A few minutes before 3 p.m. on Feb. 11, Cory Briggs, a well-known San Diego environmental lawyer, walked into his office for an interview with inewsource.
Why this matters
The wife of a high-profile lawyer who sues local governments over environmental violations held a key position in a company on the other side.
The potential conflict of interest and its effect on the taxpayers has not been publicly known.
He placed his large, iced drink and cellphone on the conference table. A pile of documents rested in a corner of the room. Guitars, a dry-erase board and framed photos decorated the walls.
As a videographer for inewsource made final camera adjustments, one photo — of Briggs and his wife — caught the attorney’s eye. He took down the picture.
“I don’t put family on stuff,” he said.
That practice has proven successful. A review of a decade’s worth of news coverage about Briggs found no mention of his wife’s name. Similarly, news profiles of his wife didn’t mention him by name.
But Sarichia “Seekey” Cacciatore has shared a professional interest with her husband — the environment. An inewsource investigation reveals she worked for a company, Helix Environmental Planning, that was involved in at least three cases on the other side of his lawsuits.
Read this story backed up with primary documents by clicking here.
Ed McIntyre, an attorney who currently devotes his practice to legal ethics and professional responsibility and was named one of San Diego’s top lawyers in 2014, said the arrangement raises legal and ethical questions.
“I really think the situation just screams conflict of interest, not just for her but for him,” McIntyre said. “It gives him entreé into where they’re not complying, in a fashion that he really shouldn’t have.”
The news surprised San Diego business and government officials, as well as legal ethicists, and is now of great interest to some who have been his biggest targets over the years.
San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, whose office has defended against more than 50 Briggs lawsuits over the past decade, said he was concerned about inewsource’s findings.
“Learning of this information from inewsource,” he said, “I have requested a full review of the city of San Diego’s use of Helix environmental.”
A questionable arrangement
Briggs has made a name for himself suing developers and government agencies from here to Los Angeles over alleged environmental violations, such as a sewage spill on Camp Pendleton in 2011. He also was among the first to publicly demand former-Mayor Bob Filner resign in 2013. His initial criticism concerned Filner’s relationship with a developer Briggs was about to sue, not allegations of sexual harassment — ultimately the reason Filner resigned.
One of Briggs’ frequent legal targets is the Port of San Diego.
Unbeknownst to the public agency, Briggs’ wife, Cacciatore, was listed as a project manager on a contract her employer, Helix, had with the port at the same time her husband was suing it over environmental matters. The contract stated that Helix would help in the “preparation of environmental documents and technical studies to assist the District in meeting the mandates of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).”
Jonathan Arons has practiced law and legal ethics for more than 30 years, and defends lawyers in disciplinary proceedings. He shared his opinion of the Briggs-Cacciatore professional relationship with inewsource.
“It certainly raises an eyebrow or two. Or twelve,” Arons said.
“I think you’d have to be blind not to think that there’s something going on,” he said. “The only question is whether or not it violates any requirements of disclosure. If he’s filing lawsuits and using inside information, then the question is: is he doing something illegal?”
Arons said he would need more details to come to a conclusion.
John Bolduc, acting president and CEO of the port, was surprised to learn of the professional connection between Briggs and his wife and said his staff is looking into it.
A port spokeswoman confirmed Helix never disclosed a potential conflict of interest in its agreements with the agency.
Neither Briggs, his wife (through her attorney, Marco Gonzalez) nor her former employer would respond to questions about their relationships.
Briggs sued more than 20 municipalities and filed more than 100 lawsuits in the past decade, according to public records searches.
Helix reports Briggs has sued over:
- Sunroad Harbor Island Hotel project
- Blythe and Genesis Solar projects
- Master Stormwater Maintenance Program
For months, inewsource has investigated his lawsuits and the projects his wife’s company was under contract to review. It found three environmental assessments, prepared by Helix during the time she worked there, for projects her husband took to court. Although she was a project manager for Helix and was the primary author on several reports, her name was not listed specifically on any of the three.
Regardless, McIntyre said, because Cacciatore held a key position in the company, that is “certainly a potential conflict that probably should have been disclosed.”
“If she was privy to confidential information about the jobs, by reason of her position, then you have the same actual conflict,” he said.
In addition to the three assessments, Helix did work for more than a dozen government agencies Briggs has sued.
San Diego County, one of those, hired Helix to write its manual on how to prepare environmental reports.
