San Diego Attorney Cory Briggs’ Land Deals Raise Ethical, Legal Questions
For years, Cory Briggs, a high-profile San Diego lawyer and a key figure in the resignation of former Mayor Bob Filner, has engaged in real estate transactions that a host of experts say are questionable and possibly fraudulent.
inewsource followed millions of dollars of his land deals through four Southern California counties to be met with slammed doors, a threat to call the police and a strange hand-delivered letter, saying there was no payoff to get rid of Filner, who resigned in 2013 amid a sexual harassment scandal. inewsource also discovered Briggs had sold his home for about half its worth to a corporation he controls.
These types of transactions are “never done in honest business dealings,” said William Black, a white-collar criminologist and former bank regulator who testified before Congress about the Lehman Brothers collapse.
inewsource asked Black and other experts to review public records of Briggs’ land deals, in particular two $1.5 million deeds of trust made on the same day in 2013. Briggs and his law firm entered into the deeds with four members of the same family. The deeds were secured by houses worth a fraction of that cost, without listing a title company.
“I don’t think he’s going to want the Bar to learn about these things,” Black said.
A puzzling letter
Since at least 2007, the Briggs Law Corp. has been entering into deeds of trust — liens against a property typically in exchange for loans — with people in Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Los Angeles counties for as little as $15,000 and as much as $1.5 million.
Briggs’ largest liens, totaling $3 million, were made on Aug. 28, 2013 — five days after Filner announced his resignation — by members of the Wolfinbarger family in Diamond Bar and Chino, a little more than 100 miles northwest of San Diego. The liens were worth nearly three times the value of the homes, according to data from Zillow and Homesnap. One house was worth about $679,000 at the time; the other currently is valued at about $378,000.
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inewsource asked Briggs’ about the deeds of trust, and mentioned the proximity to Filner’s resignation announcement. But Briggs shut down the interview on Feb. 11 and threatened to call the police if reporters didn’t leave his office.
“This stuff is not an issue,” Briggs said, adding he would respond to inewsource’s story after publication.
The reporters immediately headed north to Chino to interview Randy Wolfinbarger, who slammed the door when asked about his lien for $1.5 million. His wife — coming home from a trip to the store — said “he just briefed me on it earlier,” then “no comment” and hurried inside.
In nearby Diamond Bar, James and Barbara Wolfinbarger didn’t answer their door or a phone call that evening. Two cars were parked in the driveway. The lights were off in the house.
inewsource left a copy of their $1.5 million lien on their door with a note requesting an interview.
On Feb. 16, inewsource received a letter from the Wolfinbargers with a puzzling claim: That an inewsource reporter had accused them of paying someone to oust Filner from office. The reporters who tried to interview the Wolfinbargers never mentioned Filner, according to video footage of the encounter, either in verbal questions to the family or in the note left with the deed of trust.
Their letter was dropped off at KPBS, where inewsource has its office, by a woman who appeared to be a Briggs employee. It read in part:
“Brad Racino has repeatedly harassed us and other family members with the accusation that we paid an attorney millions of dollars to get rid of San Diego mayor Bob Filner and made impolite demands that we talk with him about this absurd theory. For the record, we do not even know who Mr. Filner is. We did not pay any person to get rid of him or the mayor of any other city for that matter.”
inewsource found eight deeds of trust between the Briggs Law Corp. and borrowers — the earliest from 2007 — for a total of $3.8 million. Two more deeds involve Briggs’ personal LLC but not his law corporation.
Of the eight deeds involving Briggs’ law firm, five list a title company such as First American or Fidelity National as a trustee. Of the other three, one lists Karin Langwasser as trustee, and the other two — the ones for $1.5 million — list “Cory J. Briggs” as trustee.
inewsource attempted to interview all of the borrowers.
Two did not return multiple phone calls or emails, another two, the Wolfinbargers, would not talk about the liens. The fifth and sixth’s phone numbers couldn’t be located, but inewsource found one of them, Andrew Levy, was a defendant in a 2007 lawsuit in which Briggs represented the plaintiff. Levy’s $15,000 deed with the Briggs Law Corp. was filed the same day as an amended court complaint.
The seventh’s bookkeeper said that the lien was a guarantee for a $75,000 payment regarding a lawsuit Briggs filed against her company, but declined to speak further about it.
“They don’t want anybody pulling on the threads here,” said Black, the white-collar criminologist, when told the total number of deeds. “This is how you end up naked.”
