Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego Attorney’s Environmental Lawsuits Could Be Tainted By Conflict Of Interest

Attorney Cory Briggs speaks to inewsource, Feb. 11, 2015.
Roland Lizarondo
Attorney Cory Briggs speaks to inewsource, Feb. 11, 2015.

San Diego Attorney’s Environmental Lawsuits Could Be Tainted By Conflict Of Interest
San Diego Attorney’s Environmental Lawsuits Could Be Tainted By Conflict Of Interest GUEST:Brad Racino, reporter, producer and editor, inewsource

Our top story and Midday Edition attorney Cory Briggs has depending on what side you were on either been a major impediment to San Diego development or a champion of environmental and civic accountability. Is known as someone who fights for the environment a lawyer who goes after developments who are following the rules. An investigation by KPBS media partner Inewsource raises questions about Rick Mack's business practices and some of those lawsuits. It's a story that takes bizarre turns and complicated twists including a hand-delivered letter denying a payoff to get rid of former Mayor Bob Filner. Inewsource reporter Brad Briseno joins me to explain. Gilissen if you would on the work attorney Cory Briggs is known for in San Diego. Cory Briggs actually made a name for himself in 2013 when he called for the resignation of Bob Filner. Before that and after that he is known for suing city municipalities and developers for their projects. He usually sues over environmental matters, the California environmental quality act. He will sue over air quality, toxic emissions, and pollution. He has halted billions of dollars in development projects. Some saved the city needs that kind of attorney and obviously developers alike and much. The call for resignation that you refer to he was one of the first three people that were part of the famous press conference in front of City Hall. They were the first ones to call for the resignation of Mayor Bob Taylor. It was in July and it was Cory Briggs, Marco Gonzalez who was also an environmental lawyer and Councilwoman Donna Frye who stood on the steps and called for Mayor Filner's resignation. Dano -- Donna and Marco called for resignation in light of sexual harassment allegations. Cory Briggs complaint had to do with Sunroad. It wasn't his initial complaints about sexual harassment. In your series today you focused on a potential conflict of interest regarding Briggs environmental lawsuits and the work his wife does tell us more about that. As I mentioned earlier he sues a lot over environmental violations. What we found is that his wife Sarichia Cacciatore works for an environmental consulting company called Helix Environmental Planning for at least eight years, from 2003 until 2011. And Helix Environmental Planning has as needed contracts with a number of different cities and government agencies throughout Southern California including the Port of San Diego which is one of Briggs's targets over the years and he is sued them over many different violations. Her job according to the contracts we looked at was in the biology division of Helix and she helped prepare these environmental impact reports. Those are usually cited in Briggs's lawsuits and finds flaws in them and they are not up to snuff or code. During those years of 2003 through 2011 Briggs filed multiple lawsuits alleging environmental violations while his wife was working for the company that helped the government agencies comply with environmental law. Were you able to link any specific development projects risks and uncertainties wife's worked on two projects were Cory Briggs sued? No. The Port of San Diego's projects, most of them we looked at or all of them did not have actual staff members of Helix listed on the reports. Her name was on reports from Sanyo Sedo through Escondido that she helped author. We did not find a report with her name on it that he sued over. We did find multiple EIRs or environmental impact reports that he did sue over that Helix produced during her employment . We do -- we did not find one with her name on it. How is it with so much media coverage about Cory Briggs where you just talked about the fact his profile is high in the city, no one has reported his wife holds a key position on the other side of many of these very public lawsuits? That's a very good question. I have no idea. As you mention he's a very high profile -- we did get some email correspondence from the court of San Diego when we ask for any and all emails with her name. There was some pretty prominent people on the email lists. There was one email sent to 20 people and it was social and included someone from the port, but it also included Fernando Gonzalez and Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs and other names people might recognize. It's very interesting and I don't know why no one has ever brought this up. What does Cory Briggs or his wife say about whether or not they believe their relationship poses any kind of conflict of interest? Cory Briggs did not comment on that. We tried to interview him two weeks ago and once the interview started raising questions about his business practice he shut down the interview and threatened to call the police. We said we have important questions we need to ask you and we asked about his wife and he said that's nice and have a nice day and would not answer. Then we tried to get in touch with his wife and sent emails but she never responded. We did get a letter from Marco Gonzalez who says he is representing Ms. Cacciatore and she is quite competent she has done nothing wrong. We submitted a very detailed list of questions for him to pass on to her and neither he nor her answer those questions. We don't know what they have to say. Midday Edition invited Cory Briggs to respond to this report. We left a message at his office and have not heard back. You spoke to the San Diego city Attorney about what you found and this potential conflict. Risks and uncertainties has sued the city over 50 times. What did he have to say? He was very interested in this. This is Jan Goldsmith? This is Jan Goldsmith. He had no idea who brings this wife was and what her goal was but it's concerning and they of launch a full review of the city's use of Helix Environmental Planning and they will look at it very closely. The story doesn't end here. We have to do a hard turn because it takes a turn involving millions of dollars of Cory Briggs land deals through 4 Southern California counties. You found out that Briggs law firm engages in the practice of issuing deeds of trust or mortgages of