A view of the north side of Centrum Park in Kearny Mesa when the new development was underway. Photo by Sam Hodgson

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by Brooke Williams and Brad Racino

A more up-to-date version of this story can be found by clicking here

Nearly two years ago, San Diego attorney Cory Briggs called on Mayor Bob Filner to resign for violating “principles of open, accountable, responsible government” in connection to a deal with a developer.

The next day, Briggs filed a lawsuit against the developer, Sunroad Enterprises, and the city, alleging a “pay-to-play scheme.” The city, the suit contended, was giving away public property in exchange for a $100,000 donation from Sunroad to Filner’s “pet projects.” The property included nine-foot wide strips of land on either side of a park. It was all part of a commercial-residential development in Kearny Mesa that Sunroad was building.

inewsource looked into how that lawsuit was resolved and found that the only one who has been paid so far is Briggs. But there appears to be some action since inewsource started asking questions.

Sunroad’s vice president of development, Andrea Contreras Rosati, told inewsource the company paid Briggs Law Corp. $135,000 to settle the case and put $10,000 into a San Diego park fund, as required by the settlement. Within ten days, Sunroad was also supposed to work with the city to appraise the easement, which would prohibit the city from building on two edges of the park. Sunroad was then to pay the city the appraised value 10 days after that. They signed the agreement on Aug. 21, 2014.

As of Wednesday, the easement had not been appraised. On Tuesday, inewsource asked for details of payments to the city from Sunroad since August to confirm the $10,000 donation, which was supposed to happen within three days of the settlement. The San Diego Treasurer’s Office found only three, but they were unrelated. The treasurer’s office is still trying to confirm its search didn’t miss any payments for city parks, according to city spokesman Tim Graham.

inewsource emailed Tom Story, a consultant for Sunroad, on April 11 with questions about the settlement terms. On April 14, inewsource reached Story by phone, who said he had forwarded the question on to Sunroad.

A day later, Contreras Rosati told inewsource in a phone interview that an appraiser had been hired “within the last week.”

“Cory and us, we just went back and forth for a while,” she said. “There wasn’t anything really in particular that caused the delay.”

The settlement spells out what Sunroad and Briggs were required to do if they couldn’t agree on an appraiser. Contreras Rosati said Sunroad took those steps.

She said “it shouldn’t take much longer” for the appraiser to come through, but “apparently he has quite a workload, too.”

Briggs did not respond to an emailed request for an interview Wednesday afternoon, but Contreras Rosati, who worked as a deputy city attorney until June 2014 when she took a job with Sunroad, said the company paid Briggs the $135,000.

The value of the easement in question was the first of two scandals leading up to Filner’s resignation, which was ultimately over charges of sexual harassment.

Briggs did not mention a “quid pro quo” in the resignation letter he faxed to Filner at 3:34 p.m. on July 9, although a CityBeat article, based on lengthy interviews with Briggs, Marco Gonzales and Donna Frye—three former Filner allies who sought his resignation—states multiple times Briggs’ letter asking Filner to step down was about the Sunroad arrangement. Briggs gave the city notice of the impending lawsuit against Sunroad with those allegations less than three hours later.

Sunroad’s messy history

What Briggs described as a pay-to-play scheme between Sunroad and Filner began when the City Council voted unanimously April 30, 2013 to waive a city land policy and give Sunroad a no-build easement along the edges of the north and south end of a park adjacent to the company’s development. An easement prohibiting the city from building on the land was delaying the Sunroad Centrum project in Kearny Mesa, a commercial and residential development that included a 2-acre park to be donated to the city.

The city’s real estate head at the time, James Barwick, told the City Council the easement would increase the value of Sunroad’s property because the company would be able to construct closer to the park and “build more units” as part of the project.

Barwick also told the council the “no build” easement would diminish the value of the land and pointed to “100 years down the road” when it might not be a park anymore. What if the city wanted to build a baseball field? He asked the council, saying “there should be some consideration or compensation to the city.”

Councilwoman Lorie Zapf led the motion to waive council policy, giving Sunroad the easement and saying it was “just a simple waiver.”

This wasn’t the first time Sunroad had been part of a scandal involving the city.

