A view of the south side of Centrum Park in Kearny Mesa in 2013. Photo by Sam Hodgson.

inewsource published a story in April about a lawsuit San Diego environmental attorney Cory Briggs filed against the city of San Diego and Sunroad Enterprises in 2013 alleging a “pay-to-play scheme.”

The city, the suit contended, gave away public property in exchange for a $100,000 donation from Sunroad to then-Mayor Bob Filner’s “pet projects.” At the time, Sunroad was building a commercial-residential development in Kearny Mesa, and the property in dispute included nine-foot wide strips of land on either side of an adjoining park.

The lawsuit was eventually settled in August of 2014 between Sunroad and Briggs. The settlement required:

  • Sunroad to pay $10,000 to a city park acquisition fund with “with priority for parks located in Kearny Mesa and then Clairemont.”
  • Sunroad to pay Briggs Law Corp. $135,000.
  • Sunroad to work with the city in hiring an appraiser to place a value on the land, then pay the city that value “with a request that the City deposit those funds into the appropriate identified City account associated with purchases of public property used as a park.”

inewsource has since learned the city received the $10,000 check from Sunroad on Sept. 5, 2014. According to city spokesman Tim Graham, the money was put into the Parks and Recreation donations account.

“The money has not been spent yet,” Graham told inewsource, “but would be earmarked to buy park furnishings or fund maintenance projects for parks in Kearny Mesa/Clairemont.”

Examples might include benches, plants, or basketball court resurfacing, according to Graham.

inewsource has also learned that the appraisal, which was supposed to have been completed shortly after the Aug. 21, 2014 settlement, is ongoing. Tom Story, a consultant for Sunroad, sent an email to inewsource on April 29 confirming “an appraiser mutually accepted to both parties has been selected.”

“I believe that because of his current workload/backlog,” Story wrote, “that it may be up to 90 days before the appraisal will begin.”

Lastly, Briggs did not respond to questions about his $135,000 settlement, but Sunroad Vice President of Development Andrea Contreras Rosati confirmed the company paid Briggs that amount.

Contreras Rosati worked as a deputy San Diego city attorney until June 2014 when she took a job with Sunroad. After a review of court documents, inewsource found she defended the city in three Briggs-related Sunroad disputes, including:

  • The 2013 San Diegans for Open Government lawsuit challenging the Sunroad easement.
  • A 2013 lawsuit filed by CREED-21 challenging the same city council action related to the Sunroad easement. The case was eventually merged with the San Diegans for Open Government case that settled in August 2014.
  • A 2011 lawsuit filed by CREED-21 against the city of San Diego, Calumet Real Estate Holdings LLC, Tom Story and Aaron Feldman challenging the city’s use of an emergency exemption of the California Environmental Quality Act for the reconstruction of a home in La Jolla. Calumet Real Estate Holdings purchased the property and Calumet is owned by Sunroad Holding — which is owned by Feldman. Sunroad settled with Briggs for $60,000 and the court found the city had misused the emergency exemption.

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...

Brooke Williams

Williams is a veteran award-winning investigative reporter who specializes in data-driven journalism. She is currently a contributor to The New York Times, and her work has appeared in the Center for Public Integrity, inewsource, the San Diego Union-Tribune, KPBS, ABC World News and the New Republic.

10 replies on “Latest on the Briggs-Sunroad-San Diego legal case”

  1. Brad–
    Thank you for the update confirming and clarifying the role of Contreras Rosati in Sunroad-related lawsuits while deputy city attorney!
    On the $10K payment, could you clarify with a more declarative statements of evidence and documentation than “iNewsource has since learned…” followed by a quote from Tim Graham on where the money was put. Am I to infer that the statement of the Sept.5 2014 date is also from Tim Graham, or was the date given to you by someone else (if so, who?), with Mr. Graham only stating the disposition of the funds?
    If you could also do a followup on the total number of hours that Ms Cacciatore worked on city contracts with Helix, that would clairfy my confusion between your reporting and Dorian Hargrove’s.

    Again, thank you.

  2. To clarify:

    On April 14, 2015, we asked the city’s supervising public information officer for any information about the $10,000 payments to the city.

    On April 16, 2015, we learned from the PIO, Arian Collins, that the City Treasurer’s Office had found some Sunroad payments — for Fire Inspection Invoices — but they were not related to the $10,000 donation.

    We then followed up with Tim Graham to ask the city to double-check that they weren’t missing anything. On April 17, Graham told us he still had not heard back from appropriate city departments to confirm. We published the story later that day.