certain properties. Tell us about that. In California we don't have mortgages, we have things called deeds of trust which involve a lender and of our work and an independent third party which is usually a title company. What we found his we were going through land records which we do with anyone we are looking into and we found these deeds of trust popping up in Ventura, San Bernardino County, LA County, Riverside County and some of them -- it's odd for a law Corporation according to experts to be entering into deeds of trust for the amounts we found with people. There were 2 in particular that stood out. These were $1.5 million liens. Just a backup so we can explain what this is. If you need $500,000 to buy a house to go to a bank and get a deed of trust in the bank will issue a lien on your house so they have the house -- the title of the house into you pay it back. In this case it appears on paper that rate lock Corporation is the bank and is issuing a lien against these houses. Some of these liens do not involve a third-party title company. According to experts that is very strange. We found 2 $1.5 million liens or deeds of trust issued on the same day between Briggs law Corporation and two relatives of the Wolf and Berger family which owns a fertilizer business up north. One family member is in LA County and the other is in San Bernardino County. These liens were issued without a title company four $3 million on the same day. We try to talk to these people but we will get to what happened next. What is wrong with lending people this money? There's nothing wrong with lending people money. This is all according to experts, we are not land-use attorneys. All of them said a law firm is in the business of practicing law, not lending of money. The only possible explanations for this that they could think of in these our experts are either these were gifts of millions of dollars which is very unlikely, or what they have seen many times is that this could possibly be part of an asset protection scheme which is highly illegal. In this way what happens is if a person is in trouble like they have entered bankruptcy or are being sued and there is the possibility their house will be taken from them, they will enter into the state deeds of trust so that it appears to creditors that their houses underwater and there is no point in going after this house because it will discuss the more money. We tried to talk to all of these people and almost none would talk. We did speak with one woman who told us on her $200,000 deed of trust for the Briggs law Corporation had no money ever changed hands. They did need a mortgage in this was a way to protect assets in the face of a lawsuit. Indeed they were named as defendants in a personal injury lawsuit one month prior to entering into the deed of trust with the Briggs law Corporation. I ask you to pay him for the service and she said we probably did I honestly don't remember. She was flustered and then she hung up the phone. When we brought all this up to our experts, all of the situation are looked at from a 10,000 foot view seems very questionable to them. When it comes to the $1.5 million these liens were issued on homes that were worth a fraction of the cost. One house was worth I believe $380,000 and the other one we couldn't get historical data on but currently is valued at $680,000 and all expert said no one in their right mind would ever enter into that need because even if they foreclose you lose millions of dollars. In California you can only go after the house, you can't sue for more afterwards. If they default on the loan's Briggs law Corporation would be out millions of dollars. In those two cases the timing of the transactions came into play in your reporting. Why is that? When we looked at these transactions they happened in August 2013 Wattenbarger? Yes and we said what was going on in Cory Briggs lifer from that time? One month prior was when he had the press conference and he got in the spotlight for Bob Filner resignation and these liens were issued on August 28, August 23 on five days prior was when Mayor Filner submitted his resignation. We asked about the timing and if that meant anything and he would not answer. US that of Cory Briggs? And then you got a letter but it wasn't from Cory Briggs. We got a letter five days later delivered to KPBS where our new source has offices and it was from the Wolf and bargainers signed by both family members. It accused me personally and I work with Brooke Williams on this story and she is a freelance reporter and it accused me of harassing that family and coming to their house and accusing them of paying a lawyer to orchestrate the downfall of the mayor. We actually taped everything we had done that day and we went back to the tape to make sure neither of us had spoken a word about Bob Filner to the Wolf and bargainers. This letter was delivered here to KPBS? You mentioned Cory Briggs wouldn't talk to you about a potential conflict of interest with his wife who he works for. -- I'm sorry a potential conflict of interest but did he talk to you about the liens or the letter and Bob Filner's resignation? No. He never said anything about that. The letter came last week after the interview with him but I reached out to him a few hours ago and have not heard back. He is not responded to any questions. This has been quite a journey that you are been on. A long did this take to put together? This took about five months of reporting of digging and fact checking. Every single fact in the stories is fact checked and we have hyperlinked every sentence to a primary document that we base our reporting on. If you are is go to KPBS or inewsource there is an alternate version they can click on to see where we got the facts from. You have not gotten any reaction from the principles involved in this report but what kind of reaction have you gotten from the report itself? It seems to have divided a lot of San Diego's. Were getting a lot of heat for publishing the stories. People are saying you haven't nailed everything down so why report? I think it's fair to say that we are not lawyers and we are not cops. We don't have subpoena power and can't going to bank records. We can only publish what we know. We bring these things to experts. We don't decide this seems weird and we will write about it. We bring it to many experts. We're very confident having spoken to these people that the things that are going on here are very questionable. We will leave it there. I want to thank you so much for bringing us through this inewsource brad casino.