Years ago, the company notoriously had to remove the top of an office tower. The city had approved the height while the Federal Aviation Administration declared the building was dangerous for pilots flying into the airport in bad weather. A newspaper investigation at the time found the Development Services Department had at least two chances to limit the height before construction began.

As Story stood before the City Council in April 2013 in support of a waiver of council policy to get the no-build easement, City Councilwoman Marti Emerald recalled out loud the fiasco over the building and told Story, who was chief of staff to former mayor Dick Murphy, that she wanted to ensure this wasn’t a “manipulation of the system.”

Councilman David Alvarez asked if the City Attorney’s office had any concerns, and Shannon Thomas, deputy city attorney, said they didn’t have enough information to evaluate whether the easement had value or would be a “gift of public funds.”

In the end, Emerald joined her colleagues and voted in favor of the waiver but said “we have an obligation to make sure that we don’t give it away” and asked Story to “go back and negotiate with the mayor’s office, Real Estate Assets” to “see what kind of compensation we could get for this property.”

Story ended up working out a compensation package with the mayor’s office after Filner vetoed the council’s decision on May 16. At the time, Filner said he vetoed because was concerned about how the council waived city policies without consulting city staff.

Story reached an agreement with the mayor’s office to donate $100,000 to the city, which it allocated to a biking event and a veteran’s plaza in Ocean Beach. But a scandal ensued after Story left a voicemail for then-councilman and current Mayor Kevin Faulconer on June 7, saying the company had paid the money and was told Filner would support overriding his own veto.

A settlement

The lawsuit Briggs filed on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government* argued the city was entitled to the full dollar value of the land, and that the $100,000 had no “sufficient nexus with the loss of the park property and would not be used to fund any program or service that would benefit the Kearny Mesa community where the park is located.”

He also said the project violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

The August 2014 settlement did not include any environmental remedies. In all, Sunroad agreed to pay $10,000 to a city park acquisition fund with “with priority for parks located in Kearny Mesa and then Clairemont,” the value of the easement and $135,000 to Briggs Law Corp.

Contreras Rosati, vice president at Sunroad, said no one from the city was involved in the settlement, though some officials have asked for updates. “The city did not feel they needed to involve themselves further,” she said.

“I think I just saw an email recently where they wanted to know what was going on,” she said.

*Last week, San Diegans for Open Government filed a lawsuit against inewsource, its executive director, San Diego State University (where inewsource has its office), the San Diego State University Foundation and California State University. The lawsuit alleges conflict of interest violations concerning inewsource’s lease and non-disclosures on federal tax filings.

Brad Racino is the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri...

19 replies on “Cory Briggs gets paid in Sunroad debacle; no money yet to San Diego for land”

  1. My understanding here is that Mr. Briggs filed a lawsuit to hold a developer accountable for inappropriate actions, won the suit through a settlement, was paid by the developer, and there is a pending obligation that will benefit the citizenry. I gather as well that had Mr. Briggs taken no action, the City Attorney had no plans to make the developer accountable and the inappropriate actions of the developer would have gone unchallenged. No question Mr. Briggs makes good money in some of these suits, but state law would seem to be designed to reward individuals who prevail in civil suits that inure to the benefit of the general public. Absent Mr. Briggs’ actions in this case, who would have defended the city against the developer’s clearly inappropriate actions? Apparently no one.

  2. Maybe INewsSource should be investigating Jay Goldsmith instead of Cory Briggs. Briggs seems to be on top of things, Goldsmith, not so much.

  3. I don’t know him and I’m not clear on the purity of his motives, but to me the value of having someone press these cases when no one else will seems to me to be a net benefit. In this case, citizens paid nothing apparently. They only benefit.

  4. I think Cory Briggs revealed the purity, or lack thereof, of his motives when he threatened to sue SDSU and inewsource over their investigations of the public record and his activities. I suppose it could just be a case of someone who can dish it out but can’t take it.

  5. I have to wonder why Mr. Racino neglected to mention that Andrea Contreras was the Deputy City Attorney responsible for both Sunroad cases, at which point she took a job with Sunroad. I think the public needs to know the truth about the very cozy relationship between the City Attorney and Sunroad.

