Judging by documents filed by San Diego Tourism Marketing District attorneys, the argument as to whether the hotel tax is legal rests on a legal technicality that could be found on a deceased man's computer.
Sacramento-based attorney Michael Colantuono, who specializes in defending property tax and other assessments, wants access to the computer of San Diego activist Ian Trowbridge (who died in February of 2013) in order to show that members of San Diegans for Open Government are bona fide members. The local activist group sued the Tourism Marketing District over the legality of charging a hotel tax without a public vote.
Attorneys for the hoteliers who run the marketing district say Trowbridge fabricated a membership form for Linda Perine after San Diegans for Open Government filed the lawsuit against the Tourism Marketing District. If that's the case, says Colantuono and his attorneys, San Diegans for Open Government's lawsuit has no merit. In order to prove it, they need Trowbridge's computer.
"It still exists, is operable, and is located at his house. For these reasons, [the Tourism Marketing District] is entitled to receive this discoverable information now, and a court order is necessary to ensure compliance with these discovery obligations. [The Tourism Marketing District] is also entitled to an inspection order for review of the Trowbridge Computer to obtain electronically stored information and metadata.
"Inspection is proper under the circumstances present here. In cases involving document authentication or alteration, the computer is not just a repository of files to be produced, but also the tool used to create or alter the questioned documents. Forensic analysis of digital artifacts left from the computer's usage is necessary to reveal how the computer was used to interact with a file, what changes were made to the document at issue, and when changes were made. Without this analysis, there is no reliable way to assess the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the questioned document."
There's a lot riding on the technicality; namely, the hundreds of millions of dollars that the district (whose boardmembers include Terry Brown, owner of the Town and Country Hotel, and Tom Voss, president of U-T owner Douglas Manchester's Grand del Mar Hotel) expects to receive in coming years from the hotel tax.
Tension surrounding the case bubbled over in a series of reports from KPBS affiliate inewsource, which questioned several land deals by Briggs and his wife Sarichia Cacciatore's employment as an environmental consultant for a company whose clients have included the City of San Diego.
City attorney Jan Goldsmith then entered the fray. Goldsmith, who has been on the losing side of several lawsuits from Briggs, participated in providing inewsource with some information, including a letter he sent to Helix Environmental on the same day the report in inewsource was published. The letter identified Cacciatore as a vice president for Briggs’s law firm. Goldsmith's letter to Helix was given to inewsource only two days after a written public records request had been submitted by reporters for the online news organization — a fast turnaround for a public records request.
It's not the first time that Goldsmith has expedited a public records request in order to help reporters report on his political enemies. The city attorney released copies of a closed-session meeting with former mayor Bob Filner — with whom Goldsmith had a long-standing feud — on the same day that reporters had requested them. Goldsmith and the city were later sued for not releasing previous closed-session transcripts by...Cory Briggs.
On the same day Goldsmith sent the letter to Cacciatore's employer and provided inewsource with a copy, attorneys for the Tourism Marketing District rushed to court in an effort to unseal the deposition where Cacciatore admitted to being a vice president.
Goldsmith's office later issued a press release on Cacciatore's alleged conflict of interest.
"Earlier this week it was brought to our attention that, among other things, the Vice President of Briggs Law Corporation helped a consultant prepare an environmental document for the City, and that Briggs Law Corporation subsequently sued the City over the adequacy of that very same document.
"When we hear this sort of information, we investigate it. We have not made an accusation of any impropriety at this point, and don’t know whether we will. The City and taxpayers, however, are entitled to a full explanation, and we will get it."
In an open letter to inewsource, Briggs addressed the land deals as well as why his wife was listed as an officer of his firm.
"Wealthy clients pay their lawyers large cash retainers in advance. Those funds are deposited into a trust account as security for payment of the lawyers’ fees. There are bar association rules that govern this practice.
"My clients aren’t wealthy corporations. They are people who have to fight and need a lawyer to represent them but often can’t pay right away. I still fight for them. When you represent clients like this you take other kinds of security, such as deeds of trust on property. There are bar association rules that govern this practice as well. I follow them.
"When my clients win in court, sometimes the losers have to pay my fees. Occasionally a losing party cannot make immediate payment and wants to work out a payment arrangement. When that happens, I take a security interest to ensure my fees are eventually paid.
"There isn’t anything illegal, unethical, or even unusual about any of this. The big guys do it one way, and the little guys do it another way.
"Similarly, spouses working in the same field is nothing new. My wife has a job, and I have a job. We don’t talk about or share client confidences, and we take measures to avoid creating any conflicts. There isn’t anything illegal, unethical, or even unusual about this either."
On March 3, Briggs and his wife's attorney Marco Gonzales, released the privileged document to the media as well as to Goldsmith's office.
In the coming weeks, the request to physically examine Ian Trowbridge's computer will go before judge Joel Woehfeil. In court documents, Briggs has argued that releasing the private computer of a man who passed away years ago violates privacy laws and is a reach to try and find a legal way out of having to prove the legality of the hotel tax.