cory briggs mara elliott
Shown above are San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott and her challenger in the Nov. 3 election, attorney Cory Briggs. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Cory Briggs brands himself as a taxpayer advocate, a reputation built on years of filing lawsuits against public agencies over taxes and environmental laws.

But now the regular San Diego City Hall foe wants to work for it.

Briggs has launched a run against City Attorney Mara Elliott, accusing the first-term incumbent of consistently providing elected officials with bad legal advice and leading an office “obsessed with secrecy.” He says he’ll change that if elected, promising not to operate as a politician but as a lawyer dedicated to transparency.

Why this matters

San Diego has an elected city attorney who earns nearly $200,000 a year and serves as the city’s chief legal adviser. Leading an office of 160 attorneys and 200 support staff, the city attorney counsels the mayor and City Council on their most significant decisions, playing a prominent role in how taxpayer money is spent.

But Briggs brings his own set of problems. His private practice has been criticized for forming dozens of nonprofits and then suing on their behalf, stalling major projects and collecting attorney fees through largely anonymous groups that a 2015 inewsource investigation found repeatedly violate state and federal laws.

Nearly five years later, most remain out of compliance. A few have racked up a thousand dollars or more in outstanding balances with the state Franchise Tax Board, others were ordered by the California Attorney General’s Office to cease and desist operations, and many have failed for years to file required documents with the secretary of state.

And while he’s won big cases, Briggs has lost, too. When the city tries to collect financial judgments from Briggs’ nonprofit clients, he claims they have no money.

Briggs now seeks to hold elected office, pitting his track record against that of Elliott, who’s counseled public agencies for nearly two decades and worked in the City Attorney’s Office before getting elected in 2016. With two political challengers — former Deputy City Attorney Peter Mesich also is running — she is being forced to answer for her tenure’s controversies.

Elliott’s effort to alter the state’s Public Records Act, for example, was largely derided and seen as an attempt to weaken public access. That proposal died, but the criticism lives on through Briggs’ campaign.

Because San Diego’s city attorney is an elected position, the race brings the possibility of a “bald political contest,” said Robert Shannon, who was Long Beach’s elected city attorney for 15 years before retiring in 2013.

A city attorney, he said, should focus on providing legal advice to city departments and politicians and not policy-making.

“If the outsider says, ‘I just think the city is all wrong on X, and I’m running because I want to change things,’ well, I’d be very careful with that type of person,” Shannon said. “Because that sounds to me like a person who wants to take policy positions, which is not the function of a city attorney. It’s the function of the city council and the mayor.

“Now, is that the situation in San Diego? Obviously, I can’t speak to that. I don’t know that.”

State issues suspensions, cease and desist orders

Briggs, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, is known for regularly battling public agencies and private developers. His law firm, Briggs Law Corp., has two offices — one in San Diego, where he lives, and another in Upland, in his native San Bernardino County.

Briggs is mentioned in some of San Diego’s most prominent civil disputes, including waterfront projects, records fights and public financing, among others. He briefly campaigned for mayor last year but ultimately bowed out of the race before ever filing candidate paperwork.

His list of current clients includes former San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye and Art Castañares, a former political consultant who owns the bilingual publication La Prensa San Diego. But for the most part, Briggs represents nonprofits that formed to fight major neighborhood projects and commercial development.

Briggs incorporated many of the groups himself, often with the same people serving as officers for multiple nonprofits. A 2015 inewsource story found that of more than 30 charitable nonprofits represented by Briggs’ firm, more than half had been suspended for failing to file legally required documents showing finances, mission statements and board structures.

Nonprofit experts said at the time that the network of charities suffered “a serious case of noncompliance,” and a forensic accountant called several of the financial filings “egregiously wrong.”

Many nonprofits formed by Briggs list public education as their primary mission, yet most have no presence outside of court. Some appear to be defunct organizations that stopped filing required documents with the secretary of state years ago.

