FREMONT — While awaiting trial on charges of abusing his city credit card for travel and food expenses, a former Fremont city manager is remaking himself as an internationally-trained chef — and arousing the ire of prosecutors who insist he must first face justice.
Mark Danaj incurred felony charges here, but the disgraced official has recently been in Italy learning the art of wine tasting and gelato-making in a 900-year-old castle, part of an expensive culinary school internship complete with cheese tasting and olive-oil-sipping field trips.
Danaj’s midlife career change came not long after he lost his government job and got a generous severance package. He moved to San Antonio to attend The Culinary Institute of America.
Alameda County prosecutors were incredulous upon learning last month that he’d left the country.
“Defendant is in Italy?!” wrote prosecutor Alexandra Grayner in a May court filing. She ripped the “luxurious” Italian getaway as nothing more than “a pretextual excuse to gallivant around Europe while he awaits trial.” “Despite facing felony charges for embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds in Alameda County, Mr. Danaj appears to be living his best life ‘studying’ Italian wines, cheese and capellini.”
The case had dragged on for nearly 15 months until newly seated District Attorney Pamela Price, who formed a public accountability unit as one of her first acts in office, took over. Prosecutors have since moved to seize Danaj’s passport to end, as Graynor put it, his “Italian jaunt.”
Danaj’s three-year tenure as Fremont’s city manager ended in September 2021 under a thick legal cloud. Weeks before his resignation, police officers arrested him at his San Francisco home on suspicion of domestic violence. Prosecutors later dismissed that case, citing a lack of evidence.
In March 2022, Alameda County prosecutors charged him in the current corruption case, alleging he made “numerous unauthorized, personal purchases” at public expense, totaling $18,000 from December 2019 through March 2021. Authorities allege he used a city-issued credit card on travel, medical services, food delivery and Apple products.
He was booked at the Santa Rita Jail but quickly released on his “own recognizance,” which does not require defendants to post any money or collateral for their release. He appeared to be released without any conditions, according to court documents filed by prosecutors and his attorney.
At the time of his resignation, Danaj negotiated a payout from the city of Fremont worth more than $360,000, which included 10.5 months of severance pay, along with tens of thousands of dollars in health care benefits and unused general leave time.
Court documents suggest Danaj wasted little time finding a new passion.
Sometime that same year, he enrolled in $80,000 worth of classes at the Culinary Institute of America — a private college billing itself as the “standard for excellence in professional culinary education,” according to its website.
While the school boasts a branch in the Napa County hamlet of St. Helena, Danaj instead opted for classes at a satellite location in San Antonio. He moved full-time to the south-central Texas city later that year and made the decision official in October 2022 by getting a Texas driver’s license, court records show.
At some point, Danaj also decided to enroll in the college’s 15-week course at the Castello di Ugento — a centuries-old castle now home to a five-star hotel in the southern Italy, which is bordered by olive gardens and miles of Mediterranean coastline. The property boasts a 400-year-old wine cellar, as well as a 300-year-old garden that sprouts more than 100 varieties of herbs and fruits.
The nearly four-month course includes “field trips to markets, wineries and local producers of products such as olive oil and cheese,” according to a press release from the college. Three of those weeks are spent interning at a local restaurant. Meanwhile, the students are housed in an 18th-century farmhouse just minutes from the castle.
The course — which is required to graduate from the program — was expected to end July 19, court documents show.
Prosecutors last month appeared gobsmacked at learning of his new career and training grounds and pleaded with an Alameda County judge to order his return to California and to seize his passport.
Grayner — who was assigned to prosecute the case in February, nearly a year after it was filed — raised concerns that Danaj had never signed a release agreement mandated by California law. Such agreements typically require defendants to notify the court if they leave the state.
Danaj recently appeared willing to sign such an agreement. His attorney, however, asked that Danaj also be allowed to finish his culinary training.
At a hearing last month, the judge granted prosecutors’ request that Danaj turn in his passport, though he denied imposing a $50,000 bail, as prosecutors had requested, according to Dan O’Malley, the attorney for Danaj. The former city manager attended the May 23 hearing, though it remains unclear where he is currently living.
O’Malley — the brother of former District Attorney Nancy O’Malley — has repeatedly said in court filings that the former city manager never tried to hide his move to Texas, arguing instead that mentions of it were included in prior court filings. In an emailed statement to this news organization, O’Malley said the former city manager “wishes to take responsibility for the actions,” adding that his foray to Italy was aimed at doing just that.
Danaj “will never work in Municipal Governent (sic), so he is trying to find a profession (Culinary) that he can pursue once he gets this case behind him,” O’Malley said. He declined to comment further.