By Kendra Sitton | Editor
As City Attorney Mara Elliott looks to get her office’s budget finalized and prepared for next year’s election, a fellow attorney is attempting to stymie her efforts.
At the City Council meeting on Tuesday, May 7, where Elliott presented her budget, Junior Theatre Oversight Group cofounder Matt Valenti used a public comment period to accuse the city attorney of obstructing justice. In a PowerPoint presentation, Valenti displayed an email he sent to Elliott more than two years ago, which she then forwarded to private attorney Gil Cabrera, who was representing the board of San Diego Junior Theatre (SDJT). On April 13, 2017, Elliott wrote, “Hi Gil, I haven’t read the attachments yet, but remember his [Valenti’s] name from our prior conversations.”
Attached to the email was a letter to State Attorney General Xavier Baccera about the board Cabrera was representing, which Valenti alleged of covering up child sex abuse cases at the Balboa Park-based nonprofit.
Elliott has said the contents of the email were a matter of public record since they were sent to multiple government offices and were not confidential — something Valenti disputes. According to a screenshot of the Junior Theatre Oversight Group website Valenti posted online, the letter to Baccera was made public on their site two weeks after Elliott sent it to Cabrera.
Former San Diego County Sheriff Commander Dave Meyers watched the City Council meeting and said in a phone interview he was upset that Elliott was using the office she was elected to helm in 2016 to assist a private attorney rather than the people of San Diego.
“What really struck me, after 35 years in law enforcement, was the city attorney releases what could be sensitive information to an attorney whose sole purpose is to represent the opposition,” Meyers said.
The abuse allegations stem from two main incidents. In June of 2016, Executive Director James Saba placed his hands on the shoulders of a cast member (some witnesses have said he grabbed and shook the student) after what he described to the San Diego Union-Tribune as disrespectful behavior by students. After an independent investigation by the board and the police, Saba was allowed to stay in his role and was not charged with battery of a minor.
Then in June 2017, a former teacher at the theater, Eric von Metzke, pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor. He was 35 at the time of the incidents, which occurred in the fall of 2016.
In a statement last week, SDJT said, “The incident with Eric von Metzke was not ignored, nor covered up. A police report was promptly filed by Executive Director James Saba, and von Metzke was arrested and convicted. The situation was handled swiftly because strong safety standards are already in place.”
“Mr. Valenti’s allegations against me and my office are baseless, outrageous and defamatory,” Elliott said in a statement. “As a mother and as city attorney, I take allegations of child abuse very seriously.
“The City Attorney’s Office prosecutes cases brought to this office by a law enforcement agency. No report of abuse involving Mr. Saba was ever sent to our office by law enforcement. Nonetheless, our office’s Domestic Violence and Sex Crimes Unit reviewed the matter, and they confirmed that police had investigated the allegations and no charges were brought against Mr. Saba.”
Many parents involved in SDJT have rallied behind Valenti’s efforts to uncover whether the board did enough to address warning signs that von Metzke was a predator.
One such parent, Francia Cohen, testified before City Council.
“I was a witness to the Executive Director Jimmy Saba the day that he grabbed (the student) and went into the girls dressing room. Because I was trying to tell the truth and tell everyone that I knew, Gil Cabrera sent me a cease-and-desist letter. He threatened to sue me if I spoke anything about what happened.”
Cohen said she was falsely accused of breaking and entering SDJT while working on a show, something the police investigated and dismissed. “The reason that they had said that is because they were trying to intimidate me and it worked. I had high anxiety,” Cohen said. “They are all lying to cover up [for] their friend Jimmy Saba. We have to look out for the safety of our children.”
Following Valenti’s presentation at the May 7 meeting, Chris Ward — who is the City Council representative for District 3 (home to Balboa Park, where SDJT is located) — said there were some substantial allegations that merit a full investigation. However, Ward said it would likely be under the purview of the district attorney or Baccera himself.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.