Cory Briggs’ land deals raise ethical, legal questions
Attorney Cory Briggs argues a case against the city of San Diego in Superior Court. Photo by Sam Hodgson.

Cory Briggs’ land deals raise ethical, legal questions

by Brad Racino and Brooke Williams, inewsource

For years, Cory Briggs, a high-profile San Diego lawyer and a key figure in the resignation of former Mayor Bob Filner, has engaged in real estate transactions that a host of experts say are questionable and possibly fraudulent.

inewsource followed millions of dollars of his land deals through four Southern California counties to be met with slammed doors, a threat to call the police and a strange hand-delivered letter, saying there was no payoff to get rid of Filner, who resigned in 2013 amid a sexual harassment scandal.
Why this matters: A San Diego lawyer who has built a reputation on fighting for the environment and against government abuse runs a business contrary to his public interest persona.

inewsource also discovered Briggs had sold his home for about half its worth to a corporation he controls.

These types of transactions are “never done in honest business dealings,” said William Black, a white-collar criminologist and former bank regulator who testified before Congress about the Lehman Brothers collapse.

To see the documents behind each fact, click here.

inewsource asked Black and other experts to review public records of Briggs’ land deals, in particular two $1.5 million deeds of trust made on the same day in 2013. Briggs and his law firm entered into the deeds with four members of the same family. The deeds were secured by houses worth a fraction of that cost, without listing a title company.

“I don’t think he’s going to want the Bar to learn about these things,” Black said.

Professor William K. Black teaches economics and law at the University of Missour—Kansas City. He researches white-collar crime and testified in front of Congress about the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2010.

Professor William K. Black teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri—Kansas City. He researches white-collar crime and testified in front of Congress about the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2010. Photo courtesy: William Black.

A puzzling letter

Since at least 2007, the Briggs Law Corp. has been entering into deeds of trust — liens against a property typically in exchange for loans — with people in Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Los Angeles counties for as little as $15,000 and as much as $1.5 million.

Briggs’ largest liens, totaling $3 million, were made on Aug. 28, 2013 — five days after Filner announced his resignation — by members of the Wolfinbarger family in Diamond Bar and Chino, a little more than 100 miles northwest of San Diego. The liens were worth nearly three times the value of the homes, according to data from Zillow and Homesnap. One house was worth about $679,000 at the time; the other currently is valued at about $378,000.

inewsource asked Briggs’ about the deeds of trust, and mentioned the proximity to Filner’s resignation announcement. But Briggs shut down the interview on Feb. 11 and threatened to call the police if reporters didn’t leave his office.

“This stuff is not an issue,” Briggs said, adding he would respond to inewsource’s story after publication.

The reporters immediately headed north to Chino to interview Randy Wolfinbarger, who slammed the door when asked about his lien for $1.5 million.

His wife — coming home from a trip to the store — said “he just briefed me on it earlier,” then “no comment” and hurried inside.

In nearby Diamond Bar, James and Barbara Wolfinbarger didn’t answer their door or a phone call that evening. Two cars were parked in the driveway. The lights were off in the house.

inewsource left a copy of their $1.5 million lien on their door with a note requesting an interview.

On Feb. 16, inewsource received a letter from the Wolfinbargers with a puzzling claim: That an inewsource reporter had accused them of paying someone to oust Filner from office. The reporters who tried to interview the Wolfinbargers never mentioned Filner, according to video footage of the encounter, either in verbal questions to the family or in the note left with the deed of trust.

Wolfinbarger_letter

inewsource received this letter from Randy and James Wolfinbarger, on Feb. 16, 2015.

Their letter was dropped off at KPBS, where inewsource has its office, by a woman who appeared to be a Briggs employee. It read in part:

“Brad Racino has repeatedly harassed us and other family members with the accusation that we paid an attorney millions of dollars to get rid of San Diego mayor Bob Filner and made impolite demands that we talk with him about this absurd theory. For the record, we do not even know who Mr. Filner is. We did not pay any person to get rid of him or the mayor of any other city for that matter.”