San Diego Attorney’s Environmental Lawsuits Could Be Tainted By Conflict Of Interest
The wife of lawyer Cory Briggs, who sues local, state and federal government agencies over environmental violations, held a key position in a La Mesa company on the other side of his litigation.

A few minutes before 3 p.m. on Feb. 11, Cory Briggs, a well-known San Diego environmental lawyer, walked into his office for an interview with inewsource.

He placed his large, iced drink and cellphone on the conference table. A pile of documents rested in a corner of the room. Guitars, a dry-erase board and framed photos decorated the walls.


As a videographer for inewsource made final camera adjustments, one photo — of Briggs and his wife — caught the attorney’s eye. He took down the picture.

“I don’t put family on stuff,” he said.

That practice has proven successful. A review of a decade’s worth of news coverage about Briggs found no mention of his wife’s name. Similarly, news profiles of his wife didn’t mention him by name.

But Sarichia “Seekey” Cacciatore has shared a professional interest with her husband — the environment. An inewsource investigation reveals she worked for a company, Helix Environmental Planning, that was involved in at least three cases on the other side of his lawsuits.

Ed McIntyre, an attorney who currently devotes his practice to legal ethics and professional responsibility and was named one of San Diego’s top lawyers in 2014, said the arrangement raises legal and ethical questions.


“I really think the situation just screams conflict of interest, not just for her but for him,” McIntyre said. “It gives him entreé into where they’re not complying, in a fashion that he really shouldn’t have.”

The news surprised San Diego business and government officials, as well as legal ethicists, and is now of great interest to some who have been his biggest targets over the years.

San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, whose office has defended against more than 50 Briggs lawsuits over the past decade, said he was concerned about inewsource’s findings.

“Learning of this information from inewsource,” he said, “I have requested a full review of the city of San Diego’s use of Helix environmental.”

A questionable arrangement

Briggs has made a name for himself suing developers and government agencies from here to Los Angeles over alleged environmental violations, such as a sewage spill on Camp Pendleton in 2011. He also was among the first to publicly demand former-Mayor Bob Filner resign in 2013. His initial criticism concerned Filner’s relationship with a developer Briggs was about to sue, not allegations of sexual harassment — ultimately the reason Filner resigned.

One of Brigg’s frequent legal targets is the Port of San Diego.

Unbeknownst to the public agency, Brigg’s wife, Cacciatore, was listed as a project manager on a contract her employer, Helix, had with the port at the same time her husband was suing it over environmental matters. The contract stated that Helix would help in the “preparation of environmental documents and technical studies to assist the District in meeting the mandates of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).”

Jonathan Arons has practiced law and legal ethics for more than 30 years, and defends lawyers in disciplinary proceedings. He shared his opinion of the Briggs-Cacciatore professional relationship with inewsource.