A larger issue
For much of the time Briggs has sued government agencies and developers in Southern California alleging CEQA violations, Cacciatore’s employer was on contract to help at least 15 of those same agencies comply with the same law.
She was a project manager in biology resources at Helix, a consulting company based in La Mesa. She has worked on environmental impact reports (EIRs) for government agencies from San Ysidro to Escondido. Before that she was working as an environmental project manager for the City of Chula Vista.
At the Port, Cacciatore is listed among key personnel in Helix’s as-needed contract to help ensure compliance with CEQA, a contract that started in 2009.
inewsource found no EIRs for the port with Cacciatore’s name on them. None of the reports reviewed included names of Helix staff.
Helix’s contract with the port lists Cacciatore’s rate at $105 an hour, and it outlines projects the port anticipated needing help with to comply with CEQA. Among them was the Sunroad Harbor Island Hotel and Port Master Plan Amendment, a project Briggs has sued over.
Helix was responsible for the air quality section of the report. In Briggs’ complaint filed against the port, he alleged the agency’s EIR “fails to provide adequate identification and analysis of the significant adverse environmental impacts” of, among five other topics, air quality.
Dan Feldman, a vice president at Sunroad Enterprises, was surprised to learn of the potential connection.
”I find it tremendously interesting,” Feldman said.
A lawyer for Sunroad added that because the company is in litigation with Briggs over two projects, the Harbor Island Hotel included, that they could not comment further.
Helix also provided “impact analyses for proposed solar energy projects,” including the Blythe Solar Power and Genesis Solar Energy projects. In December of 2010, Briggs made those projects in Riverside County major components of a lawsuit he filed against the U.S. Department of the Interior and federal Bureau of Land Management. Helix provided biological support for that project.
In that lawsuit, Briggs represented a nonprofit called La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle Advisory Committee, a group that is not registered with the California Secretary of State’s Office or the state attorney general’s registry of charitable trusts, according to representatives for those agencies and to extensive online searches.
La Cuna isn’t registered with the Internal Revenue Service, either, according to the IRS’ website.
In response to a request for communication between the port and Cacciatore, inewsource received several email chains sent between June 2009 and February 2014. None involved projects on which Briggs sued, although he was copied on one email.
That email was social in nature and addressed 24 people, including local politicians, lawyers and a member of the media. It was sent on Feb. 4, 2014, using Cacciatore’s Helix email address.
As far back as 2011, Cacciatore had a registered email address with the Briggs Law Corp. — email@example.com.
Helix’s CEO, Michael Schwerin, responded to questions at first, but did not reply to phone messages or emails after that. One question asked of Schwerin was when Cacciatore left the company.
Her LinkedIn profile states she stopped working for Helix in 2011. In 2012, she was no longer on the list of key personnel in the port contract. In March 2014, she was listed as one of two authors of a Helix biological review for Orchard Hills, a planned residential development near San Marcos.
inewsource asked Schwerin for a comprehensive list of Cacciatore’s work. He did not respond.
Briggs and Cacciatore responses
Briggs stopped his interview with inewsource once questions arose concerning his business practices. He said the basis for the interview was misrepresented, and he refused to answer any questions about his wife.
“We also have questions about your wife and her business working for Helix,” a reporter asked.
“I’m sure, that’s fine, have a nice day,” Briggs replied.
The next day, inewsource received an email from Marco Gonzalez, a lawyer who, along with Briggs, is an environmental attorney and played a key role in the call for Filner’s resignation.
“While Mr. Briggs’s [sic] wife is quite confident she has done nothing wrong, I write to remind you that unlike her husband she is not a public figure or even a quasi-public figure. Indeed, she is an entirely private figure. If you have any questions regarding her private-figure status, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
inewsource submitted a list of questions for Cacciatore by way of Gonzalez on Feb. 13, and received a response on Feb. 18. It began:
“Either you have been fed inaccurate information designed to damage Ms. Cacciatore, or you have determined yourself to use false accusations to link unrelated facts in an effort to fabricate a story where one does not exist. In either event, publication based upon unsupported speculation would severely damage my client’s reputation and career. Further, your list of leading questions attacks the professionalism of not only my client, but also of a company and the many professionals within it. Those persons have been advised accordingly.”
Gonzalez wrote that his communication with inewsource was “off the record” — an arrangement inewsource never agreed to — and demanded that if that request was ignored, that the email be published in full. It can be found here.
