Jan Goldsmith completed his eight-year term as San Diego’s city attorney on December 13, 2016. His legacy will remain present at San Diego city hall for years to come, possibly not as much for major legal victories but for the political atmosphere here brought to the city attorney’s office.
Since his election in 2008, the attorney-turned-judge-turned-mayor of Poway grappled with allegations of politicizing what historically has been an apolitical office. Goldsmith sparred with San Diego elected officials. He launched a very public campaign against then-mayor Bob Filner for the sexual harassment allegations against him. He held press conferences criticizing Filner for refusing to release Tourism Marketing District dollars. He issued memos questioning a donation from a developer to Filner. He released transcripts of closed-session meetings in order to show Filner’s gruff leadership style. Goldsmith ultimately bragged about bringing about Filner’s resignation from office.
But Goldmsith’s political maneuvering has not always worked out in his favor or the city’s. In 2011 he was sued for using a private email account to communicate with reporters and to conduct city business. A judge has ordered him to turn over thousands of emails in that case. The city and the opposing attorney, Cory Briggs, have yet to agree on attorney fees in that case.
In 2013, Goldsmith’s prosecution of a man for scribbling anti-bank messages in water-soluble chalk outside of a North Park Bank of America branch made national headlines.
According to a new lawsuit filed on January 3 by Goldsmith’s one-time second in command, the city attorney’s politics permeated the office. The lawsuit, filed by former head of the criminal division Marlea Dell’Anno, paints Goldsmith as a media-obsessed politician willing to sacrifice his attorneys to escape blame and save face in the media.
As lead attorney for the city’s criminal division, Dell’Anno says Goldsmith asked her to file trumped-up charges against his political opponents and on behalf of his supporters. And when she refused, Goldsmith demoted her and publicly criticized her for failing to supervise her subordinates. In November 2015 he terminated her for what she says were bogus claims that she failed to file dozens of domestic violence complaints with the court.
In her complaint, Dell’Anno, who took over the city’s criminal division in 2012, says her and Goldsmith’s relationship deteriorated around 2014 for her refusal to fall in line with Goldsmith’s political marching orders.
One such example occurred in late 2014 in the case of a mentally ill man who allegedly spat on a police officer.
Police officers on a routing patrol in the city’s central division reportedly witnessed an elderly Vietnamese man, later identified as Khac Dat Nguyen, agitated and throwing trash into the street. The officers detained Nguyen. They questioned him. He was incoherent. Translators at the scene were also unable to make sense of what he was saying.
An officer at the scene later accused Nguyen of spitting on him during questioning. Goldsmith learned of the so-called “spit battery.” He ordered charges filed against the man. Dell’Anno and prosecutors felt there wasn’t enough evidence to move forward with a criminal case. According to a memo obtained by the Reader, Goldsmith insisted prosecutors file the charges. He threatened to try the case himself if no one was willing to do so. He also ordered that a note be placed in the file, barring any city attorney from making or accepting a plea offer.
In a January 5, 2015, memo, Dell’Anno objected to filing charges on several grounds: “I want to make it very clear that I share your support for our law enforcement officers and believe whole-heartedly that every effort should be made to protect the safety and dignity of their position,” Dell’Anno wrote.
But discrepancies in the police report and the officers’ statements made the case difficult to try.
First, officers failed to identify any eyewitnesses who saw Nguyen throw trash in the street. Officers also failed to mention until after the fact that their body cameras had recorded the incident.
The body-camera footage revealed additional problems. The arresting officer had stated on the report that Nguyen was yelling obscenities. Recorded interviews, however, showed Nguyen to be incoherent and speaking gibberish. The video depicted Nguyen as a mentally challenged individual who did not pose a serious threat to officers or the public.
“You subsequently expressed your disagreement with my professional opinion,” Del’Anno wrote to Goldsmith, “and have directed me to issue the case. Additionally, you have instructed me to place a note in the file that there will be no [settlement] offers and that you will personally try the case in the event that it proceeds to trial.
“In sum, the facts in this case do not support the filing of a misdemeanor criminal complaint because there is insufficient evidence that Mr. Nguyen ever spit on [the officer] and Mr. Nyguyen’s mental state was such that he arguably did not even have the general intent to commit a crime.... As such, Mr. Nguyen will present as a sympathetic defendant — a mentally-ill old man, speaking in complete gibberish to a person he believes is Ho Chi Minh, while officers stand around him laughing.”
Dell’Anno continued, “It would be unethical to file a criminal case when I honestly and reasonably believe there is insufficient evidence at this time to prove the case at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Goldsmith disagreed. He ordered a complaint be signed and issued by a deputy city attorney under Dell’Anno.
The complaint was issued but was eventually dropped.
Months later, Dell’Anno again clashed with Goldsmith when she refused to remove a negative review in a deputy city attorney’s file. In response, in October 2015, Dell’Anno was transferred to another position, a move she considered a demotion.
On October 27, 2015, Dell’Anno wrote to Goldsmith on the transfer, “This reassignment is clearly retaliatory in nature and a demotion in both the scope of my duties and my status in the office. Your adverse action today is the most professionally and personally devastating event of my entire career. I cannot express how unbelievable your actions today are in light of the work I do and the measurable success I have brought to your Criminal Division. Your decision is clearly the result of my continued and documented refusal to engage in an on-going pattern of illegal, unethical and fraudulent conduct by you and other members of your administration.”
On November 20, 2015, Goldsmith terminated Dell’Anno for what she considers to be bogus claims: that an attorney in her office neglected to file dozens of domestic violence cases.
Goldsmith denies Dell’Anno’s charges and said politics played no part in his decisions as San Diego’s top attorney.
“Don’t believe everything you read in complaints, including this one,” he says in a January 11 email. “No, there were not politically charged prosecutions or leadership style. The office practiced law based upon the law and what lawyers are supposed to do, not politics. People who didn’t like what we did would claim it was based on ‘politics’, but not so.”
As for forcing attorneys to press charges against Nguyen, Goldsmith denies doing so. “I do recall stating that I would be willing to try [the Nguyen case]. I may have stated that there should be no offers without my approval. Big difference. I would want the man evaluated for mental health issues and, if appropriate, treated.”
Lastly, says Goldsmith, the decision to transfer Dell’Anno was due to her divisiveness and poor attitude. “Dell’Anno was removed due to her harsh treatment of lawyers and others. As further reported to me, this resulted in pro-and-anti-[Dell’Anno] factions in the Criminal Division, bickering that interfered with operation of the office, impaired working conditions of our personnel and caused good lawyers to quit.
“I could not allow her to continue managing attorneys as her management approach was disruptive and was interfering with the office.”
Dell’Anno is not surprised to hear Goldsmith’s response: “At the end of the day, all that seemed to matter to him were politics and the way he was portrayed in the media. Everything else came in a distant third. Prosecutors just can’t operate that way. We have taken an oath and so it always has to be first and foremost about what is in the best interests of justice and the strength of the evidence. I was unwilling to compromise my ethics as a prosecutor or the ethics of my deputies in order to appease my boss. My family and I have paid a heavy price for that.
“Given the humiliating way in which I was demoted and subsequently fired, claiming that he was looking out for the fair treatment of employees is incredulous. I hope that his changing explanation is seen for what it is, a necessary contrivance, a fraud and a slander to deflect attention away from what will be exposed during the litigation.”