An environmental consulting company will pay the city of San Diego $143,382 to resolve a claim of potential conflict of interest between one of its former employees and well-known attorney Cory Briggs.
The city paid La Mesa-based Helix Environmental Planning to conduct an environmental review of its stormwater master plan. Unbeknownst to the company, one of its employees at the time, Sarichia Cacciatore, was also vice president of Briggs’ law firm. Briggs later sued the city over the project, claiming that the environmental review was inadequate.
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday morning to approve the settlement, which comes a little more than a month after inewsource exposed the Briggs-Cacciatore conflict of interest in an ongoing investigation. Cacciatore is not only an executive in Briggs’ firm, she also is his significant other. On public documents, they have described themselves as husband and wife but Cacciatore said in a sworn statement they are not married.
“We were able to review the matter and negotiate an early resolution because of Helix’s cooperation,” City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said in a news release Tuesday morning. “We appreciate that Helix stepped up to ensure that San Diego taxpayers will get their money back.”
The terms of Tuesday’s settlement prohibit the city from seeking additional damages related to any future “potential conflict of interest arising from, caused by or related to Ms. Cacciatore’s employment at Helix.”
The amount covers attorney fees and costs the city paid Briggs after settling the 2011 lawsuit he brought against the city.
An inewsource investigation found Briggs, who frequently sues municipalities and developers under environmental laws, has a personal and professional relationship with Cacciatore, who contributed to Helix environmental reports for local, state and federal agencies from 2003 to 2011. She also served as vice president of Briggs Law Corp. for more than 20 years, according to a deposition taken in a lawsuit in December.
Helix Chief Executive Officer Michael Schwerin told the city the company knew about the personal relationship between Cacciatore and Briggs, but it did not know about her management position with his law firm. In a letter dated March 3, Helix told the city attorney that Cacciatore specifically told the company she was not involved in Briggs’ legal practice.
In its contract with the city, Helix was required to disclose conflicts of interest.
Legal and ethical experts told inewsource the personal, and especially professional, connections between Briggs and Cacciatore presented a “horrible” and “problematic” conflict of interest due to, among other things, the potential for sharing inside information.
Ed McIntyre, an expert on state rules governing attorney conduct, said if an agency that hired Helix contends Briggs “was privy to confidential information and it was being passed on, he would be disqualified from his lawsuit.”
For attorneys, he said, “It’s a bright line in California — you cannot get your hands on the other side’s information.”
inewsource has found four projects Helix worked on that Briggs also sued over. It also identified at least 15 government agencies that have both contracted with Helix for environmental work and also been sued by Briggs.
Jonathon Arons, an attorney who specializes in legal ethics and attorney malpractice, said Helix might try to recover the money from Tuesday’s settlement from Briggs and Cacciatore. Or the company might just want this to go away.
“Although $150,000 is a lot of money to a lot of people, to some companies, it’s nothing,” Arons said.
In Tuesday’s news release, Helix’s Schwerin said the company has already taken additional steps to prevent this type of conflict of interest in the future.
“We are pleased to resolve this matter with the city of San Diego,” Schwerin said, “and move forward with what continues to be a close and mutually beneficial relationship.”
Goldsmith added in an email to inewsource, “We very much appreciate inewsource bringing this and other matters to the community’s attention. This settlement would not have happened without the investigative reporting by journalists Brad Racino and Brooke Williams.”
In 2011, Briggs — representing the nonprofit San Diegans for Open Government (SANDOG) — sued the city of San Diego over its master stormwater maintenance program, citing deficiencies in Helix’s environmental impact report. Invoices showed Cacciatore worked as a project manager on the job.
However, in December, Cacciatore said under oath that she had not done “any work as an environmental planner in connection” with SANDOG cases.
In addition to her role as vice president of Briggs’ law firm, Cacciatore also served as executive director of Divers’ Environmental Conservation Organization — a nonprofit Briggs represented in court against the State Water Resources Control Board and U.S. Navy — according to filings with the state Attorney General’s Office.
In an open-letter response to inewsource’s investigation in February, Briggs said, “There isn’t anything illegal, unethical, or even unusual” about Cacciatore’s employment and relationship to Briggs.
Neither Briggs nor Cacciatore responded to a request for comment Tuesday.
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