Photo courtesy of Marlea Dell’Anno
The sign that greeted soon-to-be-fired Assistant City Attorney Marlea Dell’Anno, upon reassignment.
I know you lawyers can, with ease, twist words and meanings as you please.
Attorney Marlea Dell’Anno prides herself on making the best of challenging situations. But while describing the day back in late 2015 when San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith fired her via email, she fought hard to hold back the tears.
The devastating email arrived while she stood with other parents at her daughter’s volleyball practice. “I’m standing there, and I’m trying not to lose it,” she recalled in a recent interview, her voice quavering. “I don’t want to tell my daughter I just lost my job.”
On a personal level, it had not been a good year for the mother of three—a disintegrating marriage, the death of her father and caring for her mother who was going blind. “The last year has been just me trying to make sense that everything is going to be OK,” the city’s former top prosecutor explained. “On the drive home—I’ll never forget—I was just trying everything in my power not to lose it in front of my daughter. So the week before Thanksgiving, I’m jobless.”
Save for “a little teaching” at the local Alliant International University campus, Dell’Anno remains jobless, and she puts the blame squarely on Goldsmith’s shoulders for sullying her reputation. In a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed last week against Goldsmith and the city, the former assistant city attorney alleges that Goldsmith demoted then fired her in retaliation for refusing to play along while “Goldsmith prioritized his political ambitions and interests over his ethical obligations.”
In the suit, Dell’Anno—a former Tulare County public defender and Fresno County deputy district attorney hired by Goldsmith in 2009—claims Goldsmith’s political interests were apparent “almost immediately” after he promoted her in 2012 to head the city’s criminal division, overseeing the review of nearly 20,000 misdemeanor and infraction cases annually.
In 2013, Goldsmith “became irate and denigrated” Dell’Anno in front of the management team, the suit alleges, after she attended a City Council meeting to answer questions about the division’s budget—answers that “did not align with Goldsmith’s agenda.” After that, according to the lawsuit, “Goldsmith increasingly limited her contact with the City Council and forbade her at various stretches of time from speaking to councilmembers.”
Hoping to get back in the city attorney’s good graces, Dell’Anno said she sought the advice of Gerry Braun, Goldsmith’s communications director whom she referred to as “the Jan whisperer” for his ability to “calm Jan down when he was ready to flip out. Sometimes his knee-jerk reaction was so volatile. I’m not the only person he bullied. He’s a tyrant. Jan is Filner without the touching.”
In her suit, Dell’Anno claims that Braun’s advice was that Goldsmith “wants you to get your hands dirty. If you would just get your hands dirty, they would let you in the room.”
“I really do want to emphasize that I don’t think Gerry was suggesting that I do anything illegal,” Dell’Anno told Spin. “I just think he was trying to explain to me this is how it works around here, this is the culture. I think Gerry tried to help me where he could, but sometimes he couldn’t help me.”
Braun, now newly elected City Attorney Mara Elliott’s chief of staff, declined comment for this column. But Elliott, in a statement, expressed “high confidence in Gerry’s abilities and professionalism.” Regarding the lawsuit, Elliott said she had “personally” reviewed it, but also declined to opine, adding, “I think it’s appropriate for the city to respond in court, and not through the media.”
Someone who did respond in a lengthy email was Goldsmith himself, who defended his decision to remove Dell’Anno as criminal division head “due to her harsh treatment of lawyers and others in the division.” He said “pro- and anti-Marlea factions” in the division led to “bickering that interfered with operation of the office, impaired working conditions of our personnel and caused good lawyers to quit.”
Goldsmith also attributed his decision to have negative evaluations of two attorneys in the office removed from their files after they filed grievances due to “bickering and management problems.”
“I did disagree with her over the negative evals as the grievance appeal went to me as the head of the office. That’s the process,” he wrote. In her suit, Dell’Anno argues that state record-retention law prevented her from removing one evaluation.
Goldsmith also denied demanding that Dell’Anno file criminal charges against activist attorney Cory Briggs, his legal nemesis, for allegedly using electronic signatures on court documents. “She was not asked to file anything,” he said in the email. Briggs declined comment.
The former city attorney also denied demoting Dell’Anno, claiming he instead “reassigned her to head up the Community Court and Homeless Court project that we were working on. It is something that is near and dear to me.” (He said he didn’t know anything about her move from a corner suite to a “dingy” office on the fifth floor with a “DO NOT ENTER” sign posted on the door, which Dell’Anno found “humiliating.”)
By contrast, Dell’Anno contended that Goldsmith had a different attitude toward the homeless. “He has said before that nobody can solve this problem,” she said. “His solution was just lock everyone up. Well, that’s not going to work.”
Finally, Goldsmith said Dell’Anno was fired “after her successor learned of 50 domestic violence files that had not been timely handled by an attorney working under Marlea…and we learned that Marlea took the files home for some five months, but nothing was done.” Another 50 case files were found later, he said. “It is inexcusable, particularly in domestic violence cases where the victim relies upon our office for help.”
Dell’Anno, in her suit, claims she followed protocol by reporting the highly publicized case bungling, first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune last April, to members of his management team. She said she took them home to conduct her own review. “They knew I had them,” she said. “It was not a secret.”
A domestic-violence victim herself in her 20s, Dell’Anno said Goldsmith “went right for my jugular, and he knew it.”