“Reasonable due diligence with independent third parties would readily establish that the conflict of interest you are racing to uncover simply does not exist,” Gonzalez wrote.
He did not answer any of the questions posed.
“Please proceed at your own risk,” he wrote.
Commenting on Briggs’ and Cacciatore’s professional relationship, legal ethicist McIntyre said, “I suspect that if this was revealed to the lawyers representing the port, they’d say there was no way they could have known this. Because it just wouldn’t have been obvious.”
Bolduc, the port’s acting president and CEO, was surprised to learn of the connection between Briggs and Cacciatore and said his senior staff had no knowledge of it.
“That’s not something that anybody would have thought to look into, or guess would be a factor, in awarding these contracts,” he said.
“Depending on what we learn, we’ll certainly evaluate to see if there are any safeguards we can build into our systems.”
Greg Shields, chief executive of Project Design Consultants, an engineering company that works with Helix and has been deeply involved in projects for the port and city of San Diego, said he did not know about Briggs’ wife.
Shields said Helix does “lots and lots of environmental documents that touch many projects,” and it “seems like there might be an opportunity for him to get inside information.”
“It puts the document in question,” he said.
Shields said when Project Design works with Helix, which acquired its environmental division in 2007, he doesn’t know the names of all personnel. There is a chance Cacciatore worked on the same projects as his company, he said, but he doesn’t have “any concerns about any work that we’ve ever done.”
A bright line
The repercussions for Briggs would depend on what, if any, information he learned from his wife that could aid in his lawsuits, McIntyre and Arons said.
“If the port could contend that she was privy to confidential information, and it was being passed on, he would be disqualified from his lawsuit,” McIntyre said. “It’s a bright line in California — that you cannot get your hands on the other side’s information.”
When asked how it could affect cases already settled, he paused.
“No court has had to grapple with that yet,” McIntyre said. He suggested a court could order a lawyer to pay back the fees earned as a result of a lawsuit.
“I can see a court going there,” he said.
Arons, the other ethicist, said there were so many issues to consider, and so many unknowns, that he couldn’t say whether Briggs’ actions could be unethical, but that “there’s certainly a lot of smoke.”
“This raises enough questions that somebody better be checking this out,” he said.
Brooke Williams is a journalism fellow at Harvard University and an inewsource correspondent. Follow her at @reporterBrooke on Twitter.
Yesterday’s story on Briggs was below reasonable standards of responsible journalism. In the face of unanswered questions a journalist’s duty is to keep digging not turn to speculation. Today’s story suggests that KPBS thinks a professional woman either should not take a job that could lead to conflicts with her husband or that she cannot be trusted to act ethically in such situations. This is more like Fox News coverage of the Clintons, except KPBS’s attack includes s spouse who was not previously in the public eye. I hope KPBS returns to its historical level of quality reporting. Don’t chase traffic as this story seems designed to do.
My first question would be: Did inewsource misrepresent the basis of the office interview as alleged by Mr. Briggs? If you want transparency from Mr. Briggs, you need to provide it yourself. If you misrepresented the nature of the interview, the fact that he cut it off unceremoniously is not surprising. In fact, it’s smart. As for his wife, this is a small town. According to your reporting they are both interested in similar fields, he a lawyer and she an employee of an environmental firm. That’s not surprising at all. In this town, many spouses end up crossing paths in their professional lives. The key is how it is managed. In my view you have not established that there was a conflict of interest in any of these cases or that inside information was used. You have offered innuendo. As one of your interviewees noted, there is a lot of smoke [but no fire]. Might it be that they have been keeping their relationship low key due to perceptions and the damage those perceptions could do to their respective careers, even though they were acting appropriately and professionally? One thing is sure: A woman who was working quite successfully is now exposed to intense public scrutiny by dint of her marriage. There is a fine line between the effort to expose inappropriate conduct and character assassination. Let’s hope you haven’t crossed it.
“He said the basis for the interview was misrepresented, and he refused to answer any questions about his wife.
‘We also have questions about your wife and her business working for Helix,’ a reporter asked.
‘I’m sure, that’s fine, have a nice day,’ Briggs replied.”
That was left out of yesterdays story. But there was a very strong implication that Mr. Briggs was hiding something. Sounds like the basis for the interview was misrepresented.
