Adding Sarichia Cacciatore's name to the list of members of San Diegans for Open Government available for depositions in the lawsuit over the hotel tax was a costly error by the group's attorney — and Cacciatore's husband — Cory Briggs.
It was a mistake that attorneys for San Diego's Tourism Marketing District seized upon. During the deposition, Cacciatore was asked about her relationship with Briggs, her role in his law firm, and her former employment with the environmental consultant firm Helix Environmental, which has conducted several environmental reports for the City of San Diego, at least two of which Briggs later sued over.
Information from the Cacciatore deposition was soon released to Inewsource, an online news organization. A KPBS affiliate, Inewsource has since published nearly 20 articles on Briggs and potential conflict-of-interest issues, questionable land deals, and alleged perjurious testimony.
During the testimony, attorneys asked Cacciatore how long she has served as vice president of the Briggs Law Corporation. She said she didn't know and guessed 20 years, the duration that she and Briggs have been together. Her answer was another mistake, because it implied that she had served as vice president while she worked for Helix; it also suggested that she remained an inside source during subsequent lawsuits challenging those environmental reports.
Briggs's nemesis at city hall, city attorney Jan Goldsmith, seized on the potential conflict of interest.
Goldsmith wrote a letter to Helix's president, Michael Schwerin, alerting him to the issue and notifying him that the city auditor had been directed to start poring over all of the contracts from Helix. Schwerin, who had known about Cacciatore and Briggs’s relationship, agreed to pay back the $143,000 that the city paid Briggs to settle a lawsuit over one of the projects that Cacciatore worked on.
But documents recently obtained by the Reader show that Cacciatore was not named as vice president of the Briggs Law Corporation until March 2013, two years after she left Helix Environmental. In addition, the documents reveal that her role is limited to overseeing the closing of Briggs’s firm in the case that he dies or is incapacitated.
Records from previous years’ board meetings also show that there were no other officers other than Cory Briggs.
Cacciatore spoke to the Reader via email about the deposition and the imbroglio that ensued. Cacciatore says that the transcript that was later turned over to Inewsource was a non-amended version.
"I never have had any duties or responsibilities at Cory’s firm," writes Cacciatore. "I’m not an attorney or paralegal. I did make one correction to the transcript. During the deposition I was asked how long I had been [vice president] of Cory’s firm.
"I had completely forgotten about [being named vice president] at the time I was in the deposition — and I was also really nervous because I had never been deposed before — so I just guessed at the answer when the question came up.
"The court reporter incorrectly typed up my answer as though I was making a statement. I was actually guessing when I said 20 years because I couldn’t remember. Cory and I have been together that long, so it seemed like a safe guess. When I guessed 20 years, it should have been typed by the court reporter as a question not a statement. Right before that I had said, 'I don’t know.'"
When asked why the amended version of Cacciatore's deposition was not released, Briggs responded that it was still under seal from a previous court order.
"Because the final, corrected version of her deposition transcript remains under seal, and because there is obvious collusion between Inewsource, Jan Goldsmith’s office, and the city’s hoteliers and convention center boosters in attacking my wife and me (undoubtedly because of my success in court against them the last several years), I cannot take the risk of discussing directly or indirectly what is in the final, corrected transcript. Those three have demonstrated that they’ll stop at nothing to try to take me down, regardless of the facts or the existence of a court order."
Cacciatore's role at Helix and the limited time she worked there raises questions in regard to potential conflicts. According to information obtained by a public records request, Cacciatore worked 91.75 hours on city projects from 2003 to 2011 and was paid a total of $7788.31. For the storm-water maintenance project that Briggs later sued over, Cacciatore worked just over 13 hours and was limited to "technical coordination with geographic information system and document production" and was asked to "hand off project files to another Helix biologist.”
As reported by Inewsource, Cacciatore testified that she had not worked as an environmental planner on any projects that Briggs later sued on. Cacciatore could not be reached for additional comment as to why she answered that she hadn't.
Schwerin from Helix Environmental did not respond for comment on whether Helix will seek to recover the $143,000 payment made to the city. City attorney spokesperson Gerry Braun also didn’t comment in time for publication.
Alleged conflicts were not the only issues raised in Inewsource's investigations. The status of Briggs and Cacciatore's relationship was also looked into. During their investigation, reporters failed to find evidence that Briggs and Cacciatore were ever married. In fact, during her deposition, Cacciatore gave conflicting statements about their relationship, saying that she was not married to Briggs. Cacciatore also addressed the status of their relationship in her April email to the Reader.
"Cory and I had a private commitment ceremony several years ago. However, we did not bother to submit the paperwork to receive an official marriage certificate from the state and therefore never became married in the legal sense. We refused to submit the paperwork as a matter of conscience because the state was discriminating against same-sex couples who wanted to get married. We didn’t think our relationship should get special government recognition just because we’re a heterosexual couple and to make a point we decided to wait until marriage equality came for all Californians, including our LGBT friends. But Cory and I have considered ourselves ‘husband and wife’ since very early in our relationship.
"There’s a law in California saying that two people who are unmarried and living together as spouses can get a confidential marriage certificate, which is just as valid as a non-confidential certificate. Now that the state law applies to all couples without regard to sexual orientation, we’re proud to be legally married. And, yes, we do have the certificate."
San Diegans for Open Government has since filed a lawsuit alleging conflicts of interest between Inewsource and San Diego State University. It is unclear whether additional lawsuits will be filed.