Cory Briggs leaves court in San Diego on July 31, 2015. Megan Wood/inewsource
Attorney Cory Briggs leaves court in San Diego on July 31, 2015. Megan Wood/inewsource

A lawyer for inewsource is asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by a San Diego nonprofit against the news organization, saying in a legal motion filed last week that the suit’s claims “lack merit and are frivolous” and are an attempt at retaliation.

[one_half][box type=”shadow this-matters”]A motion filed by inewsource says the lawsuit impedes the news organization’s efforts to exercise free speech and report about issues that concern the public interest.[/box][/one_half]

In April the nonprofit San Diegans for Open Government (SANDOG) filed a lawsuit against inewsource, its executive editor, Lorie Hearn, and several other entities, alleging conflicts of interest and “illegal activities” regarding the news outlet’s lease from and relationship with San Diego State University, the campus where it is based, and ties to KPBS, its news partner.

The 20-page motion filed in Superior Court aims to quash the suit and request attorneys fees. The motion argues that the suit should be dismissed for multiple reasons — among them, that it intends to impede free speech on matters of public importance and to retaliate against inewsource for its coverage.

SANDOG is affiliated with Cory Briggs, a prominent San Diego-based environmental lawyer who has been the focus of a months-long probe by inewsource, an independent, nonprofit investigative reporting outlet.

Briggs practices in San Diego and elsewhere in Southern California. He’s made a name for himself by suing government agencies and powerful companies including Walmart over alleged environmental violations. He was also one of the first people to demand former Mayor Bob Filner’s resignation in 2013.

SANDOG is an environmental advocacy group that Briggs has used to sue government agencies. The attorney representing the group is John McClendon of Laguna Hills, who has joined Briggs in filing lawsuits in the past.

SANDOG’s mission statement, according to its filings with the California Attorney General, is to “Promote social welfare through advocacy for and education regarding responsible and equitable environmental development.”

Briggs and McClendon did not respond to an invitation to comment.

The motion invokes anti-SLAPP law, shorthand for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. This state law’s purpose “is to protect the exercise of free speech and other First Amendment-protected activities by striking meritless claims,” the motion states. The motion also argues that SANDOG and Briggs’ law firm are alter egos.

“After more than a dozen stories about Briggs and his escapades, including one questioning the legitimacy of SDOG and his other ‘non-profits,’ on April 9, 2015, SDOG – which inewsource has reported is controlled by Briggs – sued Hearn, inewsource, KPBS, and SDSU,” the document states. (The motion refers to San Diegans for Open Government as SDOG.)

In addition to the lawsuit, Briggs and/or his associates have subpoenaed Hearn, demanded extensive documentation of inewsource’s nonprofit status and three times demanded retractions of published information.

“Hearn and inewsource believe this lawsuit complaining about inewsource’s newsgathering and reporting partnership with KPBS is merely an attempt by Briggs through his alter ego SDOG to silence unpopular press about him,” the document states.

When the suit was filed, Hearn said it felt retaliatory. “Increasingly,” Hearn said then, “the subjects of journalistic investigations attack the journalists themselves as a way to stifle honest reporting and damage credibility. It is a disturbing trend.”

SANDOG’s suit came in the midst of a months-long investigation by inewsource into the real estate transactions, business dealings and relationships of Briggs and his law firm.

inewsource uncovered and undisclosed potential conflict of interest between Briggs’ firm, his wife and a company employed by the city of San Diego to perform environmental review services.

Roxana Popescu is a former investigative reporter at inewsource. Her reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Ms. Magazine, Travel+Leisure, The Paris Review Daily and Newsweek. Her articles, about immigration, opera,...