughton were adamant in a subsequent interview with Voice that she only disposed of documents she understood could be purged per city policy.
“There was nothing that was disposed of that shouldn’t have been,” Michell told Voice.
The City Attorney’s Office declined to answer most questions from Voice about Michell’s testimony about her handling of documents or the allegations it raised, deferring questions to San Diego police.
A police spokesman has said the department “cannot comment on open investigations” and declined to comment again late Wednesday.
Michell and Naughton argued the letter from Elliott’s office was politically motivated.
Michell testified that she suspected the City Attorney’s Office letter was produced for “media purposes” following a Superior Court judge’s order that the city turn over documents after lawyers for Jason Hughes, who helped broker the downtown building acquisitions, flagged hundreds of documents they did not previously receive in response to their discovery requests of the city.
Michell said a City Attorney’s Office staffer who delivered the letter at her home in May said it had come from Elliott Chief of Staff Gerry Braun, who is not an attorney.
City Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Leslie Wolf Branscomb wrote in an email that the decision to send a letter to Michell was made by Elliott, not Braun.
More details on the reasoning behind the letter could be revealed soon.
Hughes’ attorney Michael Attanasio in late June subpoenaed the city to make available one or more people who can discuss the details behind allegations raised in the May 11 letter and steps the city has taken “to preserve and collect documents” tied to its 101 Ash and Civic Center Plaza lawsuits.
Attanasio initially proposed a July 20 deposition. Attanasio said Wednesday he still hasn’t been able to secure a deposition date.
“We have been waiting months for that witness, and the city has repeatedly delayed producing such a witness,” Attanasio said. “The city’s inability to produce such a witness raises questions that are very interesting to us.”
Wolf Branscomb did not clarify this week whether the city has decided who will testify on the city’s behalf but wrote that attorneys for the city expect to agree on a date and time after Labor Day.
Update: Attanasio said Friday that attorneys for the city have agreed to an Aug. 31 deposition date. It was not immediately clear who the city would offer up to answer questions under oath.