Making contact

inewsource found eight deeds of trust between the Briggs Law Corp. and borrowers — the earliest from 2007 — for a total of $3.8 million. Two more deeds involve Briggs’ personal LLC but not his law corporation.

Of the eight deeds involving Briggs’ law firm, five list a title company such as First American or Fidelity National as a trustee. Of the other three, one lists Karin Langwasser as trustee, and the other two — the ones for $1.5 million — list “Cory J. Briggs” as trustee.

inewsource attempted to interview all of the borrowers.

Two did not return multiple phone calls or emails, another two, the Wolfinbargers, would not talk about the liens. The fifth and sixth’s phone numbers couldn’t be located, but inewsource found one of them, Andrew Levy, was a defendant in a 2007 lawsuit in which Briggs represented the plaintiff. Levy’s $15,000 deed with the Briggs Law Corp. was filed the same day as an amended court complaint.

The seventh’s bookkeeper said that the lien was a guarantee for a $75,000 payment regarding a lawsuit Briggs filed against her company, but declined to speak further about it.

“They don’t want anybody pulling on the threads here,” said Black, the white-collar criminologist, when told the total number of deeds. “This is how you end up naked.”

The eighth said that the $200,000 recorded on the deed never actually changed hands, and that she barely knew Briggs.

“I think we contacted him because we were trying to protect our assets in looking at a potential lawsuit,” said Marlene Nisbet.

Nisbet and her husband were named as defendants in a personal injury lawsuit filed about one month prior to her deed with Briggs. She said she couldn’t remember the details and was unaware that there was a $200,000 lien on her house. inewsource obtained the deed, which says the “debt“ is “due and payable on conclusion of beneficiary’s representation of Borrower(s).”

A possible explanation, according to Black and other experts interviewed, is that the liens were used to protect Nisbet’s assets from the creditors in her lawsuit. They said this scenario would not be legal.

“I’m certainly scratching my head wondering why someone would set themselves up for the kind of scrutiny that this would bring,” said Jonathan Arons, a defense attorney for lawyers, who has more than 30 years of experience in legal ethics.

“What do you hope to gain from this?” Arons said.

Attorney Cory Briggs leaves court after arguing a case against the city of San Diego. Photo by Sam Hodgson.

Attorney Cory Briggs leaves court after arguing a case against the city of San Diego. Photo by Sam Hodgson.

This is how a typical asset protection scheme works, they said: Jane owes a lot of money to a creditor — after a lawsuit or bankruptcy, for example — and that creditor wants repayment in the form of Jane’s home. But Jane has already entered into a fake deed of trust with someone, so it appears as if the house is encumbered, or underwater. Because the house isn’t worth much of anything, the creditor might leave it alone. Eventually, the lending party lifts the fake deed from Jane’s property so it is no longer underwater.

Nisbet said, in her case, no money changed hands in the deed, but she might have paid Briggs for his legal services. She said she doesn’t remember.

The Briggs Law Corp. lists “asset protection” as a service for its clients on its website.

That’s unusual for a law firm to advertise, Black said.

Asset protection, he said, includes such things as advising a client to create a family trust or a corporation, or to buy real estate somewhere else, “so they can’t go after your debts.” It’s best to advise before the client is already in trouble, he said, adding “They’re a law firm, they give advice on asset protection — they don’t actually do the deals themselves.”

Ed McIntyre, a legal ethicist and a former member of the California State Bar Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct, agreed.

“A law firm is in the business of the practice of law and it should not be using its law firm name and license and whatever status being a law firm gives you to be lending money,” McIntrye said.

“You’ve got a pattern that I think would get somebody’s attention,” he said, “whether it’s a prosecutor, investigator or somebody at the state Bar who may want to know — ‘Why is this quasi-public interest law firm lending out all this money?’”

“There may be a legitimate reason for it,” McIntyre said, “but what’s it all about?”

The West End Executives Association

One connection inewsource found between Briggs and several borrowers was a business group called the West End Executives Association, a nonprofit “dedicated to increasing our business success by providing referrals” to members. Its website says the association is part of a network of 90 sister organizations operating in major cities in 18 countries, and they typically meet for breakfast at a Holiday Inn in Ontario.