    On April 20, Graham sent an email to us saying, “We were able to determine that Sunroad did provide the City with a $10,000 check that is designated for parks. The check was received on Sept. 5, 2014.”

    We followed up and asked where the check was and why it wasn’t located earlier. He wrote back, “It took Parks to track down the appropriate funding area where this check wound up, and as the City is receiving and releasing funds regularly it
    took a little time to find that particular piece of information. I tried to get it
    to you as fast as I was able to secure it.”

    Regarding total hours Cacciatore worked on city contracts with Helix, we do not have that information. We found at least 21 publicly-accessible Helix environmental impact reports where she is listed as a project manager, biologist or primary author. We do not know how many total projects she worked on during her eight years at the company.

    Hope that clears things up.

  3. Apologies, let me correct myself. We do know that she worked “91.75 hours” on Helix projects for the CITY, per the Helix memo to Goldsmith’s office available here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1680143-helix-j-goldsmith-ltr-03march2015.html

    What we don’t know is how many hours she worked TOTAL on all other projects for cities and agencies such as Oceanside, Vista, Chula Vista, Otay Water District and all the others.

    If I’m reading Mr. Hargrove’s story correctly, he is saying that Cacciatore’s total work time for Helix is 91.75 hours. That is incorrect, unless she worked for free on all the other projects we’ve mentioned.

  4. Will inewsource be updating the April 17, 2015 article with corrections? That would seem appropriate to me.

    I have been troubled by this series from the beginning and it seems to be coming unraveled. The reporting of Dorian Hargrove in the Reader is particularly helpful, since without his insights the inewsource viewpoint would be left to be the only voice on the matter.

    This series notes that two inewsource reporters have been investigating Cory Briggs for many months, coming through thousands of documents. What has never been explained (to my knowledge) is what prompted inewsource to undertake the investigation. Considering the various allegations of conflicts of interest among the inewsource sources, it would be interesting to understand.

    Little bits of this befuddle me. For example, Ms. Cacciatore is said (by herself) to have mis-spoken in a deposition about how long she was involved as a principle in Mr. Briggs’ law firm. Would this not be able to be determined with certainty from corporate records on file with the State? It would seem to be a matter of record, not merely assertion.

  5. Any word on why the city refused to appoint an appraiser? That seems to be the other part of this episode: why hasn’t the appraisal process started for the direct payment? You seem to have much better sources within the city & especially the city attorney’s office than Hargrove or others.

  6. From what the CA’s Office told me a while back, they wanted no part in the selecting of an appraiser and expected it to be worked out between Mr. Briggs and Sunroad. From what Sunroad’s Contreras-Rosati told me,

    “The city did not feel they needed to involve themselves further. They’ve asked for updates…. Cory and us we just went back and forth for a while. There wasn’t anything really in particular that caused the delay.”

    It seems odd, at least to me, that this process would end up taking nearly a year, and that the appraiser was selected the same week we started asking questions about it. Maybe that’s just me, though.

  7. Thank you for your comment. To respond to your points:

    1. Mr. Hargrove’s reporting is indeed helpful, as neither Mr. Briggs nor Ms. Cacciatore has responded to any of our questions or interview requests since February, yet they will speak to him. I think that if you’ll look deeper into what Mr. Briggs told Mr. Hargrove, you will find some glaring inconsistencies and frankly incorrect reporting — including the “total hours” Cacciatore worked for Helix as well as the explanation about the “mistake” in the deposition (in his story there is no mention of, or explanation why, Mr. Briggs echoed Cacciatore’s statement about the 20 years). The filings Briggs sent to Mr. Hargrove, which allegedly show Cacciatore as VP for one year, have not been shared with the California Secretary of State, California State Bar or anyone else for that matter. We have checked. The only place her name shows up as VP is in her own deposition, and on these mysterious business filings no one has seen except Mr. Hargrove. Also, Mr. Hargrove did not consult any independent third-party — a legal expert of any sort — to weigh in on his reporting. While he has poked fun at our using experts from outside of San Diego, it is an essential and frankly elementary practice in journalism to bring information to outside, unbiased experts, so they can lend credibility to your reporting. No journalist should serve as a mouthpiece for a source with a vendetta without, at the very least, checking to see if what they’re being told is the truth. That’s not even up for debate.

