Cory Briggs
Attorney Cory Briggs leaves San Diego Superior Court on July 31, 2015. (Megan Wood/inewsource)

Attorney Cory Briggs is asking the state appellate court to reconsider a ruling that accused him of engaging in possible “criminal conduct” in a case against the city of San Diego.

In an opinion published Sept. 22, three justices of the 4th District Court of Appeal said Briggs knowingly represented a suspended corporation — San Diegans for Open Government — in a lawsuit challenging a new San Diego tax to finance the downtown convention center expansion. According to the opinion, Briggs didn’t acknowledge that fact and then didn’t give a reason for his actions when questioned.

The appellate court reversed a lower court’s decision to award Briggs more than $258,000 in attorney fees on the matter. Publication of the opinion means it can be cited as legal precedent.

“The things that were said in the opinion, he felt they were wrong,” said Paul Pfingst, who is representing Briggs on the petition. “I don’t think it’s arguable. I think [the court] just misunderstood.”

San Diego attorney Paul Pfingst
Attorney Paul Pfingst. Photo from Higgs, Fletcher & Mack.

Pfingst, who served two terms as elected San Diego County District Attorney, earned a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor in some of San Diego’s biggest criminal cases. Today, he specializes in complex litigation, professional licensing, and represents people accused of white collar crime.

Pfingst is confident language in the opinion concerning criminal behavior will be changed after the court recognizes it “made a mistake.” He also is asking the court to hold a hearing to reconsider the more than $590,000 in attorneys fees he says Briggs should have been compensated in the case.

Justice Richard Huffman wrote in the September opinion, “We determine that attorney fees cannot be awarded to a party whose attorney violates the law to appear in the action and offers no justification whatsoever for his or her conduct. To require taxpayers to compensate a party or a law firm for unethical, unprofessional, or even illegal conduct, under the guise that the litigant is protecting the public interest, would turn the private attorney general statute on its head.”

In his brief, filed Oct. 7, Pfingst argued that characterizing Briggs’ behavior as ”unethical,” “illicit,” and “perhaps criminal” was itself, “false, extreme, unfair, and highly prejudicial.”

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Pfingst isn’t arguing that San Diegans for Open Government was not suspended at the time it entered into the lawsuit (which is the crux of the court’s decision). He’s also not arguing that Briggs did not know that fact. Instead, Pfingst is arguing that because San Diegans for Open Government was suspended for failing to file tax forms — not for failing to pay taxes — the court is mistaken in its opinion on criminal behavior and cited the wrong law.

“A failure to abide [by] that statute may be a ‘violation,’” the brief reads, “but it is not ‘illicit,’ and it surely is not a ‘crime.’”

According to the court’s opinion, Briggs Law Corp. entered into at least five lawsuits on behalf of its client knowing it was suspended, and later offered “no explanation for its improper conduct” to the court. Instead, Briggs “blames the City for failing to discover earlier that SDOG was a suspended corporation.”

In his filing, Pfingst said Briggs knew the specifics of his client’s suspension all along, but decided that the city’s “criminal insinuations” had no relation to the legal argument in his case. Therefore, he “stayed on point and did not respond to the inflammatory allegations of criminal conduct” until now.

Paul Dostart, an attorney fluent in nonprofit, corporate organization and tax dispute law, told inewsource it was extremely rare for published opinions to suggest that an attorney has engaged in unethical or unlawful conduct. That three appellate court justices did so unanimously, he said, was “extraordinary.”

More ‘delinquent’ nonprofits

Briggs and his law firm have sued on behalf of more than 40 charitable nonprofits like San Diegans for Open Government, almost all of which he and his family helped create. An inewsource review of public records last year found state and federal governments have suspended more than half of the groups, including SDOG (which was later reinstated), for failing to file legally required documents showing finances, mission statements and board structures.

Since that story ran, the California Secretary of State’s Office has suspended two more of the nonprofits and the California Attorney General’s Office has designated three more as “delinquent” in their filings. Two nonprofits have gone from “delinquent” and “suspended” to “current” in the eyes of the Attorney General’s Office.

The majority of the remaining groups have remained as they were — 19 are still suspended by the Secretary of State and an additional seven never registered; 24 of the nonprofits aren’t registered with the California Attorney General’s Office; and all but four of the 43 aren’t registered with the IRS.

Nearly every nonprofit lists public education as its primary mission, yet most have no presence outside of court. One of them appeared to take money from donors, including a developer, and showed nearly a quarter million dollar loss with no explanation of where the money went. Since inewsource detailed the missing money, the group’s name was changed from the Southwest Center on Renewable Energy to California Local Energy — Advancing Renewables.

Also since that story was published, the website Charity Navigator, which calls itself “the nation’s largest and most-utilized evaluator of charities,” has labeled every one of the Briggs-associated nonprofits as “High Concern” with a warning to potential donors: “It has come to our attention that this organization is not registered with the IRS, but is soliciting from the general public in violation of federal tax law.”

Business license violation

Meanwhile, inewsource has found that Briggs Law Corp., which says it specializes in “everything from business formation to long-range planning,” does not have a city of San Diego business tax certificate, which is a misdemeanor.

After inewsource asked about the business tax certificate, a San Diego city spokesperson wrote in an email that “A notice of violation has been issued” to the Briggs Law Corp. “which includes request of payment for three years of back taxes, penalties, and surcharge assessment.”

An inewsource investigation of Briggs’ business practices last year found he has engaged in real estate transactions that a host of experts said are questionable and possibly fraudulent, including multi-million loans between the Briggs Law Corp. and individuals in four Southern California counties.

Briggs wrote an open letter in response that said there “isn’t anything illegal, unethical, or even unusual” about his business practices.

Brad Racino was 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 in...