What professional, or anyone, wouldn’t toss a reporter out under similar circumstances? Mr. Briggs puts himself out there – his wife does not. See if Mr. Goldsmith would react the same way if asked questions about Judge Goldsmith. For that matter, this type of hatchet job could be done on any San Diego public figure.
Mr. Racino, before publicly accusing someone, no matter how subtly you think you’re doing it, turn the “unknowns,” “smoke,” “interestings” and “not enough information” into facts. Smoke can come from fire. Or it can be fog. Or it can be from a smoke machine created to imply fire.
Mr. Racino, Ms. Brookes, inewsource and KPBS should all know better. This is all very disappointing, and appears to be a reporter attacking a prominent attorney for his (or their) own self-aggrandizement. KPBS, we expect more from you. What’s going on here?
The response to this story is as interesting to me as the story itself. Wondering if the respondents below, Breslins SD. BC Brewster and Rob McCray have business or personal relationships with Cory Brooks and his wife? The posts seem so well orchestrated and have a similar tone, and by gosh, how activist they sound! Or perhaps they are associated with the attorney,Gonzalez?
This is a very small town and there is a web of relationships, mostly political in nature that is always at work under the surface. The way I read the article, it was a follow up to the previous story about Cory Brooks and was not designed to focus on his wife’s possible contribution to intel gathering, but came out as one question out of many that the author would have asked. Seemed to me that Briggs jumped at an opportunity to exercise righteous indignation and halt the interview.
So, my question is: who are these people jumping so quickly to Briggs’ defense and would further development of the story impact them–OR are they just honest citizens like me who believe that journalism has as it’s first responsibility, reliable fact gathering to uncover and report the truth?
LindaT: I can only speak for myself. I am a concerned and interested local resident. My professional bona fides (which are completely unrelated to the subjects of this story) are here: http://www.lifesaver1.com
Thank you Brad, someone needs to stop this scumbag from what should be illegal lawsuits. Thanks for taking the first step in what is hopefully the end for Mr. Briggs.
I took your comment seriously Mr McCray and decided to do a bit more digging and this is a private message I got from someone I know in the business: “I feel that they are creating something out of circumstantial evidence. I was Seekey’s supervisor
… and she took great pains to not work on projects her husband might
potentially take action on. I can’t believe that she would have passed info on
as she was very ethical and conscientious. Unless proven otherwise I am
disgusted that NPR would besmirch Seekey’s name and integrity.” That is a pretty strong endorsement from a professional person whose judgement I trust. So how do we erect and maintain firewalls? The heart of the matter is..how could it possibly be proved one way or the other that critical information used in a lawsuit was obtained by “pillow talk”..I don’t think it could–
Admirable CV…and I have seen your ‘letters to the editor’ comments over the years and applaud your willingness to put your POV out there on a variety of issues.
Such sexist bs you write. Was the working title: If Only Women Stayed Home And Ironed Our Shirts, We Wouldn’t Have This “Problem.”
Are you stating: all women gossip and therefore can’t be trusted to keep corporate, ethically-required secrets?
Are you seeking a public vote requiring all professional couples, gay or straight, be required to not work in similar or overlapping fields?
Please stop with this war on women and bigoted “reporting.”
The question, LindaT, is not “who you are” but did anyone implicated do anything wrong- Briggs, Cacciatore, or Helix? The answer Racino stumbles over is no. What is disappointing is that I’ve never known KPBS to publish anything like this before about anyone or anything. I’m posting anonymously for the same reason I feel sorry for everyone dragged through mud in these stories- when bad reporters don’t find anything, they just claim a bigger and bigger conspiracy. Then Racino would say on the air, “Interestingly, Breslins wanted me to leave him alone- experts say this is suspicious.”
Interesting that these reporters had to go to a professor at the University of Missouri—Kansas City to get comments regarding California law. Doesn’t Newsource know any local attorneys, economists or legal professors? This whole effort to smear Mr. Briggs and his wife shouts “personal vendetta”. It’s a shame that Newsource doesn’t have any responsible editors looking out for it. These biased, sexist “news articles” have done tremendous damage to Newsource’s credibility. It’s plainly obvious that these two reporters started with their own conclusions, then worked backward to see if they could construct a narrative that supported it. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who can read that they failed miserably.
Wow, this guy really pissed off the losers at the city. Using publicly subsidized “news” orgs to smear a private citizen? KPBS and inewsource should be ashamed of this crap.
