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inewsource was founded in 2009 to dig into big issues affecting San Diegans. We’ve covered health care, politics, education, transportation, immigration, taxes and land use over the years, and we’ve made sure each story, and each investigation, is done fairly and accurately. We provide links to the documents used during the course of our reporters’ research so readers can examine them firsthand.
Our overarching mission is to hold the powerful accountable: Politicians, government agencies and institutions are a major part of that, but sometimes powerful people aren’t in public office.
Over the last decade, Cory Briggs has become a prominent figure in San Diego. His lawsuits against cities and developers, mainly over environmental issues, are polarizing: environmentalists champion his efforts and believe he is working for the public good, while his critics, including government agencies and developers, believe he brings boilerplate lawsuits to line his own pockets at the taxpayer’s expense.
Briggs has become so much a part of the establishment that he was one of the stars of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association’s promotional video for its 2015 award ceremony: Briggs acts as if he’s drowning in the ocean, while the mayor and council members, who are acting as lifeguards, wave him off.
“I’ll let you have the convention center,” Briggs screams, arms flailing.
The video is lighthearted — but underscores just how enmeshed the attorney is in San Diego’s affairs.
He’s not a run-of-the-mill lawyer whose actions don’t affect many people — on the contrary, for better or worse, he has held up billions of dollars in development, cost taxpayers millions as a result of lawsuits against government agencies, and in 2013 led the charge to force then-Mayor Bob Filner to resign from office. His initial criticism had nothing to do with Filner’s sexual improprieties, but rather Filner’s involvement with a developer Briggs later sued.
A reporter recently wrote of him in the Union Tribune:
“Nothing peeves Briggs more than trying to get around the law. He scoffs at the notion he is an obstructionist. He just holds with uncommon passion that ‘You have to follow the rules.’”
inewsource has spent months looking into Briggs, and at every turn, has found that there is much more to the man who holds himself out to be a steward for the environment, an advocate for transparency and a champion for the little guy. We have interviewed scores of experts for our ongoing investigation, including professors, authors, politicians, attorneys, developers, ethicists and law enforcement.
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The series has been divisive, to say the least. A look at the comment sections on any of the stories yields an impressive amount of criticism about inewsource’s motivations and its findings. Many of the most vocal opponents are close associates of Briggs, including his clients, friends or colleagues.
Despite repeated requests for answers, some big questions are outstanding. Briggs would not answer the ones posed during an interview in February, the only time he has talked with inewsource. He has not responded to requests for comment since then.
However, he and/or his associates have done the following: sued inewsource over its lease with San Diego State University, subpoenaed inewsource’s executive director, demanded extensive documentation of inewsource’s nonprofit status and three times demanded retractions of published information.
inewsource is fighting the lawsuit; Briggs withdrew the subpoena, and inewsource provided legally required documentation of its nonprofit status. None of the retraction demands warranted corrections.
Here are the outstanding questions in no particular order of priority:
1. Why all the nonprofits?
As detailed in a May 28 story, the Briggs Law Corp. shares an address with more than 30 nonprofits and Briggs and his firm have represented nearly all of them in court. More than half of the nonprofits have the exact same mission statement, as filed with the IRS and state Attorney General’s Office:
“The specific purpose for which this corporation is organized is the promotion of social welfare through advocacy for and education regarding responsible and equitable environmental development.”
The Briggs Law Corp. is responsible for having registered nearly all of the groups. Briggs’ cousin, along with his wife, sit on the boards of 10 of them. Yet according to state and federal filings, the majority of the nonprofits don’t exist outside of court. Instead, they serve as vehicles for lawsuits. And lawyers can’t collect attorney fees on their own — they must represent a client to do that.
State and federal agencies have suspended or revoked the nonprofit or corporate status of more than half of the groups for failing to file legally required documents showing finances, mission statements and board structures. As detailed in a June 3 story, Briggs got in hot water with a Superior Court judge after it was discovered that the attorney had entered into at least six lawsuits on behalf of one of those nonprofits — San Diegans for Open Government — while its corporate status was suspended.
“Mr. Briggs may be in a whole heap of trouble with, not only the State bar, but potential criminal prosecution,” said the judge.
2. Why the secrecy over Briggs’ “wife”?
Briggs is a big name in San Diego and a quick Google search returns more than 600 news stories referencing him over the last decade. Yet none of the extensive profiles written about him has ever made reference to Sarichia Cacciatore, an environmental biologist Briggs refers to as his wife (the technical details of that relationship are another matter).
During an interview with reporters at his law office in February, Briggs removed a framed photo of the two from the wall before filming began and said, “I don’t put family on stuff.”
