Local, investigative journalism delivered straight to your inbox.
and Brooke Williams, inewsource
High-profile environmental attorney Cory Briggs argued vigorously in court Thursday morning against releasing a document the San Diego City Attorney’s office believes is relevant to a conflict-of-interest investigation of Briggs.
Appearing before San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil, Briggs called the city’s motion to lift the protective order a “contrivance.” The judge postponed a decision on the matter until March 4.
The city attorney’s office filed a motion with Wohlfeil saying the documents are necessary to fulfill a California Public Records Act request. The request came from inewsource, which raised questions in a report earlier this week about Briggs’ wife working for an environmental consulting company that was often on the other side of his lawsuits.
inewsource filed a public records request verbally Feb. 20, asking for any and all communication or documents involving or mentioning Briggs, his wife, Sarichia “Seekey” Cacciatore, or her former employer, Helix Environmental Planning. inewsource clarified its request by email on Monday.
In a partial response to the request, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith released a letter his office sent Wednesday to Helix’s CEO, Michael Schwerin, which stated “We have received information to the effect that Sarichia Cacciatore, an employee or former employee of Helix, was a long-time Vice President of Briggs Law Corporation, a law firm that has sued the City over 50 times, and has a long-standing personal and financial relationship with Cory Briggs, the principal in that law firm.”
When asked how he knows Cacciatore held that position at the firm, Goldsmith would only say, “It was stated by Cory Briggs as a fact… and we have verified that.” The Secretary of State’s Office sent inewsource Briggs Law Corp. filings listing members, but only Briggs appeared throughout. According to a spokeswoman for the agency, the filings do not require disclosure of certain positions, such as vice president.
Goldsmith also turned over an invoice dated July 2010 showing that Cacciatore was a project manager on an environmental review of the city’s master stormwater management plan. Briggs sued over that plan in 2011.
[box type=”shadow post-form”]
Oops! We could not locate your form.[/box]
The lawsuit alleged the city failed to provide an adequate environmental review for the city’s storm water maintenance plan. Helix helped do that review under a $1.4 million contract with the city, and inewsource recently obtained an invoice showing Cacciatore worked on the project.
In a statement Thursday, Goldsmith said “taxpayers paid $142,262.50 in attorneys’ fees to Briggs Law Corporation to settle that lawsuit.”
Briggs, Cacciatore and the CEO of Helix have not responded to inewsource requests for comment on the potential for conflict of interest. However, Briggs posted an open letter on his website Wednesday, saying, “My wife has a job, and I have a job. We don’t talk about or share client confidences, and we take measures to avoid creating any conflicts. There isn’t anything illegal, unethical, or even unusual about this either.”
Goldsmith’s office is trying to reopen one document, a deposition, in a case Briggs filed against the city on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government, which has described itself as a “non-profit social-advocacy” group. The lawsuit challenged the city’s tourism marketing district and taxes, and at Briggs’ request, the court had placed a protective order on the deposition of one member of San Diegans for Open Government, according to Thursday’s court filing. Deputy City Attorney Carmen Brock told the judge in the city’s motion that this deposition was responsive to inewsource’s public records request, and the city would “suffer irreparable harm” if it was unable to fulfill the request in a timely manner.
Thursday morning, Briggs told Judge Wohlfeil, “There is actually no reason to release this transcript. There is a public records act request from that gentleman right there, Brad Racino, that was made on Monday… That same day, the City Attorney’s Office schedules this ex-parte. That’s how responsive they were to this out of the blue public records request.”
Briggs cited statutes he said prohibited the disclosure of the sealed deposition, and added that “there has been a leak of confidential information.”
inewsource has received three sets of documents so far in response to its request for public records: a letter from the city attorney to Helix’s chief executive, an invoice with Briggs’ wife as project manager and the city’s contracts with Helix.
Wohlfeil continued the hearing until next Wednesday so he would have time to read Briggs’ brief, which Briggs handed in minutes before the hearing.
The judge said he had already reviewed the terms under which the parties originally agreed to seal the documents and concluded that regardless of the reason, the city attorney’s request to open them was appropriate.
Wohlfeil added, “Folks, you all are getting involved in all kinds of issues, political or otherwise, that are taking place outside this courtroom. I’m not going to get caught up in this.”