Nonprofits linked to Cory Briggs

To see a spreadsheet of the nonprofits, including their status and any outstanding balances, click here.

Since the 2015 story, eight of the nonprofits have formally dissolved. Seven nonprofits, including two new entities registered by Briggs’ office, are in good standing.

But most remain out of compliance as of Feb. 4. Twenty-one groups linked to Briggs are suspended by either the Franchise Tax Board or the secretary of state. Four are suspended by both.

Eleven nonprofits registered by Briggs’ office received cease and desist orders in March 2019 after failing for years to register as charities, despite receiving multiple notices as early as 2013. The most recently available filings show that for two of those nonprofits, Briggs served as an officer.

A week after the orders were sent, Briggs and his office filed paperwork with the secretary of state resigning as the groups’ agent for service – an individual in California who’s designated to accept tax and legal documents on behalf of a business entity.

A spokesperson with the Attorney General’s Office said such orders are only issued after the state Department of Justice identifies registration and reporting violations. Cease and desist orders are final, and the groups will be administratively dissolved.

Nonprofits are required to regularly file certain documents with the state, including tax returns and information on their officers. If they plan to receive donations, they must register with the attorney general and submit annual financial reports to be transparent with the public and with donors who receive tax deductions for their contributions.

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

The Attorney General’s Office says online that it regulates charities “to protect charitable assets for their intended use and ensure that the charitable donations contributed by Californians are not misapplied and squandered through fraud or other means.”

Ingrid Mittermaier, a principal at San Francisco-based law firm Adler & Colvin and an expert on nonprofit law, said the requirements are more than a legal obligation.

“There is a commitment to transparency and a sense that, in addition to the regulators receiving the filings, the public has a right to know the details of entities that have the benefit of tax exemption,” she said. “I think, really, that’s a key goal served by the filings.”

Seven organizations linked to Briggs also owe a total of more than $7,000 to the state tax board.

Friends of San Antonio Heights, registered by Briggs in 2007 with an address matching his Upland law office, owes more than $2,200. Though the Attorney General’s Office issued a dissolution waiver in 2011, the group remains suspended by the Franchise Tax Board and hasn’t filed a statement of information with the secretary of state in nine years.

Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development, also located at Briggs’ Upland office and incorporated by him in 2003, owes nearly $1,400. The group has been suspended by the tax board since 2015 and last filed records with the secretary of state in 2012.

Sensible Citizens of Manhattan Beach, which Briggs represented in a suit against a developer over a mall expansion, owes nearly $3,700. A 2017 filing, the most recently available, lists Briggs’ Upland office as its address. Briggs, whose firm incorporated the nonprofit in 2014, resigned as its agent for service in 2018.

Four others each owe $50.

Outstanding balances must be cleared before a group can formally dissolve.

Franchise Tax Board spokesman Daniel Tahara said the agency is unable to provide further details on the outstanding balances. Its website says a suspended business is subject to a $2,000 annual penalty for failure to file missing tax returns after receiving written demands.

The board tries several times to collect outstanding balances before suspending a business, Tahara said.

“FTB’s collection program continually looks for income sources to satisfy outstanding debts owed,” he said. “For example, FTB can levy bank accounts or place liens on property to satisfy outstanding debt.”

When Briggs loses, city can’t collect money

Briggs has scored — and cashed in on — notable victories. He reported in a December filing required as part of his candidacy that the city, San Diego Unified School District and the county Office of Education each provided his law firm at least $10,000 in income in the past year.

Last year, a judge ordered the state to pay Briggs more than $1 million in attorney fees after his client, Spotlight on Coastal Corruption, prevailed in its suit against the California Coastal Commission and some of its members over disclosure of private meetings with lobbyists and others.

A commission spokeswoman said the defendants are appealing the judgment.

Briggs’ supporters see him as a fighter for the environment and housing. A 2014 Voice of San Diego article pointed to his involvement in a climate change plan developed by the city of Chino — it was a requirement under a settlement after Briggs had filed an environmental lawsuit.