The West End Executives Association Facebook page.

The West End Executives Association’s Facebook page.

One current executive board member and two past presidents of the association, including James “Butch” Wolfinbarger, appear on deeds of trust connected to Briggs Law Corp.

Briggs has been a member since 2002, according to the group’s Facebook page. He was president for six months in 2005, according to the website.

A Jan. 14 post on the group’s Facebook page, accompanied by a photo of Briggs at a podium, states, “Briggs Law Corporation specializes in business law for small, family-owned businesses. Services include formation of corporations and LLCs, negotiation of commercial contracts, asset protection strategies, estate planning and trust administration … Many members have attested to the services received by Cory and his firm, who are always available to give advice, and solve problems when needed.”

One last puzzle

Briggs’ home in San Diego also baffled experts.

He purchased it for $1.49 million in 2010 without recording a deed of trust for the property at the San Diego County assessor’s office, said Sharon Ferguson, the office’s assistant division chief.

A little more than two years later, he sold it to TYL Enterprises, a corporation formed in Nevada, for $725,000. According to the Nevada secretary of state’s website, Briggs serves as TYL’s president, secretary, treasurer and director, and represented the company in court over a breach of contract dispute in 2010.

No experts interviewed could suggest a logical explanation for taking such a loss on the home.

inewsource repeatedly asked Black if there was any sensible explanation for its findings.

“No,” he said. “And if there is, these folks could provide it.”

Overall, Black said, “the deals make no sense as economic matters, and it’s not even close.”

“It’s not a matter of judgment. It’s just: no, no no,” he said.

Brooke Williams is a journalism fellow at Harvard University and an inewsource correspondent. Follow her at @reporterBrooke on Twitter.

shadow-ornament

We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Brad Racino:

Brad Racino is a senior reporter and assistant director at inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email bradracino at inewsource dot org.
  • LindaT

    This is not the first investigation of Cory L. Briggs to be written about in alternative news sources. Voice of San Diego also did a series of articles about Briggs and the way he use the law to hold up small and large municipalities, using environmental statutes against them. Often it was cheaper for them to fold any opposition than have a protracted legal battle. Briggs was the main legal opponent to the US Navy’s plan to build the Navy Broadway Complex at Broadway and Pacific Highway. It cost the citizens of San Diego literally millions of dollars. He is also party to the lawsuits holding up the expansion of the San Diego Convention Center. IMHO Briggs presents himself as a fighter for justice for the little guy, when in fact he is just another fat cat who has found a way to line his own pockets with his knowledge of the law.

    • Jelula

      Linda T. – you know nothing about Briggs’ lawsuits, who he has represented in them, and what he was seeking to accomplish, only what you’ve read in the alternative press which often focuses on negatives with little balance (used to be called “yellow journalism”). I agree with Ms. Aliotti about the poor journalistic practices and confused writing manifested in the author’s conclusions.

      All too often, litigation can be the only way that the average citizen can influence projects that all too often have excluded them despite a purported “public process”. All too often, the Findings adopted to certify an EIR bear little relationship to the actual requirements on which Findings must be based. Thus, litigation.

      As for the Navy Broadway Complex lawsuits, I am a member of the group of organizations (the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, or NBCC, formed in 2006) who retained Briggs to represent us on behalf of the public at large regarding the public property that was taken by the Navy for private benefits (the Navy Broadway Complex site). Briggs did not seek us out, we sought him out.

      The NBC property of almost 15 waterfront acres was *given* by the citizens of San Diego to the Navy after WW I for military purposes, and not for “for-profit” development by private developers (Doug Manchester). When the Base Realignment & Closure (BRAC) process threatened to remove the Navy facility from that site, the Navy countered that they could develop the property and use the proceeds to build a new Navy HQ on the site.