“It certainly raises an eyebrow or two. Or twelve,” Arons said.

“I think you’d have to be blind not to think that there’s something going on,” he said. “The only question is whether or not it violates any requirements of disclosure. If he’s filing lawsuits and using inside information, then the question is: is he doing something illegal?”

Arons said he would need more details to come to a conclusion.

John Bolduc, acting president and CEO of the port, was surprised to learn of the professional connection between Briggs and his wife and said his staff is looking into it.

A port spokeswoman confirmed Helix never disclosed a potential conflict of interest in its agreements with the agency.

Neither Briggs, his wife (through her attorney, Marco Gonzalez) nor her former employer would respond to questions about their relationships.

Briggs sued more than 20 municipalities and filed more than 100 lawsuits in the past decade, according to public records searches.

Helix reports Briggs has sued over:

Sunroad Harbor Island Hotel project

Blythe and Genesis Solar projects

Master Stormwater Maintenance Program

For months, inewsource has investigated his lawsuits and the projects his wife’s company was under contract to review. It found three environmental assessments, prepared by Helix during the time she worked there, for projects her husband took to court. Although she was a project manager for Helix and was the primary author on several reports, her name was not listed specifically on any of the three.

Regardless, McIntyre said, because Cacciatore held a key position in the company, that is “certainly a potential conflict that probably should have been disclosed.”

“If she was privy to confidential information about the jobs, by reason of her position, then you have the same actual conflict,” he said.

In addition to the three assessments, Helix did work for more than a dozen government agencies Briggs has sued.

San Diego County, one of those, hired Helix to write its manual on how to prepare environmental reports.

A larger issue

For much of the time Briggs has sued government agencies and developers in Southern California alleging CEQA violations, Cacciatore’s employer was on contract to help at least 15 of those same agencies comply with the same law.

She was a project manager in biology resources at Helix, a consulting company based in La Mesa. She has worked on environmental impact reports (EIRs) for government agencies from San Ysidro to Escondido. Before that she was working as an environmental project manager for the City of Chula Vista.

At the Port, Cacciatore is listed among key personnel in Helix’s as-needed contract to help ensure compliance with CEQA, a contract that started in 2009.

inewsource found no EIRs for the port with Cacciatore’s name on them. None of the reports reviewed included names of Helix staff.

Helix’s contract with the port lists Cacciatore’s rate at $105 an hour, and it outlines projects the port anticipated needing help with to comply with CEQA. Among them was the Sunroad Harbor Island Hotel and Port Master Plan Amendment, a project Briggs has sued over.

Helix was responsible for the air quality section of the report. In Briggs’ complaint filed against the port, he alleged the agency’s EIR “fails to provide adequate identification and analysis of the significant adverse environmental impacts” of, among five other topics, air quality.

Dan Feldman, a vice president at Sunroad Enterprises, was surprised to learn of the potential connection.

”I find it tremendously interesting,” Feldman said.

A lawyer for Sunroad added that because the company is in litigation with Briggs over two projects, the Harbor Island Hotel included, that they could not comment further.

Helix also provided “impact analyses for proposed solar energy projects,” including the Blythe Solar Power and Genesis Solar Energy projects. In December of 2010, Briggs made those projects in Riverside County major components of a lawsuit he filed against the U.S. Department of the Interior and federal Bureau of Land Management. Helix provided biological support for that project.

In that lawsuit, Briggs represented a nonprofit called La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle Advisory Committee, a group that is not registered with the California Secretary of State’s Office or the state attorney general’s registry of charitable trusts, according to representatives for those agencies and to extensive online searches.

La Cuna isn’t registered with the Internal Revenue Service, either, according to the IRS’ website.


In response to a request for communication between the port and Cacciatore, inewsource received several email chains sent between June 2009 and February 2014. None involved projects on which Briggs sued, although he was copied on one email.

That email was social in nature and addressed 24 people, including local politicians, lawyers and a member of the media. It was sent on Feb. 4, 2014, using Cacciatore’s Helix email address.

As far back as 2011, Cacciatore had a registered email address with the Briggs Law Corp. —

Helix’s CEO, Michael Schwerin, responded to questions at first, but did not reply to phone messages or emails after that. One question asked of Schwerin was when Cacciatore left the company.

