SOLANA BEACH — A $25 million lawsuit against a former City Council candidate and his campaign manager moved forward on Sept. 6, when a Superior Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs have met their burden for establishing a case of defamation.
City Councilwoman Lesa Heebner, former Councilman Mike Nichols and developer Joe Balla are suing longtime Solana Beach resident Ed Siegel and his former campaign manager, Brian Hall, after the pair circulated materials during the 2016 campaign season accusing the city officials of taking a “backdoor deal” with Balla to secure jobs for a train station redevelopment project, called Cedros Market. Siegel wrote a letter to the editor, while Hall penned several emails under the name “Andrew Jones,” which he later conceded was a “fake” alter ego.
Hall sent an email to the North County Transit District in October 2016 titled “All roads lead to Harbaugh,” accusing Balla of using funds from The George & Betty Harbaugh Foundation to make a donation to help pay off a loan to ensure the vacant lot off of North Cedros Avenue would remain open. The ruling states Hall’s allegation that Balla transferred the estate to himself appeared to be made “with some knowledge of its falsity.”
“I was exposed to unprovoked defamation that besmirched my reputation with flat-out lies,” Balla said.
Hall previously filed an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion in an effort to strike the complaint, which was denied by the court. Hall is currently appealing his motion.
“I’d like to strike the whole damn thing,” Hall said during a recent interview. “ … I should be able to have a certain amount of scrutiny towards public figures.”
The defamation lawsuit won’t move forward until Hall’s motion passes through the court of appeals, said Keith Rutman, the attorney for Heebner and Nichols.
According to Rutman, the strength of the defamation case “on a scale of one to 10 is a 10,” he said. “It’s about as strong as you can get.”
Heebner, who served on City Council for 12 years prior to 2016, and is currently serving the rest of Mike Nichol’s term, said the lawsuit will allow the plaintiffs “to set the record straight.”
Siegel filed a cross-complaint against Hall in July, claiming that Siegel “did not authorize any defamatory statements/claims nor had prior actual knowledge of the alleged defamatory acts of cross-defendant Hall,” according to the cross-complaint.
Siegel could not be reached for comment before publication.
Lexy Brodt covers all things Del Mar and Solana Beach for The Coast News, with a primary interest in coastal development. A North County native turned UW-Madison alumna, she has produced for Wisconsin Public Radio and reported for The San Diego Union-Tribune and Wisconsin State Journal.