      During that same period of time, the Port of San Diego decided unilaterally to change the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan (a plan originally arrived at through extensive *public* participation), with the City of SD & CCDC voting to support the changes. The changes removed a large oval park that was to have been placed at the foot of Broadway & leading onto Broadway Pier, which itself was to have become a public open space with a San Diego Bay view as one traveled west on Broadway, and not an ugly cruise ship terminal structure.

      The NBCC broadened our focus to the issue of the walling off of the North Embarcadero, as has been done along the South Embarcadero, and initiated litigation regarding the elimination of the open space we had been promised at the foot of Broadway, leading a settlement providing open space in recompense for the lost open space at the foot of Broadway & the Broadway Pier. The result is a 50-ft wide park space for the public from Broadway north to just before the hotel at Ash & Harbor Dr. I don’t know if Briggs received any money beyond what our group raised to pay him but the public at large gained a public benefit from that settlement. You can see the first part of it if you go down to Broadway & Harbor Dr. – that piece of park is almost completed.

      You would be wise not to accept as gospel only what you read in the papers (be they print or online). You never know what the “other side” of an issue may be in reality.

      • Peking_Duck_sd

        Haha, the alternative press in San Diego is yellow journalism?

        That’s hilarious.

        Try the mainstream local San Diego media If you want unprofessional journalism. Pravda UT owned by one really rich developer who has all but admitted he bought it to further his agenda and the local TV stations like KUSI which are as jaundiced as Fox News.

        • Jelula

          My comment isn’t that ALL alternative press is “yellow journalism”, just that sometimes it is – I agree completely with you about the UT (much of the time), KUSI-TV news (sometimes) and Fox cable “News” (all the time). However, the UT also has had some excellent articles thanks to a few good journalists who remain employed there, and I almost always appreciated Roger Showley’s writings. I avoid making absolute judgements whenever possible and I wish more people would practice that same philosophy.

    • Jelula

      Regarding the lawsuit “holding up the expansion of the convention center”, the court has ruled on it, agreeing with Cory Briggs that the mechanism devised to pay for the expansion was an illegal room tax levied on visitors but never voted on by the public as required under State law. Any increase of the TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) must be put to a public vote and cannot be approved only by a subset of the public, the hotels. Even the SD City Attorney opined that it was likely an illegal vote.

      Furthermore, the vote was unfairly weighted based on the size of the hotel, not 1 vote per hotel. Of course, the major downtown hotels carried that vote but the tax was to be imposed on all of the small hotels and even occasional seasonal rentals at the beach.

  • Kristen Aliotti

    This is pretty much the worst “investigative” story I’ve read from “inewsource”/KPBS (or however you are are aligned in your OWN complicated “partnership.”) I won’t go into all of the issues I had “trying” to read this confusing story, but I will ask three questions: how did you happen to use an “expert” from the University of Missouri (no explanation that I could find), since WHEN do journalists go to homes of perfect strangers in the dark of night and knock on doors (then get no answer, and imply that someone inside was hiding, because there were “2 cars in the driveway” and the “lights off” in home?? NO LOGIC working in this story.) The videos of reporters with flashlights at people’s front doors at night? My goodness! No one would answer the door under those circumstances in my neighborhood, and I live in Kensington! Very unprofessional. And finally, what does ANY of this have to do with the resignation of former Mayor Bob Filner? Strangest story in town. Where are your editors, and your OWN ethics advisors? Awaiting a full explanation, please.

    • hortonheardme

      According to the KPBS website, Brad graduated from the Journalism school at U Missouri. Professor Black might be an acquaintance or friend who would give a quote responding to a specific fragment related by Brad, without any expertise on or interest in the bigger picture of the actual case being investigated or the laws and practices in California, etc.. Or, Professor Black might happen to be a world class expert in private party asset protection in California as well as in white collar crime in large banks & investment houses, and the more relevant expertise was edited out of the photo caption in the interest of brevity.

    • Peking_Duck_sd

      Suddenly news outlets are only allowed to use local experts and aren’t allowed to knock on people’s doors to get a story?

      You do realize none of this is unique to inewsource and most credible news agencies do this on a daily basis, do you not?

