Key witness changes testimony in legal fight over proposed Clippers arena in Inglewood
In an unexpected turn to bitter litigation over the billion-dollar arena the Clippers want to build in Inglewood, the former assistant to Mayor James T. Butts Jr. has reversed much of her sworn testimony and backed a key claim by the Madison Square Garden Co. in its fight against the project.
The attorney for Melanie McDade-Dickens sent a letter last month to attorneys in the case making 148 changes to the transcript of her July deposition.
Scores of “yes” or “no” answers were flipped and specifics replaced “I don’t recall” responses in the document filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court earlier this week.
The changes strike at the heart of the dispute pitting MSG, owner of the Forum, against Inglewood and the Clippers, who are trying to build a home less than two miles away. MSG sued Inglewood last year, alleging Butts tricked the company into ending its lease to use city-owned land for parking because the property was needed for a technology park. The mayor has repeatedly denied the claim. The arena complex would occupy much of that land, near the intersection of West Century Boulevard and South Prairie Avenue.
McDade-Dickens testified she didn’t remember Butts discussing a technology park, but her account changed in the letter last month.
“I specifically recall one occasion when the Mayor was speaking to Irving Azoff [a businessman connected to MSG and the Forum] on his car’s speaker phone mentioning a ‘tech park,’” the letter said.
McDade-Dickens changed her answer to whether the technology park would be at the same location as the planned arena from “No, specific location, no” to “Yes.”
Seeking to call Inglewood home, the Clippers have proposed committing an estimated $100 million in benefits toward the city as part of building an arena.
In a motion to strike the document this week, Skip Miller, an attorney representing Inglewood, called the changes “fraudulent” and “an attempt by MSG to manufacture factual issues that don’t exist.”
“There is only one plausible explanation for McDade[-Dickens’] sudden flip and MSG’s ‘new’ evidence: They are in cahoots,” the motion said.
In response, MSG said in a statement that the allegation of any collaboration was a “complete fabrication” and “underscores just how desperate the City has become as evidence mounts of its fraudulent conduct.” The company denied involvement in McDade-Dickens correcting her testimony.
Carl Douglas, an attorney McDade-Dickens retained after the deposition, said he didn’t work with MSG.
“As a 40-year lawyer, I understand the obligation that my clients have to correct sworn deposition testimony,” Douglas told The Times. “It is in that spirit that I drafted the [document] after closely consulting with my client about her answers.”
The Inglewood motion alleged that McDade-Dickens violated a stipulation between the parties to submit any corrections to her testimony within 30 days of the deposition. MSG attorneys unilaterally granted McDade-Dickens two extensions, but the Inglewood attorneys dispute their validity.
Representatives of the arena project and Inglewood declined comment.
The arena project, which would start construction in mid-2021 and be completed for the 2024-25 NBA season, is currently under environmental review.
The latest round of contention goes well beyond the arena. McDade-Dickens has been on paid administrative leave since July 1 — two weeks before the deposition. The motion to strike her testimony said Inglewood employees received “credible information” that she violated unspecified “important City policies” which led to the leave.
Douglas declined to address the allegations, but said “she was a great employee.” McDade-Dickens made more than $215,000 in salary last year, and received a $22,000 bonus in January.
In a declaration attached to the motion to strike, John Harris, an attorney retained by Inglewood to investigate McDade-Dickens, said MSG was a topic of conversation during a meeting with Douglas and McDade-Dickens last month at Inglewood City Hall.
“During this meeting, Mr. Douglas stated to me as follows: ‘You guys ought to treat my client nice. MSG is going to be her best friend. I’m going to have her recant her deposition testimony,’” the declaration said.
Douglas, who declined to make McDade-Dickens available for comment, dismissed the allegation.
“In the bluster of adversarial discussions, between friends, trash is often talked,” he said.
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer says a lawsuit against the team’s plan to build an arena complex in Inglewood will not stop the proposed project.
This most recent dispute became public after attorneys for Murphy’s Bowl LLC, the Clippers-controlled company behind the arena, sought to depose McDade-Dickens again after reviewing the slew of corrections. Douglas moved to quash the subpoena last week.
“She understands the negative impact which the [document] she submitted will have on her credibility going forward,” the motion to quash said. “She should not be forced to undergo another withering and grueling deposition session. It is clear that Murphy’s wants to further attack her believability by challenging her original responses as compared to the corrections. …”
McDade-Dickens was first deposed in September 2018. Her answers then were similar to those in her July deposition, including denying knowledge of any plan for a technology park in Inglewood.
MSG later asked a judge to order her to answer additional questions about the nature of her relationship with Butts. A referee appointed to resolve discovery disputes denied that part of the request, but green-lighted the second deposition.
During the session in July, McDade-Dickens denied exchanging text messages with Butts about personal matters or having “hung out” with him outside of work. Those were among the answers she changed from “No” to “Yes.”
She acknowledges now that she attended a meeting about the arena in 2016, about a year before the Clippers and Inglewood announced an exclusive negotiating agreement. Originally, she denied knowledge of the meeting. She also conceded that she exchanged text messages with an employee of the arena developer, after previously denying it.
McDade-Dickens was asked repeatedly if she stood by her answers in the first deposition.
“Is there anything in that deposition that you’d like to change?” an attorney asked.
“No,” McDade-Dickens said.
That “no” was among the changes made in the document filed earlier this week.
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