Interesting that Marco Gonzalez thinks reporters would just give up their sources — and to him of all people. It’s obvious Mr. Gonzalez didn’t take any courses in Law School that have to do with the press.
INVESTIGATIVE NEWS NETWORK
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
P.O. BOX 8606
City, State, Zip:
CALABASAS CA 91372
for Service of Process:
17514 VENTURA BLVD., SUITE 103
City, State, Zip:
ENCINO CA 91316
Why is your organization formed in DC? Must be doing something fishy – lets ruin your reputations before we find out the truth!
For me the harm to an institution that I respect (KPBS) and character assassination-by-speculation are the key issues. I do not know the Briggs’s or have a stake in SD real estate politics. I was an environmental lawyer in Sacramento in the late 70’s and early 80’s but have been mostly in health care and nonprofits since then.
Briggs should’ve been more cooperative if he did not have anything to hide. He should’ve disclosed his potential conflict of interest if he was an upstanding professional some claim him to be.
Land deals by Briggs’ firm are especially troubling.
Attacking journalists for doing their job is troubling.
Desperate witch hunt.
Experts would suggest a witch hunt
There is no law broken. No proof of financial gain. He’s not a public official. Neither is his wife. So far, this is a completely cooked up story and my response is no less cooked up. What does the influence of Producers’ Club members and their interests in sucking up public money for a Chargers’ stadium have to do with the time of this so-far utterly bogus piece?
Kat: Investigative News Network is a legitimate, credible news organization. You want this one:
Entity Name:INVESTIGATIVE NEWSOURCE
Entity Address:5500 CAMPANILE DR. PSFA361C
Entity City, State, Zip:SAN DIEGO CA 92182
Agent for Service of Process:LORETTA HEARN
Agent Address:5500 CAMPANILE DR. PSFA361C
Agent City, State, Zip:SAN DIEGO CA 92182
The commenter suggesting sexist discrimination and the like are utterly ridiculous. The fact is that the two individuals are married and live under the same roof and they failed to disclose this fact. That is all that is required, disclosure, they failed to do so. That is the heart of this matter. I think the reporters did a pretty good job backing that claim up.
tough to say how you can vet a potential contractor for conflicts of interest before you get sued. after the first lawsuit, I would think an entity would not be doing its due diligence when hiring Helix knowing that Briggs’ wife was on staff there. I mean, the moment a lawsuit was initiated, Cacciatore could remove herself from the project, but the damage would be done at that point, no?
I am not sure Cacciatore would risk her career to do something like this. Sometimes people are married to people in the same industry. There could be something here, but obviously Helix was doing enough competent work to the point that they were consistently being hired.
furthermore, even if this was happening, at some point the organizations hiring Helix would be throwing due diligence out the window by not seeing the pattern. if it was so simple as, “hire Helix, get sued by Briggs,” someone would have cried foul long ago. apparently Helix did enough networking or good work to continue to garner contracts. and I am sure Briggs would be suing the same organizations either way.
I personally am impressed with the undoubtedly well respected and reliable investigative reporting category of ‘UNKNOWNS’: ” RE: “request for communication between the port and Cacciatore received several email chains sent between June 2009 and February 2014. None involved projects on which Briggs sued, although he was copied on one email. (in over four years!) That email was social in nature and addressed 24 people, including local politicians, lawyers and a member of the media.”
Sources with raised eyebrows say it’s troubling that local politicians, lawyers, and a member of the media (!) were included in this ‘social in nature’ email, and you’d have to be blind not to see that many or most of them might be privy to confidential information about port jobs, and by reason of their position, the same actual conflict could be pandemic.
And will inewsource be looking into whether Marco Gonzalez, who played a key role in the call for Filner’s resignation, got a share of that three million?
Great job, inewsource.
“Neither Briggs, his wife (through her attorney, Marco Gonzalez) nor her former employer would respond to questions about their relationships.” I note the name Marco Gonzalez in this article in connection with Briggs, Marco being one of the other people who first called for Filner’s resignation. Marco, brother of Lorena Gonzalez.
How about asking bidding contractors to disclose if they have “significant others” working for govt agency, industry competitors or anyone involved in litigation in the industry for which bids are being solicited. It wouldn’t be a disqualifier, but at least there would be transparency.
Plus, it sure seems that the contract should require that the report list project managers and EVERYONE ELSE who contributed.
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