San Diego attorney Charles Black has long been the man local government officials turn to for help planning a new waterfront expansion to the San Diego Convention Center. Now, he’s working for Fifth Avenue Landing, the company that holds the lease to the land vital for that type of expansion site.
Fifth Avenue landing desperately wants to revive a $14 million deal for the government to purchase their lease of public land, and Black is negotiating it.
San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez says that sounds like a conflict of interest that violates professional standards for lawyers. Attorneys are generally supposed to avoid so-called adverse interests to preserve client loyalty and independent judgement. If they do go to work on the other side of a case, lawyers must first obtain consent from the original client.
Black doesn’t deny he worked for both sides. The city holds that because Black never rendered legal services to the city – only project management work – there is no conflict.
Alvarez wrote a memo Monday to the city’s chief operating officer, Scott Chadwick, interim general manager of the San Diego Convention Center Joe Davis and Port of San Diego CEO Randa Coniglio, expressing concern and asking for evidence all parties had provided written consent to allow Black to “work on both sides of the negotiation over the Fifth Avenue Landing leasehold.”
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This is a close call because it really depends on the scope of what Mr. Black does for the client. California's rules for attorney ethics emphasize client loyalty and are designed to protect clients form unscrupulous attorneys, but the City staffers seem comfortable with their position that Mr. Black was not acting as an attorney. And if there was an actually conflict, the clients can waive the conflict. If I'm hired as a project manager for a contractor and do no legal work, that doesn't prohibit me from later acting as an attorney against the contractor.
And even if there is a conflict, it can still be beneficial to have the attorney representing both parties. My primary area of law is bankruptcy and I've successfully represent couples going through. There is an actual conflict because they are divorcing, but they have a unified interest of getting rid of their debts and not paying 2 attorneys for 2 bankruptcy filings. With the proper written and informed consent, they can save legal fees and make their divorce simpler.
@Carl Starrett unless I am mistaken; David Alvarez is seeking written evidence showing informed consent by the San Diego Convention Center Joe Davis and Port of San Diego CEO Randa Coniglio- as in your example. Again, if I have not overlooked something, I see arguments against its need but no mention of the existence of written consent, in the article..
Mr. Starrett: I am sure there are State Bar rules in this regard for attorneys, but I don't think we should focus on whether this is a violation of those rules. I think we should ask ourselves, is this ethical? The fact that this gentleman is an attorney complicates things, but what if he were not? Would it be ethical in that case? It's a judgement call of course, but would it not be best to avoid the appearance of a conflict?
@Chris Brewster That's an entirely different discussion that Mr. Alvarez didn't raise. The only issue he brought up was the conflict of interest and he didn't even cite the applicable rule.
If insiders were not allowed to work on issues that involve a conflict of interest, San Diego would grind to a halt.
It is interesting that in a city the size of San Diego there is only one person that can handle this work. You would think that the powers that be would like to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest but apparently that isn't so.
Off topic: these are the same 'leaders' that are in charge of our streets and sewer systems.
@peggyo He isn't necessarily the only person who can handle the work, but he has a lot of experience getting big deals done in San Diego. Back in 2010, Voice of San Diego referred to him as "The Big Building Negotiator". He played a big role in getting Petco Park built.