by Brooke Williams/Brad Racino, inewsource
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.
[one_half][box type=”shadow”]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.[/box][/one_half]
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.
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.
[one_half][box type=”shadow”]Read this story backed up with primary documents by clicking here.[/box][/one_half]
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[/box][/one_half]
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.