The eighth said that the $200,000 recorded on the deed never actually changed hands, and that she barely knew Briggs.
“I think we contacted him because we were trying to protect our assets in looking at a potential lawsuit,” said Marlene Nisbet.
Nisbet and her husband were named as defendants in a personal injury lawsuit filed about one month prior to her deed with Briggs. She said she couldn’t remember the details and was unaware that there was a $200,000 lien on her house. inewsource obtained the deed, which says the “debt“ is “due and payable on conclusion of beneficiary’s representation of Borrower(s).”
A possible explanation, according to Black and other experts interviewed, is that the liens were used to protect Nisbet’s assets from the creditors in her lawsuit. They said this scenario would not be legal.
“I’m certainly scratching my head wondering why someone would set themselves up for the kind of scrutiny that this would bring,” said Jonathan Arons, a defense attorney for lawyers, who has more than 30 years of experience in legal ethics.
“What do you hope to gain from this?” Arons said.
This is how a typical asset protection scheme works, they said: Jane owes a lot of money to a creditor — after a lawsuit or bankruptcy, for example — and that creditor wants repayment in the form of Jane’s home. But Jane has already entered into a fake deed of trust with someone, so it appears as if the house is encumbered, or underwater. Because the house isn’t worth much of anything, the creditor might leave it alone. Eventually, the lending party lifts the fake deed from Jane’s property so it is no longer underwater.
Nisbet said, in her case, no money changed hands in the deed, but she might have paid Briggs for his legal services. She said she doesn’t remember.
The Briggs Law Corp. lists “asset protection” as a service for its clients on its website.
That’s unusual for a law firm to advertise, Black said.
Asset protection, he said, includes such things as advising a client to create a family trust or a corporation, or to buy real estate somewhere else, “so they can’t go after your debts.” It’s best to advise before the client is already in trouble, he said, adding “They’re a law firm, they give advice on asset protection — they don’t actually do the deals themselves.”
Ed McIntyre, a legal ethicist and a former member of the California State Bar Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct, agreed.
“A law firm is in the business of the practice of law and it should not be using its law firm name and license and whatever status being a law firm gives you to be lending money,” McIntrye said.
“You’ve got a pattern that I think would get somebody’s attention,” he said, “whether it’s a prosecutor, investigator or somebody at the state Bar who may want to know — ‘Why is this quasi-public interest law firm lending out all this money?’”
“There may be a legitimate reason for it,” McIntyre said, “but what’s it all about?”
The West End Executives Association
One connection inewsource found between Briggs and several borrowers was a business group called the West End Executives Association, a nonprofit “dedicated to increasing our business success by providing referrals” to members. Its website says the association is part of a network of 90 sister organizations operating in major cities in 18 countries, and they typically meet for breakfast at a Holiday Inn in Ontario.
One current executive board member and two past presidents of the association, including James “Butch” Wolfinbarger, appear on deeds of trust connected to Briggs Law Corp.
Briggs has been a member since 2002, according to the group’s Facebook page. He was president for six months in 2005, according to the website.
A Jan. 14 post on the group’s Facebook page, accompanied by a photo of Briggs at a podium, states, “Briggs Law Corporation specializes in business law for small, family-owned businesses. Services include formation of corporations and LLCs, negotiation of commercial contracts, asset protection strategies, estate planning and trust administration … Many members have attested to the services received by Cory and his firm, who are always available to give advice, and solve problems when needed.”
One last puzzle
Briggs’ home in San Diego also baffled experts.
He purchased it for $1.49 million in 2010 without recording a deed of trust for the property at the San Diego County assessor’s office, said Sharon Ferguson, the office’s assistant division chief.
A little more than two years later, he sold it to TYL Enterprises, a corporation formed in Nevada, for $725,000. According to the Nevada secretary of state’s website, Briggs serves as TYL’s president, secretary, treasurer and director, and represented the company in court over a breach of contract dispute in 2010.
No experts interviewed could suggest a logical explanation for taking such a loss on the home.
inewsource repeatedly asked Black if there was any sensible explanation for its findings.
“No,” he said. “And if there is, these folks could provide it.”
Overall, Black said, “the deals make no sense as economic matters, and it’s not even close.”
“It’s not a matter of judgment. It’s just: no, no no,” he said.
Brooke Williams is an inewsource correspondent and journalism fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbrooke