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San Diego city attorney candidate Cory Briggs this week sued incumbent Mara Elliott for at least $1 million over one of her political ads that claims he engaged in potentially criminal conduct in 2016.

Elliott’s ad on Facebook quotes an early version of a published court opinion that prohibited Briggs from collecting attorney fees from the city of San Diego while he knowingly represented a nonprofit that was suspended by the state’s Franchise Tax Board. 

Three justices of the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal initially said Briggs had engaged in “clearly unethical and possibly criminal conduct.” After Briggs appealed the decision, the court modified the ruling, removing references to “illegal,” “illicit” and “criminal” conduct.

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.

The opinion still says taxpayers shouldn’t compensate a lawyer for “unethical and unprofessional conduct.”

Briggs alleges the ad is false and that Elliott was aware the updated opinion no longer includes part of what her ad quoted. He filed his defamation suit Thursday, five days before Tuesday’s election.

The city is not named as a defendant in the suit. Briggs is suing Elliott personally, and he’s seeking $1 million in punitive damages and unspecified compensatory damages. He said he also filed a complaint with the State Bar alleging Elliott deceived the public with the ad. 

Paul Pfingst, Briggs’ lawyer and a former San Diego County district attorney, said Elliott’s ad was “an egregious abuse of power.”

“I just expect more of prosecutors,” Pfingst told inewsource. “I just expect them not to use that word ‘criminal’ promiscuously. If they use the word, they have to stand behind it.”

The appeals court case stemmed from Briggs seeking to collect more than $860,000 in attorney fees from the city after successfully challenging a proposed tax that would have financed an expansion of the downtown convention center. 

But because Briggs was aware that his client, San Diegans for Open Government, was under suspension at the time he filed the suit, the appeals court struck down the attorney fees entirely. A judge toned down the opinion’s language about a month later following Briggs’ appeal.

The court said because Briggs’ firm and his client insisted they had not engaged in criminal activity “and such a finding is immaterial to our conclusion, in an abundance of caution, we will slightly modify our opinion.” 

“They didn’t overrule themselves, they didn’t correct it, they didn’t say they were in error,” Dan Rottenstreich, Elliott’s campaign manager, said Thursday. “They removed it ‘in an abundance of caution’ after Briggs implored the court. So I guess Cory Briggs agrees he’s unethical, just not criminal.”

Rottenstreich said Briggs is bringing his pattern of intimidating and suing city officials, including Elliott, to his campaign.

Briggs’ private practice has been criticized for helping form dozens of nonprofits that he then represents in court. A 2015 inewsource investigation found the largely anonymous groups have repeatedly violated state and federal laws.

And while he has frequently sued the city and collected taxpayer-funded judgments along the way, officials have been unable to collect from Briggs’ clients when he loses because the nonprofits claim they have no assets.

Briggs most recently sued Elliott in August over a candidate statement that said she had been endorsed by The San Diego Union-Tribune; in fact, the newspaper backed her during the primary but had not yet formally endorsed anyone in the November election. (Elliott ultimately received that endorsement, too.)

Elliott also sued Briggs around the same time for using “taxpayer advocate” in his ballot designation, but she lost in court. 

The campaign ad Briggs is suing over remains on Facebook. Pfingst said it was removed after he contacted Facebook earlier this week but the ad has since reappeared.

Facebook records show Elliott’s campaign began publishing a version of the ad last week. Users who click on it are directed to an Elliott-funded website, corybriggsrevealed.com, which also quotes the initial appeals court opinion. 

But unlike the Facebook ad, the website states the court later removed “illegal” references in its published opinion.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource, covering mostly education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers in Michigan and North Carolina. At the Asheville Citizen Times, Jennifer’s award-winning coverage of yearslong corruption helped...