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NBC7 Admits Story On 101 Ash Street Was Based On Forged Document

101 Ash Street in Downtown San Diego. Aug. 21, 2020.

Photo by Shalina Chatlani

Above: 101 Ash Street in Downtown San Diego. Aug. 21, 2020.

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The local news station retracted a story that claimed investigators were reviewing Assemblymember Todd Gloria's role in a troubled city real estate deal. Gloria, who is running for mayor, said someone carried out a smear campaign against him.

Aired: September 15, 2020 | Transcript

NBC7 in San Diego retracted a news story Thursday night that erroneously reported investigators were looking into Assemblymember Todd Gloria's role in a boondoggle real estate deal, admitting that the document it based the story on was a fake.

The retracted story was published just two months before voters will pick between Gloria and City Councilmember Barbara Bry in the San Diego mayor's race. It also said City Attorney Mara Elliott had blocked investigators from speaking with Gloria. NBC7 acknowledged that, too, was a fabrication.

Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

Elliott is up for re-election in November, facing challenger Cory Briggs.

At the center of the scandal is the downtown high rise office building at 101 Ash Street. The city signed a lease-to-own deal on the property in 2016, hoping to use the building as new office space for city employees.

But officials soon discovered the building needed far more renovations than they originally anticipated. Then when those renovations began, workers dislodged asbestos into the air, forcing the city to evacuate its employees from the building and earning the city a citation from the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District.

Reported by Andrew Bowen

For years the city was paying $18,000 per day to rent the building while it remained empty. Last week Mayor Kevin Faulconer ordered the city to stop making the rent payments.

Gloria held a press conference Friday, saying the still-unknown source of the phony document had carried out a smear campaign against him.

"It's an unfortunate circumstance, but it is what this mayor's race has come to," Gloria said.

NBC7's story claimed that an outside law firm hired by the city to investigate the 101 Ash Street deal had tried to interview Gloria but that Elliott had not allowed them to. The story did not seek to explain why Elliott would have the authority to block such an interview, given that Gloria no longer works at the city.

Those claims, included in a footnote, were immediately disputed by both the City Attorney's Office and the law firm that wrote the memo. The authors later declared under penalty of perjury that "Footnote 15" was a complete fabrication.

RELATED: Bry Leading Gloria In San Diego Mayoral Campaign Fundraising

Tom Jones, NBC7's executive investigative producer who worked on the story, declined to comment on the retraction. The station said in its retraction article that it got the doctored memo from an anonymous source who claimed to be a city employee, but that they were never able to verify the source's identity. It said another city employee had initially vouched for the document's authenticity, but later said there was a "miscommunication." The outlet said it will continue to investigate who gave them the forged document and why.

Gloria said while he was glad the story was ultimately taken down, it should have been retracted sooner.

"NBC7 and the city have a responsibility to determine who is responsible for this deceptive act," Gloria said. "So today I'm asking the city to investigate every individual who had access to the original document. We're also calling on NBC7 to be transparent about their source and all that happened leading up to the publication of their fraudulent story."

Bry has repeatedly sought to blame the 101 Ash Street scandal on Gloria because he supported the deal when he was on the council. She also used the now-retracted NBC story in attack ads on Facebook, but took them down on Friday. According to the Facebook ad library, the ads were seen between 125,000 and 150,000 times.

Bry said in a statement that neither she nor any of her council district or campaign staffers had any contact with NBC7 regarding the story.

"Mr. Gloria’s news conference was an attempt to resurrect a failing campaign and shift public’s attention from his responsibility for the terrible 101 Ash Street transaction," Bry said.

Elliott said she would be "marshalling the full power of the City Attorney's Office" to look into who leaked the doctored memo.

"Our democracy is under attack from many directions, and reckless lies like this are designed to undermine public trust," she said. "San Diegans deserve to know the truth about who was behind this smear campaign, and how they got away with it for so long."

KPBS Investigative Reporter Claire Trageser contributed to this story.

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Photo of Andrew Bowen

Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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