  • jwstump

    I have to shout a big “AMEN” for the comments presented by Ms. Kristen Aliotti, below.. I could not follow this pudden. Nightstalker harassment is more than rude it is unethical.! This sort of out of bounds newshounding killed Princess Di and would not be well received in my part of town. All the best John Stump City Heights

  • B C Brewster

    I am appreciative of many of the cases Mr. Briggs has taken on, which I generally view as benefitting the general public; but two things are troubling here for me. One is the unusual transactions. The other is Mr. Briggs’ unwillingness to respond to the reporter’s inquiries. Mr. Briggs just filed a case against Chula Vista for a Brown Act violation. The aim of the Brown Act is transparency. His approach in this case seems quite the opposite. I would also mention that when people protest against inquiries that the reporter says were never made, things appear quite bizarre. Mr. Briggs has apparently promised a rebuttal, which would be helpful.

    • Kristen Aliotti

      I thought Mr. Briggs’ request to turn off the recording equipment was perfectly rational and appropriate. Just a difference of opinion here, but it seemed perfectly fine to me, and smart on his part. He is not a public official. He’s an attorney. He has no obligation to be on camera with some half-baked theory of his wrong-doing. It certainly *felt* as though he was about to get a couple of those “When did you stop beating your wife?” questions. In addition, if the interview with Mr. Briggs was as strange as the middle-of-the-night-knocking-on-strangers’-doors interviews in the other videos, he was very smart to ask for the equipment to be turned off. (I am making no comment whatsoever on whether anything was done wrong by Mr. Briggs – one could not possibly know from the information presented. I am simply commenting on the process and style of the “journalism” taking place here.) We, the reading public, deserve better.

      • B C Brewster

        Ms. Aliotti: I did not comment on the turning off of the camera. My comment had to do with unwillingness to respond to the reporter’s inquiries. I agree that he is not a public official and not subject to the Brown Act, but what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Do not pillory others for failed candor, then lack candor yourself.

  • DonWood

    It’s pretty obvious that one or more enemies of Mr. Briggs trolled some bogus materials in front of Mr. Racino and Ms. Williamson and they bit hard, going on a personal jihad against Mr. Briggs. This “story’ hardly qualifies as “investigative journalism”, it’s much closer to libel.

  • hortonheardme

    a “Host”?? I count 2 experts: William Black and Ed McIntyre. Therefore, I call shenanigans on the lede, let alone the rest of the article without anything concrete in it. By your math, iNewsource has now published A HOST of hit pieces on Cory Briggs. For that matter, iNewsource has published investigations of A HOST of persons inconvenient to the downtown movers & shakers who profit from rezoning, public land, and taxpayer-funded projects like ballparks & convention centers. [I don’t defend what Filner was accused of; I don’t defend whatever concrete actions Briggs might be accused of that I failed to read between the lines. Neither are my heroes, but both have fought for the public interest against some big private interests.] While I don’t find a pattern in 2 data points, maybe there’s a pattern in A HOST of investigations of inconvenient persons v. none of San Onofre/PUC, or of San Diego Zoning & Development Services “errors” all in the direction of corporations & developers and all unable to be corrected in court by community groups, or anyone who’s agenda was inconvenienced by the likes of Briggs. Scam Diego is a target-rich environment for investigations; so far the targets of iNewsource appear to be a non-random sample of those who get in the way of corner-cutting by local government and developers, not those doing the corner-cutting.

    I would like to know how Racino & Williams came to write these articles: did Brad just up & decide to look into Cory Briggs (presumably not a random name out of a phone book), or did someone pass on a “tip” to Brad, did something come up during a completely different investigation, or did some kind of editorial board decide to investigate Briggs?

    Tom
    ps: I just spoke with a friend. A HOST of us would like to know if iNewsource & KPBS are carrying water for bigger interests providing substantial financial support before we decide about renewing our modest support for KPBS; maybe they don’t need us.

