The beef between attorney Cory Briggs and city attorney Jan Goldsmith has lasted years. It was furthered on the morning of May 29, when San Diego superior court judge Gregory Pollack issued Briggs a stern, at the same time complimentary, warning. Pollack cautioned Briggs for litigating cases on behalf of his client San Diegans for Open Government while the nonprofit was suspended for seven months by the state's franchise Tax Board in 2012 for failing to pay taxes.
Pollack said operating in such a way could land Briggs in a "heap of trouble."
Attorneys for the city jumped at the bit. They requested transcripts of Pollack's ruling. Three days later, the transcript was posted in its entirety in a story by inewsource, a KPBS-affiliated news organization that was 20 stories deep into an eight-month investigation into Briggs and associated nonprofits.
Then, on June 2, the same day the transcript was released to the online news outlet, lead deputy city attorney Joe Cordileone essentially called out Briggs.
Cordileone scheduled an emergency ex parte hearing in a case filed by San Diegans for Open Government and the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation over what was a faulty environmental impact report. The report had been written by Helix Environmental on behalf of the City of San Diego for its master stormwater project.
Briggs, representing San Diegans for Open Government, and co-plaintiff in the case, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, represented by Marco Gonzalez, settled the case against the city in 2013.
Then, this past April, news surfaced that Briggs’s wife, Sarichia Cacciatore, worked for Helix Environmental at the time the lawsuit was filed and was said to have worked on the report.
According to inewsource reports and a statement from city attorney Goldsmith, Cacciatore served as vice president of Briggs’s law firm at the same time she worked on the stormwater report. Goldsmith later filed a claim against Helix Environmental for the alleged conflict.
Helix agreed to settle the claim by paying $143,000 in attorney's fees that the were awarded to Briggs and Gonzalez in 2013.
However, documents obtained by the Reader show that Cacciatore was named vice president of Briggs Law Corporation in 2013, two years after she had left Helix Environmental. Additional documents obtained from a public records request showed that Cacciatore's work on the master stormwater report was minimal, working a total of 12.25 hours from 2004 to 2010 on mostly clerical tasks.
It would seem that the terms of the settlement, which is public record, provided early evidence that there was to be little gained from the emergency hearing recently called by Cordileone.
The parties in the case, according to the settlement, conducted their own investigation and did not rely on the opposing attorneys before deciding to settle.
"The undersigned and each of them acknowledge and represent that they are affecting this compromise and settlement and are executing this agreement (i) after they and their respective legal counsel had the opportunity to and did conduct an independent investigation of the relevant facts; and (ii) without relying on representation made by the other Party or the other Party’s attorney."
Despite the language, Cordileone, on behalf of the city, moved forward. On June 9, two days before the emergency hearing, Marco Gonzalez wrote to the city attorney's office in search of additional information:
"...[The] ex parte was set on June 2nd for June 11th without notice to [Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation] or [San Diegans for Open Government]," Gonzalez wrote.
"I would point out — our settlement with the city includes an attorneys’ fees provision for efforts related to compliance with the agreement, so if this ex parte goes forward and it indeed proves frivolous, the city should expect we’ll be seeking an additional fee award. And I would of course be remiss if I didn’t point out that we cannot find anywhere in past closed session agendas notice of this case and a re-opener of any sort coming before the City Council for authorization."
Cordileone, who has been accused of bullish behavior by opposing counsel in the past, informed Gonzalez that the hearing was vacated and continued…
"...[Y]ou 'noted,' as a veiled suggestion, that you believe the attorney who set that ex parte in motion has done something inappropriate. If so, know this, I am the attorney who set it in motion. If you think I am acting unethically, please have the courage of your convictions and make the accusation directly. If the indirect suggestion of impropriety was not your intended goal, then next time, please keep the things you 'noted' to yourself because it is very easy for the reader to interpret it as an aspersion on the actor," wrote Cordileone.
Gonzalez responded. "Given the relatively absurd actions of your office and your boss recently, I only expect more of the same. At some point, you’ve got to just take your lumps, as do we, and not let this stuff get so personal. You have a job to do, as do we.
"Thanks for vacating the hearing, which of course was our other goal."
Cordileone did not let the conversation end there. He wrote back…
"You are remarkable. Rude, arrogant, pompous, and ill-mannered, and yet you feel qualified to give me advice about taking my lumps. Aren’t you precious? Maybe if you had 20 more years in the practice I might consider your thoughts. But if you’ve been doing this for 18 years and you still write and act like you have in these exchanges, I don’t think it will make any difference
"...I know more about taking lumps and moving on than you can possibly imagine.
"Call me old fashioned. Maybe you don’t take it personally if someone insinuates that you are unethical but I have worked too hard for my reputation to let people like you take potshots — secure, even proud, in their deep and abiding ignorance. I also take it personally that you are so comfortable in blithely throwing out the accusation that every lawyer working here doesn’t care about his/her reputation and will let you tarnish it."
In the end, Cordileone admitted to setting up the hearing as a way to make an example of Briggs and Gonzalez:
"I wanted the court’s help in setting up a program using real cases to teach young lawyers how to act responsibly and ethically during this period in our legal history when there is so much unnecessary strife and so many attorneys wallow in shameful and unprofessional conduct. I was hoping the court would select you to serve as a bad example — the classic representation of inappropriate and unforgiveable [sic] behavior."
(corrected 6/17, 12:20 p.m.)