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Councilman Cate Fighting Subpoenas Over Soccer City Memo Leak

San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate speaks during a council meeting, Dec. 12...

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate speaks during a council meeting, Dec. 12, 2016.

San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate is fighting an attempt to force him to testify under oath about his leak of a confidential memo on the Soccer City initiative earlier this year.

The battle is taking place not as part of a criminal investigation into the leak, now in the hands of the state Attorney General's Office, but as part of a civil lawsuit filed by activist attorney Cory Briggs. Cate himself is not the direct target of the lawsuit — but he may become an indirect victim of the discovery process.

Briggs filed a motion last Friday asking a judge to force Cate to give a sworn deposition in the case. The motion also seeks to depose MNM Advertising & Public Relations, a firm specializing in "crisis communications" hired by Cate; FS Investors, the backers of the Soccer City initiative; and California Strategies, the lobbying firm representing FS Investors and to whom Cate sent the confidential memo.

RELATED: San Diego Councilman Apparently Used Personal Email To Leak Confidential Memo

The motion includes copies of Cate's, MNM's and California Strategies' objections to the deposition subpoenas, which were served last month. Cate and MNM are being represented by the same attorney, Jacqueline Vinaccia of Lounsbery Ferguson Altona & Peak.

Briggs sued the city of San Diego last June in an effort to lift the confidentiality of the memo Cate leaked, and he argues the depositions will aid the fact-finding in his case. A judge is scheduled to consider the motion Jan. 19.

While the lawsuit has been mentioned in previous media reports, the dispute over the sworn depositions was not publicly known before Briggs's motion.

The Soccer City initiative seeks to redevelop SDCCU Stadium in Mission Valley into a professional soccer stadium, housing, commercial space and a river park. The memo Cate leaked discusses various legal challenges the initiative could face, as well as potential pitfalls in negotiating the lease or sale of the stadium property.

Cate admitted during an Oct. 3 press conference that he had emailed a copy of the memo to Craig Benedetto, a California Strategies lobbyist. When asked why he had not come forward sooner, Cate referred to the Briggs lawsuit.

Briggs had sent interrogatories, or questions, that the receiving party is obligated to answer, to the mayor and nine City Council members seeking information on how the memo had been leaked. Cate called his press conference the day after the city's responses to the questions were due.

Cate has said he gave the confidential memo to Benedetto because he wanted input from Soccer City's proponents ahead of a vote on the initiative at the City Council. The council later voted unanimously to place the initiative on the 2018 ballot, rather than approve it outright.

The memo was published online by the San Diego Union-Tribune, but the City Attorney's Office has refused to release it to Briggs under the California Public Records Act. It argues the memo is still confidential and protected by attorney-client privilege because the City Council has not voted to make the memo public.

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Chris Cate E-Mails

Chris Cate E-Mails

E-mails between San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate and Soccer City consultant Craig Benedetto show the councilman's e-mail address redacted.

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Email questions

The San Diego Ethics Ordinance prohibits public officials from disclosing confidential information — except when doing so is a necessary function of their official duties. Cate and his surrogates have relied on that exception in justifying his actions.

In response to a public records request by KPBS, Cate's office provided the email exchange between the councilman and Benedetto. The email with the memo attached appeared to come from Cate's personal account: The office redacted both men's email addresses "for the protection of private information," but did not redact Cate's official city email address.

Cate has refused to confirm he sent Benedetto the email from his private account. He has also refused to answer questions about why his office redacted his and Benedetto's email addresses but did not redact email addresses, home addresses and phone numbers belonging to hundreds of city residents who had written his office about Soccer City. Those emails were released by his office in response to the same public records request from KPBS.

Briggs's motion questions the email exchange: "If getting this input [on Soccer City] was part of Councilman Cate's ordinary job duties, why did he apparently not use his official City e-mail account and instead use a private e-mail account?"

Both Briggs and Cate declined to comment for this story.

San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate is facing a potential criminal investigation over his leak of a confidential memo — but a civil lawsuit against the city of San Diego may pose a more immediate threat.

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