  • Kat Silva

    INVESTIGATIVE NEWS NETWORK

    Entity
    Number:
    C3250040

    Date
    Filed:
    08/25/2010

    Status:
    ACTIVE

    Jurisdiction:
    DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

    Entity
    Address:
    P.O. BOX 8606

    Entity
    City, State, Zip:
    CALABASAS CA 91372

    Agent
    for Service of Process:
    KEVIN DAVID

    Agent
    Address:
    17514 VENTURA BLVD., SUITE 103

    Agent
    City, State, Zip:
    ENCINO CA 91316
    Soooo, why is your org formed in DC? I smell a rat! OR is there a perfectly good explanation? There probably is…just like Briggs.

  • Peyton cort

    Are you owned by the National Enquirer?
    So, a businessman-lawyer has entered into (oh no) contracts, and this is newsworthy journalism.
    Maybe we should change the title of your article to: Lawyer Forces Governments and Its Officials To Follow the Law, AND WE ARE TIRED OF IT.
    Please stop your public woodshedding of a patriot. Stop your enemy sponsored flogging.
    In other words, put your crayons down and investigate real corruption.

  • Scott Cramer

    Kristen, read the story again, makes perfect sense to me. The only reason the reporter mentions Filthy Filner is because of the letter he received from the Wolfinbarger’s. I can draw you a picture if you’d like….

  • Scott Cramer

    And might I add… Boy, Cory’s friends are really defensive. This article must have some truth or it would have gotten him and his buddies all riled up.

    • Kat Silva

      I’m no friend. I don’t even know this guy. But I do know that this is just retaliation for holding corrupt pol’s feet to the fire. He obviously hurt someone’s feelings (Jan) and is getting roasted for it. Let’s all dig into the conflict between Jan and his wife? It’s all BS.

  • Peyton cort

    How easy it was for you to dismiss legitimate criticism of the article. I’m not a friend of Cory. However anyone that has the rancheros to stand up to the powers that be in this town, given the vindictive nature of its politicians, gets an A plus in my book. This article and the sexist one attacking his wife are so transparent as to be laughable.

  • Scott Cramer

    Peyton where is the sexism? The article presents facts about where is wife worked, nothing more. You seem pretty emotional about this to be impartial…

  • Peyton cort

    You seemed awfully interested in a predetermined outcome and conclusion…based on innuendo and speculation.

  • Jelula

    For those interested in learning some more about Inewsource, there’s a wikipedia article (prefaced with the “This article has multiple issues”). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investigative_Newsource#Leadership_.26_Staff for names of key people.

  • Scott Cramer

    Peyton I didn’t need this article to tell me what I already know, that Briggs is scum. He uses the environment as an excuse to enrich himself. He may have a minor interest in the environment, but his primary goal is to make himself millions of dollars. That is clear by some of the projects he takes on. It’s not really about ‘standing up to big government and developers’.

    http://voiceofsandiego.org/share/how-san-diegos-most-disruptive-lawyer-makes-his-money/

    Everyone knows this, and so I can only assume that those defending him here are his cohorts

    • Manny Chen

      hey, the law is the law. Briggs may be getting rich, but let’s not act like the developers aren’t either. And it’s not like the developers actually want to follow the law in most instances.

      • Scott Cramer

        Manny you make a good point, but IMO there’s something much vile in what Cory is doing.

        • Scott Cramer

          and besides my point was not to defend developers, but to show everyone here displaying righteous indignation that Cory is no saint.

  • Manny Chen

    I will say the liens seems weird. But as for him selling his house to a corporation he controls, I don’t think the price it gets sold at is relevant. Obviously it would raise a flag if he sold it for $1, but, in the end, he already personally paid $1.49 million for it. there is no magic number in this scenario; he could sell it for 50% of what it is “worth,” or 75%, 110%, etc. It doesn’t really matter what the corporation acquires it for, since whenever it sells the property, it will have to pay capital gains taxes. there needs to be more information here to call this transaction “shady.”

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  • DonWood

    Interesting that just as these “news” articles were posted, Briggs enemies were ready to piggyback on them with unrelated complaints about the subject. One might even think the whole things was being orchestrated, perhaps by the city attorney’s office?

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