Cacciatore has twice been profiled: the San Diego Reader and the Presidio Sentinel covered her cafe after it opened in 2011. Neither mentioned her relationship to one of San Diego’s most litigious attorneys.
“She’s actually an environmental planner who decided to bust out,” wrote a reporter for the Reader in 2012.
Her “environmental” history goes deeper than just a mention in a profile.
Cacciatore has contributed to environmental impact reports for local, state and federal agencies as a biologist for Helix Environmental Planning, a consulting firm that helps government agencies comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
CEQA, it turns out, is Briggs’ specialty in court.
On behalf of the nonprofits mentioned above, he has sued cities, the San Diego Unified Port District, state agencies, the federal government and developers throughout the state alleging environmental violations.
An inewsource review found he has sued at least twice, on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government, over projects Cacciatore worked on directly.
Whether information was exchanged or not, legal experts interviewed said the situation “screams conflict of interest” and “raises enough questions that somebody better be checking this out.” The California State Bar wouldn’t comment on the matter, citing a policy never to discuss potential or current investigations.
In December 2014, Cacciatore was deposed in connection to a San Diegans for Open Government lawsuit against the city because she was listed as one of the nonprofit’s members to give it standing. During the deposition, she said:
- She was vice president of the Briggs Law Corp. and had been for 20 years.
- She hadn’t “done any work as an environmental planner in connection” with San Diegans for Open Government’s lawsuits.
- She wasn’t a member of the organization.
- She didn’t know she was listed as a member.
- She wasn’t aware of the organization’s mission.
- She only knew of the nonprofit’s lawsuits from “the newspaper.”
Briggs later said that Cacciatore was listed as a member of San Diegans for Open Government by mistake, despite including her signed declaration in the lawsuit. Cacciatore later told a reporter she was mistaken when she said she was vice president of Briggs’ law firm for 20 years.
In a Feb. 25 open letter, Briggs wrote,
“…spouses working in the same field is nothing new. 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.”
Helix, in a letter to the San Diego city attorney, said it knew of the personal relationship between the two but not that Cacciatore was vice president of her husband’s law firm.
“Ms. Cacciatore verbally assured HELIX’s senior management that she was not involved in Mr. Briggs legal practice,” wrote HELIX’s CEO.
The vice president information from the deposition led to HELIX reimbursing the city $143,000 for attorney fees and costs it incurred fighting one Briggs lawsuit that involved Cacciatore’s work. The settlement prohibited 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 next day, inewsource published a story about another project Cacciatore worked on directly involving her husband’s litigation.
Cacciatore, through her lawyer — and close associate of Briggs — Marco Gonzalez, sent a request to inewsource in May for all of inewsource’s reports, bylaws, articles of incorporation and policies regarding fundraising, conflicts of interest and “sale of services.” She has also sent two retraction demands to inewsource that can be read, with inewsource’s point-by-point responses, here and here.
3. Where did $3 million come from and why won’t anyone explain the liens?
As described in a Feb. 23 story, the Briggs Law Corp. has been entering into deeds of trust with people in four Southern California counties since 2007.
A deed of trust is a real estate transaction that some states, like California, use instead of mortgages. The transaction is evidence of a debt and creates a lien on a property. A $100,000 lien means the homeowner owes the lender that amount of money.
Sometimes the lien can be a court-ordered payment. For example, if you come out on the losing side of a lawsuit and owe the other side money, they can take a lien out on your house, which potentially grants them title to your place if you default on the repayment. After the loan is paid off, the title to your property is “reconveyed” back to you.
The Briggs Law Corp. liens range from $15,000 to more than a million dollars. One of the nation’s leading experts on white collar crime, William Black, laughed when told about Briggs’ biggest transactions — two $1.5 million deeds of trust with members of the same family on the same day against houses worth a fraction of that amount.
You do this, Black said, “to hide flows and influence people.”
After declining to answer questions about the liens during an interview in February, Briggs responded to inewsource’s story in an open letter, which read in part,
“My clients aren’t wealthy corporations. They are people who have to fight and need a lawyer to represent them but often can’t pay right away. I still fight for them. When you represent clients like this you take other kinds of security, such as deeds of trust on property. There are bar association rules that govern this practice as well. I follow them.”
An exhaustive online search found no instance of Briggs ever representing any of the Wolfinbarger family members — the people on the other side of Briggs’ two $1.5 million liens — or their businesses in court. The Wolfinbargers refused multiple requests to speak about the liens but sent a letter in February stating an inewsource reporter had harassed and accused them of paying Briggs millions of dollars to oust former Mayor Bob Filner from office. Video from the brief interview attempts, along with notes and multiple witnesses, disproves that claim.
