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by Brad Racino and Brooke Williams
In November 2011, attorney Cory Briggs’ personal and professional partner played a key role in an environmental review of a project near the Mexican border. Two months later, Briggs sued over that project, alleging, among other things, inadequacies in the review.
It’s the second case that directly links Briggs, a well-known environmental lawyer in San Diego, with the environmental work Sarichia Cacciatore, his significant other and vice president of his law firm, performed for a government contractor.
The first case involved a citywide stormwater project in San Diego. Since inewsource published its investigation of potential conflicts, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office has asked for a review of all city contracts with Cacciatore’s employer, Helix Environmental Planning in La Mesa.
Helix agreed on Tuesday to pay the city $143,382 to settle any issues of conflicts that might arise over Cacciatore’s work.
[one_third_last][box type=”shadow”]Why this matters: Briggs’ lawsuits against the city have cost taxpayers a significant amount of money over the years. But there was an undisclosed conflict of interest behind at least two of them, posing ethical and legal issues that recently resulted in a taxpayer settlement.[/box][/one_third_last]
Experts in legal ethics have told inewsource the connection between Briggs and Cacciatore is a “horrible” and “problematic” conflict of interest.
For eight years, Cacciatore worked as a biologist at Helix, where she conducted — and in at least three cases was the primary author of — reports for local, state and federal government agencies and developers. Helix has contracts for environmental consulting with dozens of municipalities that seek expertise in complying with the state’s environmental protection laws.
Briggs has made a name for himself locally suing government agencies and developers — in some cases over Helix’s environmental reports. inewsource has identified four such projects.
In a memo, Helix’s CEO told the City Attorney’s Office the company was aware of the personal relationship between Cacciatore and Briggs, but said Cacciatore never disclosed her role as vice president of Briggs’ law firm.
In all, inewsource found at least 15 government agencies have both contracted with Helix for environmental work and been sued by Briggs.
The border project
In January 2012, the Briggs Law Corp. sued the city of San Diego and a private developer over the Otay-Tijuana Cross Border Facility Project — a 70-plus acre complex built for travelers accessing the Tijuana airport. The site lies adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border just a few miles east of the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Briggs’ law firm was representing CREED, CREED-21 and San Diegans for Open Government — three nonprofits run by Briggs’ associates, including his cousin and environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez, whose Coast Law Group is based in Encinitas.
The groups filed a complaint in San Diego Superior Court asking a judge to render Helix’s environmental impact report (EIR) behind the Otay-Tijuana project “null and void,” arguing:
“The EIR fails to provide adequate identification and analysis of the significant adverse environmental impacts of the Project, including but not limited to the following: (i) water supply and quality; (ii) air quality and greenhouse gas emissions; (iii) biological impacts, (iv) transportation/traffic; and (v) cumulative impacts.”
Cacciatore is listed as the project’s biologist.
The developer, Otay-Tijuana Developer LLC, eventually settled with Briggs. The developer’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Saathoff, said the group had no comment on inewsource’s findings.
The developer’s attorney, John Ponder, a partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, said the settlement included a provision that the details be kept confidential. All he could say was that the city of San Diego was dismissed as a part of the agreement. The case was dismissed in October 2012.
“Oh, boy,” Ponder said when asked for his thoughts on the potential conflict of interest.
“I do quite a bit of work with Helix and have a great deal of respect for the quality of their work,” he said. “That said, it does give me some concern to now know the relationship between her and the Briggs law firm.”
Ponder said he and his client, Otay-Tijuana Venture, would be evaluating what potential remedies are available and whether they are worth pursuing.
More broadly, he said, there is concern within the legal and development communities about consequences of potential conflicts of interest as more details about Briggs and Cacciatore have come to light.
Neither Briggs nor Cacciatore responded to a request for comment Wednesday.