He has said he’s advocating for clients who can’t take on wealthy private developers and large government agencies on their own. An open letter in 2014 from San Diegans for Open Government said Briggs does not get reimbursed for expenses when the group loses a case.

“He is willing to risk substantial loss to fight the well-funded groups he takes on for us,” the letter said.

But when the city of San Diego has beat Briggs, it’s been unable to collect judgments from his clients. He tells the courts his nonprofits have no assets and can’t pay attorney fees and court costs.

Leslie Wolf Branscomb, a City Attorney’s Office spokeswoman, said multiple judgments have been made against Briggs’ clients to pay the city when they’ve lost.

“As far as we know, there have not been any successful collections on those judgments,” she said.

Branscomb cited several unpaid judgments, including a $21,000 decision against the San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition. Other financial judgments against Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development were made years ago in favor of the city, she said.

One of the more recent decisions in favor of the city occurred in August, when a judge ordered a nearly $200,000 judgment against San Diegans for Open Government stemming from a 2012 case that challenged an assessment levied on hotel owners. Most of that payment would go to the San Diego Tourism Marketing District, which Briggs also sued.

That judgment remains unpaid, officials for the city and the marketing district confirmed. Court records show the district on Jan. 22 filed lien notices in other cases brought by San Diegans for Open Government, staking claim to any money or property the group subsequently wins.

San Diegans for Open Government, like other groups represented by Briggs, reports it has zero assets, so it avoids paying when it loses in court.

Briggs’ practice of suing under nonprofits has been challenged. In 2017, attorneys for Walmart said in court documents that CREED-21, Briggs’ client in an environmental lawsuit in Riverside County, was a shell corporation he used to recover attorney fees.

In 2015, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office under Jan Goldsmith called out Briggs, saying in court documents that San Diegans for Open Government was “a mere alter ego of its counsel.” The group was kept “penniless to avoid sanctions and court costs” despite winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in judgments and settlements all paid directly to Briggs’ law firm, city lawyers argued.

Elliott, who worked as chief deputy city attorney under Goldsmith, told inewsource she questions Briggs’ practice of using nonprofits to sue.

“There is no deterrent for him to not sue the city,” she said. “So if he sues, then he will recover. He expects to do that, and he will follow through on a judgment if he is successful. If the city is successful, and we often are, then (San Diegans for Open Government) turns around and says, ‘Well, we’re insolvent.’”

San Diegans for Open Government is involved in about a dozen pending lawsuits against the city, according to information provided by Elliott’s office. Briggs has been its attorney for nearly every suit the group has filed.

Related: Past inewsource coverage of attorney Cory Briggs

He has repeatedly said he’s not involved in a lawsuit that San Diegans for Open Government filed more than four years ago against inewsource and San Diego State University. The suit, which challenged the news organization’s agreement for space in the KPBS newsroom, was dismissed by the California Supreme Court in September. KPBS is a service of SDSU.

At the time the suit was filed, inewsource was reporting about the nonprofits tied to Briggs, and on the attorney’s real estate transactions and potential conflicts of interests involving his wife in environmental lawsuits.

Lorie Hearn, executive director and editor of inewsource, has said San Diegans for Open Government sued over the lease in response to “exercising our responsibilities as investigative journalists.”

Briggs has denied inewsource’s previous findings, saying in a Jan. 23 KPBS story that they were “completely false.” He provided the outlet with information that showed two State Bar investigations found no further action was warranted against him. The complaints, one of which referenced inewsource’s reporting, alleged that Briggs filed lawsuits on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government while it was suspended by the state.

The documents provided by Briggs do not show who filed the complaints. Such investigations are confidential unless disciplinary charges are filed against an attorney in State Bar Court.

Briggs attacks Elliott on transparency

“I believe that public officials should be fully transparent, always act lawfully, and consistently strive to reinforce (rather than undermine) the public’s trust in government,” Briggs says on his campaign website. “Incumbent City Attorney Mara Elliott does not share those values.”

