San Diego city attorney refers matter related to former Councilwoman Barbara Bry to criminal investigators

Then-City Councilwoman Barbara Bry of La Jolla campaigns for San Diego mayor in 2020.
Then-City Councilwoman Barbara Bry of La Jolla campaigns for San Diego mayor in 2020.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

While San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott considers whether to join a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a La Jolla businessman married to former Councilwoman Barbara Bry, one of Elliott’s senior deputies has decided that an unspecified matter involving Bry should be referred to criminal investigators, according to emails obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

It is not clear from the email records what potential crime may be investigated.

A spokeswoman for Elliott declined to say where the Bry matter was sent or what the possible crime may have been.

“We don’t discuss the content of law enforcement referrals or investigations,” Senior Public Information Officer Leslie Wolf Branscomb said by email.

Bry declined to comment.

A referral does not mean the city attorney’s office has determined that a crime or another violation occurred, Branscomb said.

“Rather, it lays out known facts and asks an appropriate agency to look into the matter and reach an independent conclusion,” she wrote.

It appears that while Bry was on the council, she may have made errors filing her Form 700, an annual state-required disclosure that outlines the personal holdings, income and gifts presented to public officials.

Bry, who was elected to the council in 2016 and served a single four-year term, is now running for San Diego County assessor-recorder-clerk. She ran unsuccessfully for San Diego mayor in 2020.

Bry has been married for 22 years to entrepreneur Neil Senturia, who is behind a lawsuit that accuses national leasing company Invitation Homes of systematically avoiding permit fees for renovations on properties in 18 California cities, including San Diego.

San Diego City Attorney has not joined the case, says has no evidence of unpermitted renovations

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In a November email, Senior Chief Deputy City Attorney Mark Ankcorn told Leonard Simon, a lawyer for Bry, that the potential criminal matter should be considered by outside investigators so the city is not perceived as biased.

“We continue to believe that our office should not make any decision on this matter because to either act or decline to act would create the appearance of a conflict, even though none exists in fact,” he wrote to Simon, who represents Bry and her husband.

Simon told Ankcorn that any such referral was “off-base” and would reflect poorly on Bry.

“The act of referral itself is a decision, and we think you are making a bad one,” Simon replied by email. “Some of the agencies you are talking about referring it to operate in the public, so it may have an immediate reputational impact.”

Two weeks after Simon traded emails with Ankcorn, another attorney representing Bry wrote to Elliott, pointing out several reasons to avoid making any criminal referral to an outside agency.

Specifically, the former U.S. Attorney Charles La Bella told Elliott that Bry and Senturia had signed a prenuptial agreement in 2000 that said Bry would have no current or future interest in her husband’s businesses.

La Bella also said Bry had listed all of Senturia’s companies on her Form 700s, though she neglected to clarify that they benefited her husband rather than herself.

“The only administrative error she made in her disclosures was that she did not check the box indicating that these were spousal interests and income rather than her own,” he wrote.

“This administrative error was corrected in a series of amendments in which the spousal box was properly checked.”

Branscomb said Bry and Senturia stand to benefit financially if her husband’s whistleblower lawsuit prevails.

She added that Bry, as a city official, had an obligation to inform the city if there was evidence of fraud.

Senturia’s lawsuit, which was filed in 2020 but sealed by a San Diego judge until late last year, claims Texas-based Invitation Homes renovated thousands of properties without obtaining the proper permits.

According to the lawsuit, a real estate analytics firm Senturia co-founded in 2018 used artificial intelligence and “machine learning” technology to identify residential properties that were renovated without permits.

The company, Deckard Technologies, developed proprietary software that sweeps public databases to find anomalies that could indicate a lack of compliance with government regulations.

No one from Invitation Homes responded to requests for comment about the suit. ◆