  6. Possibly. However, when I look at what inewsource initially accused Mr. Briggs of (conflicts of interest), it doesn’t seem a lot different than what inewsource is accused of in the lawsuit.

  7. Mr. Racino: As I understand Theresa’s point, it is not that Ms. Rosati was a deputy city attorney, but rather that she was the DCA responsible for overseeing the prior Sunroad cases while working for the city and now works for Sunroad. I don’t know that to be true, but if correct, it’s an important issue considering that a major theme of this series is conflicts of interest on the part of Mr. Briggs. In this particular case, why didn’t the City Attorney pursue the issue on behalf of the city and once Mr. Briggs prevailed on behalf of the city, why didn’t the City Attorney hold Sunroad accountable for the terms of the settlement than inured to the benefit of the city? Must Mr. Briggs intervene on behalf of the city and, once he prevails, enforce the terms of the settlement?

  8. So am I understanding this correctly? The city tried to give easements to Sunroad without an opinion of the city attorney on the legality of the gift; Filner tried to get the city $100K in exchange for the easements in an illegal manner; Briggs sued to make the city follow the law on both the $100K and the original gift and won $10K plus the appraised value of the easement for the city and attorney’s fees for himself in a settlement; the city hasn’t followed through collecting their $10K or the appraised value of the easement. The article implies that there is some standoff between Sunroad & Briggs on selecting an (honest?) appraiser, but the settlement states that the city shall select an appraiser, and only if the city refuses to select an appraiser do Sunroad & Briggs select an appraiser. Meanwhile, Sunroad’s “consultant” Tom Story was mayor Murphy’s chief of staff, and their current VP for Development Andrea Contreras Rosati was at least in the city attorney’s office at the time of the easement transfer, and possibly was the lead on the Sunroad issues.
    And your headline is that Cory Briggs actually collected on his attorney’s fees? Why isn’t the headline and lede that the city apparently has no desire to collect from Sunroad, and thus is de facto making the (possibly) illegal gift anyway? Aren’t you just a little bit curious why the city refused to select an appraiser, even though that appraiser would be paid by Sunroad not the city? Doesn’t Rosati going to Sunroad and the city attorney’s office not following through exceed your standards for “appearance of potential for conflict of interest” set elsewhere? Sometimes it isn’t all about Cory Briggs, the story is about how the city (or at least the city attorney) deals with developers.

  9. Now that this 2013 Sunroad matter has resurfaced as part of an iNewsource exposé on Briggs maybe we can get a few facts straight.

    The 2013 City Council action granting Sunroad a waiver of State and local building setback requirements and absorbing that building requirement in the form of a permanent “no build” easement on adjacent City property was an illegal gift of public funds because no attempt was made by the City to determine the value of that easement, nor was Sunroad asked to pay anything for it. With a zero setback Sunroad was able to build many more living units on its lot and was thereby enriched at the expense of the City.

    Mayor Filner correctly vetoed that illegal City Council action.

    He was then deliberately misinformed by the City Attorney as to the law on this matter. The City Attorney falsely advised the Mayor that it would be illegal for the City to accept a direct payment for this easement. According to the City Attorney it had to be a quid pro quo “contribution” by Sunroad to some other “cause” of the Mayor’s choosing.

    The City Attorney then invited Cory Briggs to sue the Mayor and the City on this matter.

    It was a deliberate attempt by the City Attorney and others to trick Mayor Filner into doing something illegal. Filner discovered the truth in time to decline a $100,000 Sunroad donation. This iNewsource story fails to mention that Filner never accepted the proposed $100,000 donation to his so-called “pet projects.”

    The fact is that Sunroad paid nothing to the City for that valuable easement therefore it was a gift of public funds. This illegal action was deftly steered through City Council by Sunroad’s Tom Story using Councilmember Lori Zapf as a willing tool. It can only be reversed by City Council action. Any related agreement between Sunroad and Briggs is irrelevant.

    For the record I can confirm that Briggs personally told me in 2013 that Jan Goldsmith invited him to sue the City on this matter and I can also confirm for the record that Filner personally told me, shortly after these events took place in 2013, that he had been falsely advised by the City Attorney to do exactly the opposite to what the law required regarding how Sunroad should have paid for this easement. These are the facts.