Her LinkedIn profile states she stopped working for Helix in 2011. In 2012, she was no longer on the list of key personnel in the port contract. In March 2014, she was listed as one of two authors of a Helix biological review for Orchard Hills, a planned residential development near San Marcos.

inewsource asked Schwerin for a comprehensive list of Cacciatore’s work. He did not respond.

Briggs and Cacciatore responses

Briggs stopped his interview with inewsource once questions arose concerning his business practices. He said the basis for the interview was misrepresented, and he refused to answer any questions about his wife.

“We also have questions about your wife and her business working for Helix,” a reporter asked.

“I’m sure, that’s fine, have a nice day,” Briggs replied.

The next day, inewsource received an email from Marco Gonzalez, a lawyer who, along with Briggs, is an environmental attorney and played a key role in the call for Filner’s resignation.

“While Mr. Briggs’s [sic] wife is quite confident she has done nothing wrong, I write to remind you that unlike her husband she is not a public figure or even a quasi-public figure. Indeed, she is an entirely private figure. If you have any questions regarding her private-figure status, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

inewsource submitted a list of questions for Cacciatore by way of Gonzalez on Feb. 13, and received a response on Feb. 18. It began:

“Either you have been fed inaccurate information designed to damage Ms. Cacciatore, or you have determined yourself to use false accusations to link unrelated facts in an effort to fabricate a story where one does not exist. In either event, publication based upon unsupported speculation would severely damage my client’s reputation and career. Further, your list of leading questions attacks the professionalism of not only my client, but also of a company and the many professionals within it. Those persons have been advised accordingly.”

Gonzalez wrote that his communication with inewsource was “off the record” — an arrangement inewsource never agreed to — and demanded that if that request was ignored, that the email be published in full. It can be found here.

“Reasonable due diligence with independent third parties would readily establish that the conflict of interest you are racing to uncover simply does not exist,” Gonzalez wrote.

He did not answer any of the questions posed.

“Please proceed at your own risk,” he wrote.


Commenting on Briggs’ and Cacciatore’s professional relationship, legal ethicist McIntyre said, “I suspect that if this was revealed to the lawyers representing the port, they’d say there was no way they could have known this. Because it just wouldn’t have been obvious.”

He’s right.

Bolduc, the port’s acting president and CEO, was surprised to learn of the connection between Briggs and Cacciatore and said his senior staff had no knowledge of it.

“That’s not something that anybody would have thought to look into, or guess would be a factor, in awarding these contracts,” he said.

“Depending on what we learn, we’ll certainly evaluate to see if there are any safeguards we can build into our systems.”

Greg Shields, chief executive of Project Design Consultants, an engineering company that works with Helix and has been deeply involved in projects for the port and city of San Diego, said he did not know about Briggs’ wife.

Shields said Helix does “lots and lots of environmental documents that touch many projects,” and it “seems like there might be an opportunity for him to get inside information.”

“It puts the document in question,” he said.

Shields said when Project Design works with Helix, which acquired its environmental division in 2007, he doesn’t know the names of all personnel. There is a chance Cacciatore worked on the same projects as his company, he said, but he doesn’t have “any concerns about any work that we’ve ever done.”

A bright line

The repercussions for Briggs would depend on what, if any, information he learned from his wife that could aid in his lawsuits, McIntyre and Arons said.

“If the port could contend that she was privy to confidential information, and it was being passed on, he would be disqualified from his lawsuit,” McIntyre said. “It’s a bright line in California — that you cannot get your hands on the other side’s information.”

When asked how it could affect cases already settled, he paused.

“No court has had to grapple with that yet,” McIntyre said. He suggested a court could order a lawyer to pay back the fees earned as a result of a lawsuit.

“I can see a court going there,” he said.

Arons, the other ethicist, said there were so many issues to consider, and so many unknowns, that he couldn’t say whether Briggs’ actions could be unethical, but that “there’s certainly a lot of smoke.”

“This raises enough questions that somebody better be checking this out,” he said.

Brooke Williams is a journalism fellow at Harvard University and an inewsource correspondent. Follow her at @reporterBrooke on Twitter.

San Diego Attorney’s Environmental Lawsuits Could Be Tainted By Conflict Of Interest Pt. 2