    2. The allegations that we are being steered by the city attorney’s office is interesting, but ridiculous. In the five years this organization has been in existence, we’ve taken pride in our ethical standards, especially considering the surrounding journalism environment. No one seems to recognize that here. We’ve gone to great lengths to be as transparent as possible with not only this investigation but others as well. You will not find another news organization in southern California willing to spend the time and energy (and money) to provide readers with nearly every document behind every fact. It’s tedious and mind-numbing work, especially when we’ve just finished a story and could easily hit publish but instead, we spend hours uploading documents and creating hyperlinks so people will trust in our reporting. We also spend hours fact-checking every story, word by word and line by line. That is why we are not being sued for slander or libel. After all that, if readers still don’t believe in our reporting (and our reporters), there’s really not much more we can do to persuade them.

    3. As to your question about how this all started: I’ve said it before on KPBS Round Table, I’ll say it again here: Brooke Williams is easily one of the best investigative reporters San Diego has ever seen. She had a dozen or so stories she wanted to work on. This one piqued my interest because our work typically revolves around politicians, but frankly there are other powerful people out there besides elected officials who we think need to be held accountable. Mr. Briggs is an extremely powerful and influential person in this city and has been for many years.

    4. I honestly do not understand the allegations that Goldsmith leaked us anything. Goldsmith’s office provided us with a memo (the result of a public records act request which we have published and linked to many times) that mentioned Cacciatore’s role as Vice President. No matter how many times we asked, they would not tell us how they knew that information, only that it would become apparent soon enough. And less than a week later, the City Attorney’s Office went to court to ask a judge to unseal a deposition. Two and two together equaled Cacciatore being “Member #4.” Then, Cacciatore’s own lawyer, Marco Gonzalez, sent us her deposition (although now apparently there is an “amended” deposition where she corrects everything, although no one but Briggs has seen that either — not even the lawyers for the TMD or City Attorney’s office). It’s pretty cut and dry. Despite allegations about a leaked deposition, it should be pointed out again that her deposition is NOT protected under the protective order. She admitted she was not a member of San Diegans for Open Government, and the order only protects members.

    I hope that answers some of your (and others) questions. I’m happy to engage further to the extent that I can, but please understand that this is an ongoing investigation and at times I am limited by what I can say. There are legal repercussions for every single word we publish (including comments).

    Thank you,

    -Brad

  8. Mr. Racino: Thanks for your reply. I think you are wishing to reply to the reporting of Mr. Hargrove, which is fine. I don’t have independent knowledge of the veracity of his reporting (or yours). I am only happy to see more than one voice on this matter. I actually posed two questions. One is whether the April 17 article will be updated with corrections. The other is whether the status of Ms. Cacciatore as an officer of Mr. Briggs’ company is not a matter of record (i.e. filed with the state)? Her statements in a deposition are interesting, but not definitive in my view. Having been deposed many times, I can state that it is a standard that deposed persons are given an opportunity to review the deposition and submit corrections. This allows for correction of stenography errors, but also corrections of errors by the deposed and is normally part of the final record.

  9. Mr. Brewster: I’m sorry if I didn’t make that point clear in my response.

    Her being VP of Briggs Law Corp. exists on the record only in the deposition. Both Cacciatore and Mr. Briggs said it. And you’re correct — a person does have a chance to amend a deposition after the fact. This deposition was never amended, according to:

    1. The deposition itself, sent to us by Cacciatore’s own lawyer. There is a spot for changes at the bottom and it is blank.

    2. The lawyers for the opposing side who have no knowledge of any changes to this deposition. Here is a quote from Ryann Dunn, a lawyer with the TMD:

    “We never got anything from them, either the deponent signature on the transcript or any changes to it. By the same code, after 30 days, you can treat an unsigned uncorrected transcript as signed”

    Also, according to a public information officer at the Cal. State Bar, “We were able to look up the annual reports for Briggs Law Corp and Cory Briggs has been listed as the only officer from 2003-2014.” If Cacciatore was VP, there is an obligation to disclose it on these filings.

    According to a public information officer at the Cal. Secretary of State, there is no mention of her name on any filings as recently as January 2015. Though if she was VP, there is not an obligation to disclose it on these filings.

    Per your other question, we have included a link at the very top of the first Sunroad story to the new Sunroad story. I’m sure you can imagine that if we updated old stories with new information during every investigation we wouldn’t have time to do anything else — as we’re constantly learning new information. For example, now that Mr. Briggs has told the Reader that he and Cacciatore are indeed “married” in a secret way, there’s no way in hell I’m going back through 20+ stories to change the wording in all of them. But going forward, we will include that. Make sense?

    Thanks again for your comments. Let me know if you have more questions, although I’m trying to take it easy this weekend and may not get back to you so quickly.

    -Brad

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