Mayor deposed for lawsuit, in secret

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SONY DSCby Eric Ginsburg

The first deposition of Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan — as part of a lawsuit by downtown property owner Eric Robert against the city — could most accurately be described as a train wreck.

For starters, it appears nobody expected Vaughan to bring her own lawyer, Amiel Rossabi, who said he was there to represent Vaughan individually. But the mayor already had representation thanks to the city — Patrick Kane — and from the transcript of the deposition, it seems that neither he nor Robert’s lawyer, Scott Hale, knew Rossabi would be joining them.

We’ll skip the blow-by-blow, but the back and forth between Rossabi and Hale elevated to such a ridiculous level that Judge John O. Craig III seriously considered “the full array of options available to punish Attorneys Hale and Rossabi for their aberrant conduct,” but said in his Nov. 13 order that “in light of their mutual expressions of remorsefulness, the court declines to sanction said attorneys.”

Judge Craig also ordered that Mayor Vaughan would need to be deposed again for the lawsuit — in which Robert alleges the city used his downtown property to score redevelopment money and promised him a slice but cut him out when the cash arrived — and that the deposition would need to happen “as soon as reasonably possible.”

That second attempt at deposing Vaughan did occur. It happened the week before Thanksgiving, Vaughan confirmed in a brief phone interview before declining to comment on the details. There’s a pretty good chance nobody else who was there will talk about the details either, and there’s a chance we’ll never find out exactly what was said.

That’s because Judge Craig’s Nov. 13 order included several additional stipulations for the deposition.

“Mayor Vaughan will answer all questions posed, without instructions from her counsel telling her to refrain from answering, unless they are manifestly personal, intimate or pejorative in nature,” Craig wrote, referring to Rossabi’s repeated interruptions and advice that Vaughan not answer even basic questions during the first deposition attempt.

Craig also assigned Kane as Vaughan’s lead counsel for the deposition, allowing Rossabi to participate only if Hale asked Vaughan questions “in an individual or personal capacity.” The judge came down on Hale too, instructing him to be “polite and professional” and adding that he must “ask questions or provide clarifications to the witness with no editorial comment or snide remarks to anyone present.”

But Craig went a step further.

In his order, Craig said that “a confidentiality order is in place” until the court (that means him) directs otherwise.

“The deposition shall be sealed and not filed with the clerk of court as an individual document or as an exhibit to any motion,” he wrote. He also instructed those present not to share any details.

At least as of Monday, a transcript of the first deposition — as well as two DVDs with footage of the whole thing — exists in a three-part file at the Guilford County Clerk of Court’s office.

(Look it up and flip through the dozens of pages of transcript yourself if you’re bored — it’s a civil case, file number 15CVS4847, and someone in the Guilford County clerk’s office on the first floor of the county courthouse in Greensboro can find it for you.)

So unless Judge Craig reviews the deposition from two weeks ago and determines that it should be filed with the clerk of court — that’s the usual process — we may never know exactly what happened.

And why shouldn’t we? It’s hard for us to imagine a legitimate reason to keep the deposition under seal, especially considering that the witness is our mayor and the lawsuit is against our city.

Eric Robert at the Mill
Eric Robert at the Mill

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Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the first deposition. Not that it has any bearing on the case — Judge Craig also ordered that: “The previously aborted deposition of October 21, 2015 may not be used at trial or during the hearing of any motions in advance of the trial.”

 

  • “Actually this morning when we met… I explained to the city that I was going to handle this deposition and that I was not going to involve them in how I handled it.” — Rossabi

 

  • “Are you going to let this deposition go forward? We are in the preliminary instruction stages, and you’ve spent five minutes going around and around with these absurd statements on the record.” — Hale

 

  • “These are questions related to the lawsuit, Amiel, which you, yourself, just acknowledged you have limited information about,” Hale said, to which Rossabi responded, “Well, I read it.”

 

  • “Amiel, I think you need to be sworn in if you’re going to continue to testify.” — Hale

 

  • “I think you’re mischaracterizing.” — Vaughan said to Hale

 

  • Rossabi called the deposition “oppressive,” later saying that the questions are “evidence that she’s just here for you to try to intimidate or harass her.”

 

There’s a significant chance that reading the second deposition wouldn’t be as entertaining as some of these jabs, considering that both lawyers were almost in big trouble for their handling of the day.

But comic relief isn’t why the deposition should be public — it’s hard to see why Vaughan’s responses should be confidential. This is the mayor, conducting the people’s business. She is the public face of Greensboro. We deserve to know what she had to say.

  • Billy Jones

    Thank you for covering this story, Eric. I’d complain about the lack of depth but being the records are sealed I guess that’s beyond your control. From your article:

    “But comic relief isn’t why the deposition should be public — it’s hard
    to see why Vaughan’s responses should be confidential. This is the
    mayor, conducting the people’s business. She is the public face of
    Greensboro. We deserve to know what she had to say.”

    This is the first time I remember you portraying our Mayor as she actually is. Thank you and keep up the good work.

    • Billy Jones

      And Eric, in case you don’t know, while Nancy wasn’t on City Council at the time the City made the deal with Mr Robert I’m almost certain Donald Vaughan was a seated city council member then. Get it?