The question remains: How did this family, who operates a landscaping business in San Bernardino County, come to owe an environmental lawyer in San Diego $3 million?
Also, why did Marlene Nisbet, another Briggs Law Corp. lien recipient, tell inewsource she entered into a $200,000 lien with Briggs to protect her assets in the face of a personal injury lawsuit, that she barely knew the attorney and that the money never actually changed hands? And why did Briggs remove the lien shortly after inewsource asked him about it?
4. What is SCORE and where did all that money go?
In a May 28 story, inewsource catalogued all the nonprofits associated with Briggs. One of them, the Southwest Center on Renewable Energy (SCORE), stood out for what it was missing: a real-world presence.
Despite raising more than $850,000 in grants and contributions since its formation in 2008, the public benefit corporation doesn’t appear to actually do anything. IRS forms show it spending $450,000 on research, advocacy and organizing in the past seven years, but its CEO, Bill Powers, would not explain to inewsource what it was researching, where it was advocating or who it was organizing.
He also did not answer questions about a large amount of money: $230,000 that went unaccounted for from one year of SCORE’s federal filings to the next. In a retraction demand sent to inewsource shortly after publication, Powers wrote that the missing money was a “clerical error” on a 2009 form — but he didn’t account for following years, when the money was still missing. He also sent bank statements that further complicated the nonprofit’s story by showing it had more than $150,000 in an account the same year it told the California Attorney General’s Office it was broke.
Powers is on SCORE’s board of directors along with Briggs’ cousin, Karin Langwasser, and Briggs’ significant other, Cacciatore — who together sit on the boards of at least 10 other Briggs-associated nonprofits. Briggs is in charge of SCORE’s books.
After sending the retraction demand, Powers was asked by phone, “Can you tell us anything SCORE does?”
After five seconds of silence, he answered “no.”
It was unclear whether Powers could not or would not answer.
5. What is San Diegans for Open Government and why is it suing a journalism organization?
San Diegans for Open Government, a public benefit corporation (501c3), was formed by the late activist Ian Trowbridge through the Briggs Law Corp. to “promote social welfare through advocacy for and education regarding responsible and equitable environmental development” in 2008.
The nonprofit’s cases — more than 24 of them — have fought hotel and business improvement district taxes and demanded access to public records such as government officials’ emails.
Briggs has legally represented the group in every case it has filed, with the exception of one — the lawsuit filed against inewsource, San Diego State University, its foundation, California State University, and inewsource’s Executive Director Lorie Hearn in April.
Represented by an environmental attorney who has sued with Briggs before — Laguna Hills lawyer John McClendon — San Diegans for Open Government sued inewsource after it published more than 10 stories about Briggs. The 69-page complaint, filed in San Diego Superior Court, alleged conflict-of-interest violations, misappropriation of public property “and other illegal activities.”
Hearn, inewsource’s executive director, said, “This feels like retaliation for inewsource’s coverage.”
“Increasingly,” she said, “the subjects of journalistic investigations attack the journalists themselves as a way to stifle honest reporting and damage credibility. It is a disturbing trend.”
But who’s paying McClendon, and who runs San Diegans for Open Government, is debateable. The nonprofit’s officers have stated under oath that Briggs Law Corp. oversees and pays for nearly every aspect of the group’s operation:
According to depositions and other court filings, Briggs and his firm maintain all the group’s corporate records; file and pay for its lawsuits, its annual registration fees and filings with the state and federal governments; control its Facebook and Twitter accounts; and collect all settlements and judgments when the group prevails in court.
In one of the group’s ongoing cases against San Diego, the city filed more than 1,200 pages of uncontested evidence alleging San Diegans for Open Government to be an “alter ego” of Briggs Law Corp. — a nonprofit controlled by the firm and used to litigate “for profit.” The allegation was never legally decided because Briggs dropped the case in May.
Calls to San Diegans for Open Government’s CEO, Pedro Quiroz, about why the environmental nonprofit was suing inewsource over its lease terms were deflected to the group’s lawyer.
Calls to the lawyer, McClendon, went unanswered and unreturned.
— Seth Hall (@loteck) April 11, 2015
— Joel Hoffmann (@JoelCHoffmann) April 15, 2015
— Randy Dotinga (@rdotinga) April 15, 2015
Disclaimer: San Diegans for Open Government is currently suing inewsource, KPBS and San Diego State University challenging the legality of their lease agreements. The Superior Court dismissed the case, concluding that it was prompted by inewsource’s investigative journalism, but SDOG has appealed.