City attorney candidate Cory Briggs loses case filed against ex-San Ysidro superintendent
Attorney Cory Briggs is shown before a hearing in San Diego Superior Court on Jan. 23, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

City attorney candidate Cory Briggs loses case filed against ex-San Ysidro superintendent

A lawsuit San Diego city attorney candidate Cory Briggs filed against a former San Ysidro school superintendent has been dismissed after a judge said the nonprofit Briggs represented lacked legal standing to sue.

That means the client Briggs represents has no stake in the case, an argument made by others he has sued with varying degrees of success. At least one target of Briggs’ lawsuits contended his nonprofit client was just the attorney’s “alter ego.”

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.

In the most recent case, Briggs represented the nonprofit San Diegans for Open Government. The group’s lawsuit said former Superintendent Julio Fonseca should pay back a $113,000 settlement the San Ysidro School District reached with a fired staffer in 2016.

But because the nonprofit isn’t based in San Ysidro and doesn’t pay taxes to the district, San Diego Superior Court Judge Richard Whitney found the group doesn’t have standing.

Briggs told inewsource he plans to appeal.

Briggs argued the group’s members paid other taxes, including to the state, the district’s primary funder. He also provided documents to the court claiming three of the group’s members lived in San Ysidro, though the records included inconsistencies.

Whitney cited in his Feb. 20 ruling the deposition testimony of Pedro Quiroz, CEO of San Diegans for Open Government. Briggs said Quiroz was the person most qualified to speak about the nonprofit, but the CEO testified he never met the group’s San Ysidro members and was unsure when at least one of them applied for membership.

“The Court was astonished by Mr. Quiroz’s complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of this legal issue involving the lawsuit filed by his organization,” Whitney said in his ruling.

The judge said “one of the few relevant pieces of information” from Quiroz was that the organization held a “boot camp/lunch” at a restaurant in the school district. Briggs claimed members paid sales tax during the event, but Whitney said Quiroz only remembered “that the restaurant was located somewhere North of the Mexico Border in South Bay.”

Briggs told inewsource in an email Tuesday that the judge mistakenly expected his client, rather than its lawyer, to understand the intricacies of legal issues. He cited an appellate court ruling in a Los Angeles County case last year that allowed standing for a corporation to sue a school district because it paid taxes to the state.

In the case against Fonseca, Briggs said, “The judge did not follow that precedent and did not explain it away in his ruling (as judges usually do when disobeying precedent). Sometimes judges make mistakes, which is why there are appellate courts.”

Fonseca’s attorney, Randall Winet, declined to comment to inewsource.

Julio Fonseca is shown at a July 9, 2015, school board meeting at the San Ysidro School District office. (Megan Wood/inewsource)

The lawsuit San Diegans for Open Government filed claimed that fired San Ysidro staffer Jose Enrique Gonzalez was aware of an intimate relationship that Fonseca was having with another district employee. The settlement with Gonzalez was for Fonseca’s “own personal ends,” the suit alleged, because he didn’t want Gonzalez to “blow the whistle” on the relationship.

Fonseca’s attorney said in court documents his client denies that was the reason for the settlement, which the district’s governing board approved.

The San Ysidro district serves some of the poorest students in San Diego County and was embroiled in turmoil for years. Including Fonseca, it’s had nine superintendents since 2013.

Fonseca resigned in 2017 after two years. His resignation came amid claims of financial misdeeds. A state audit later concluded he and his deputy, Jose Arturo Sanchez-Macias, engaged in possible financial fraud and misuse of district funds. Both have disputed the audit’s findings.

With health benefits and other perks such as life insurance and $400,000 in severance pay, Fonseca made at least $1 million in the 26 months he worked for the district. His total average annual compensation, excluding his pension, made him at the time the highest paid superintendent in the county and the second highest in the state.

Briggs is also representing San Diegans for Open Government in a case against the school district over Fonseca’s severance.

The nonprofit, which regularly sues public agencies, lists its address as a post office box in Ocean Beach. On its website, the group says it advocates for and educates the public on “open, transparent, accountable government.”

It’s currently involved in more than a dozen lawsuits and almost always is represented by Briggs. (The group used a different attorney when it unsuccessfully sued inewsource after the news nonprofit published an investigative series that raised questions about Briggs’ legal and ethical practices.)

Related: Past inewsource coverage of attorney Cory Briggs

Briggs is challenging City Attorney Mara Elliott in Tuesday’s primary. Through a campaign spokesman, Elliott declined to comment for this story.

When Briggs’ clients prevail, they can be awarded court judgments, including attorney fees. 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.

City records show that since 2015 San Diego has paid Briggs’ trust account about $341,000 stemming from litigation.

His firm has been criticized for forming more than 30 nonprofits and then suing on their behalf, stalling major projects and collecting attorney fees through largely anonymous groups. An inewsource investigation in 2015 found more than half of them repeatedly violate state and federal laws by failing to file legally required documents showing finances, mission statements and board structures. State records reviewed this month by inewsource show most remain out of compliance.

Briggs has told inewsource that the noncompliant groups are no longer his clients.

The legitimacy of Briggs’ nonprofit clients also have been challenged in court.

Attorneys for the city of San Diego and the Tourism Marketing District, for example, said San Diegans for Open Government lacked standing when it sued in 2012 over an assessment levied on hotel owners because the nonprofit served as Briggs’ “alter ego.”

The Superior Court judge in that case, however, concluded the group had standing to sue.

But in 2017, Briggs lost a case that involved standing when the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal affirmed sanctions against his nonprofit client CREED-21. The group had sued over a Walmart development in Riverside County, but Walmart’s attorneys argued that CREED-21 was a “shell corporation” for Briggs’ law firm. The judges upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the suit, saying the nonprofit “willfully failed to obey” court orders to produce one of the group’s members for a deposition.

The court’s opinion was published at the request of several law firms, which now means it can be cited as precedent.

One of Briggs’ most recent court losses came in December, when the state Supreme Court ruled that San Diegans for Open Government didn’t have legal standing to file a conflict-of-interest case against the city of San Diego. Again represented by Briggs, the group had challenged the refinancing of Petco Park construction debt.

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About Jennifer Bowman:

Jennifer Bowman
Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email jenniferbowman [at] inewsource [dot] org.