  10. Pat Flanney: inews doesn’t care about the bribes and conflicts in the city attorney’s office nor in the former mayor’s office because nobody is paying them to care. I took a break from this website for a few weeks because this BS got so boring now I return and it’s the same crap. I give up. Go to courthouse area bar downtown and ask about this Briggs crap and even the people who don’t like the guy think that this is a bought and paid for media hit. And now they cry “Freedom of the Press” because someone shined the light on them and exposed their own “smoke” (maybe fire?) but freedom of the press is not freedom from ethics and freedom from consequences of using public money from SDSU to go after a private citizen that the hotel owners, city attorney, and the convention center mafia hate. Look at the list of donors to inewsource – people are talking now and these jerks will get what is coming to them.

  11. Theresa: can you give us a link to something that shows Andrea Contreras as DCA in a Sunroad case? In other words how did you learn this?
    Brad: did you know that Andrea Contreras was the DCA on a Sunroad case before Theresa pointed it out here?

  12. Mr. Flannery: Thank you very much for this. Sadly, as I have watched this story unfold I have perceived a journalistic single-mindedness that avoids the embarrassing possibility that others may be far more deserving of scrutiny.

  13. And thank YOU Mr. Brewster. Like you I am concerned that the public be told the full story of what happened in 2013.

    It seems that a relatively minor Sunroad/City land-use issue was leveraged into a much bigger agenda by those who wanted to get rid of Mayor Filner for political reasons. Filner is not an attorney and as the City’s Mayor at the time was obliged to rely on the legal advice of the person elected to advice him on ALL administrative legal matters, the City Attorney. It appears that this particular City Attorney gave his client, Mayor Filner, a false steer on this particular Sunroad land-use administrative issue.

    These sordid 2013 events need to be fully investigated as a matter of ongoing public concern. Who is really running our City? What happened in 2013 has far wider implications for the public good than Mr. Briggs receiving a questionable $135,000 from Sunroad to go away.

    Where does this so-called settlement now leave the City on “gift of public funds” questions? How did Mr. Briggs happen to get involved in such a relatively minor land use issue in the first instance? What part did the City Attorney play in setting up the conditions that precipitated this law suit?

    Many, many questions. Let’s hope these two experienced investigative journalists are up to the task. I believe they are. We probably need to just give them time. We should help them where we can. If not, the shadowy events of 2013 will darken this city’s reputation for decades to come.

  14. Thanks, Pat, for providing this additional information. Dorian Hargrove’s new piece in the Reader http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2015/apr/23/ticker-city-attorney-goldsmith-briggs-cacciatore/ makes a bit more sense in light of what you wrote of mis-information / mis-direction by the City Attorney toward Mayor Filner. My (cynical) friend who works in those circles says that Hargrove is often (but not always) way off the mark. What you posted lends some support to what’s in his article.

    If Cacciatore really only worked / billed 91.75 hours for Helix (on city stuff or overall?) for <$8K, that's billing ~$85/hr, more appropriate for a GIS coordinator than a subject matter expert. And owning/operating a coffee shop as she is reported to be doing now isn't such a step down from working that few hours. [OK, that's still close to double what I make as a PhD scientist for the feds even counting benefits, but the going rate for contract principle scientists (who would both know what the weaknesses in a report were and be in the position to sandbag a report) on permitting or compliance projects is a whole lot higher.]

    If Hargove's facts (not his quotes from Briggs) are correct and came from a couple of simple public records requests, I'm interested in Brad Racino & iNewsource explaining why he didn't uncover those facts somewhere along the way of researching & publishing 20 or so articles on Briggs. If they're not correct, I'm interested in who fed them to Hargrove, or pointed him in the direction of that specific public records request.

    Then again, with the different parties involved in TMD willing to go to the mat, I'm not confident that truth will have anything to do with the outcome of everything over the next year or two. I sure wish I had KPBS, iNewsource, the Reader, SDFP, and other outlets actually practicing unbiased journalism and exposing what is really going on (I gave up on the UT long ago). Thanks to the handful of folks who post information that the news outlets (with shield law protection) don't.

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