In 2019, Elliott sought revisions to the California Public Records Act that would have weakened the consequences for government agencies violating the law. The proposal required those seeking records to “meet and confer” with government officials before suing for access and raised the standard for collecting attorney fees from non-compliant agencies.

State Sen. Ben Hueso, a San Diego Democrat running in the March primary to represent South County on the Board of Supervisors, introduced the bill at Elliott’s request. Hueso withdrew it less than a month later after it was battered by widespread criticism from news media and elected officials.

Elliott had argued the changes were needed to address the city’s rising volume of records requests. She told inewsource she no longer plans to pursue any changes through legislation, though she still thinks the records law could be improved. The city has since formed an internal working group of those who handle records requests to fix flaws in its own system, Elliott said.

She said her intent was not to allow the city to sidestep accountability, but instead create a step similar to civil mediation that would have allowed agencies and records requesters to hold discussions and potentially avoid litigation.

Elliott said it’s her job to protect city taxpayers from costly and sometimes frivolous lawsuits. Briggs, who has sued the city over access to records, is “definitely part of the problem,” she said.

City Attorney Mara Elliott is shown in the San Diego City Council chambers on Dec. 12, 2016. (Milan Kovacevic/KPBS)

“It’s unfortunate because the argument that someone like him will make is, ‘I am doing this for the taxpayers,’” Elliott said. “I don’t believe that for a moment because when he wins a payout — and they’re not substantial but they certainly do add up — that money’s coming from the taxpayers.

“And it’s not going to be used for something that may be important to your everyday person, which might be filling potholes, or having expanded library hours or more activities over at park and rec. Those are the things that people really care about.”

Briggs also has criticized Elliott for her involvement in the city’s $30 million smart streetlights program while owning General Electric stock. The company had owned Current, the startup that has been installing the sensors, though GE has since sold the subsidiary.

Elliott said she owns $18,000 worth of GE stock, part of which will be used to help pay for her children’s college education. She also owns stock in 11 other companies, according to a December economic interest filing required for candidates and government officials.

She said the conflict-of-interest allegations are untrue because she owns far less than what the law considers a substantial holding.

She said her own attorney has sent a letter to Briggs demanding he retract statements alleging she broke the law.

“When my competency or my ethics is attacked, I take it very seriously because as a lawyer, that is the most important thing we have,” Elliott said. “And of all the people making an accusation like that, Cory Briggs, it is absolutely disgusting.”

Briggs and others also have raised concerns about data collection from the streetlight program, but Elliott has defended the effort and its privacy standards.

Briggs, on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government, is suing to obtain records related to Hueso’s bill and the smart streetlights program.

Elliott is frontrunner

The top two vote-getters in the March 3 primary for city attorney will advance to the general election in November, and it appears that will be a contest between Elliott and Briggs.

A San Diego Union-Tribune/10News poll released in January shows she’s leading her challengers with 28% support. Briggs came in second at 18%, while Mesich polled at 6%. Forty-eight percent were undecided.

If elected, Briggs would be subject to local ethics laws that prohibit officials from having involvement in a city decision that could impact their personal financial interests. He’s currently representing clients in more than 20 lawsuits against the city, some of which he filed after launching his campaign.

“Any individual who becomes an elected official would certainly be encouraged to seek advice from the Ethics Commission about potential conflicts of interest related to their personal financial concern,” said Stacey Fulhorst, the commission’s executive director.

Briggs has raised nearly $164,000 for his campaign, including $100,000 in loans and a $35,000 contribution he made to himself. He had nearly $21,000 in the bank, according to his January finance report.

Elliott’s filings show she’s raised about $300,000. She had nearly $170,000 on hand in mid-January, records show.

Mesich filed statements that his campaign plans to receive and spend less than $2,000 in a calendar year.

Jennifer Bowman serves as inewsource's Assistant Editor. Before that, she was an investigative reporter focusing on government accountability issues in southern San Diego and Imperial counties. She also used to cover education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers...