Helix Environmental: San Diego Attorney's Wife Did Not Disclose Role In His Firm
The environmental consulting firm that employed the wife of a well-known San Diego lawyer who often sued its government clients said the employee did not disclose her professional relationship with her husband’s law firm and she should have.
Helix Environmental Planning, based in La Mesa, made the statements about Sarichia Cacciatore, the wife of attorney Cory Briggs, in a letter Tuesday to the San Diego city attorney. The attorney’s office requested information about Cacciatore, whose husband has built a reputation on suing government agencies over environmental laws, after an inewsource investigation found the potential conflict of interest.
Cacciatore worked for Helix for more than eight years and was involved in at least one environmental impact report her husband sued the city over. In a deposition released to inewsource Monday, Cacciatore said she has been a vice president of his law corporation for 20 years.
In an interview with inewsource last week, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said, as much as a conflict of interest, he was concerned about the “economic interest” Briggs’ wife would have in his law firm as vice president.
Ed McIntyre, a legal ethicist and a former member of the California State Bar Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct, said Tuesday the relationship of Briggs, Cacciatore and Helix raises mostly questions of professional ethics. Should Helix have disclosed the personal relationship between Briggs and Cacciatore to the city? Was the city’s position in Briggs’ lawsuits compromised?
McIntyre summarized why these are important questions: “Given their relationships, there is the possibility, at least, that confidential information was transmitted.”
If a conflict of interest is serious enough to taint a lawsuit or disqualify a lawyer, he said, “Ultimately, we all share in the expense that the city incurs.”
A letter to Goldsmith
Helix shared with inewsource a copy of the letter it sent Tuesday to Goldsmith. It was from Michael Schwerin, CEO of Helix.
In the letter, Schwerin said Helix was aware that Cacciatore and Briggs had a personal relationship, but Cacciatore did not disclose her position with Briggs Law Corp., as her terms of employment required. “To the contrary,” Schwerin wrote, “Ms.Cacciatore verbally assured HELIX’s senior management that she was not involved in Mr. Briggs legal practice.”
Schwerin told the city attorney, “The first time that HELIX’s senior management saw a reference to Ms. Cacciatore being a vice president at Briggs Law Corporation (or in any other way professionally affiliated with Briggs Law Corporation) was in your request for information, also dated February 25, 2015.”
According to the letter, Helix is continuing to gather documents for the City Attorney’s Office, including invoices, memos and emails, and is bringing in an IT specialist to help search its electronic records. Schwerin said the company will provide the city with the results “once the investigation is complete.”
“We are taking this matter extremely seriously and are committed to working with you and your staff,” Schwerin wrote. “We pledge our full cooperation to resolve any and all questions or concerns the City of San Diego may have, now or in the future, regarding our work for the City.”
Gerry Braun, spokesman for Goldsmith’s office, said Tuesday, “The information received today from Helix is now being reviewed. Helix has promised to provide the city with additional information. We appreciate their cooperation.”
As part of the letter, Helix gave Goldsmith’s office a list of 14 cases Cacciatore worked on for the city while she was at the company between February 2003 and July 2011. The list shows a total of about 91 hours in those eight years.
Helix said she left voluntarily to attend barista training so she could open a coffee shop.
Projects Cacciatore worked on for the city, according to the letter, range from an environmental report for Kumeyaay Lakes to monitoring construction after a water main break in Famosa Slough.
Also on the list was a stormwater management project Briggs sued the city over. The city attorney gave inewsource an invoice last week showing Cacciatore was listed as a project manager on that case.
In its letter, Helix told the city that from December 2004 through July 2010, Cacciatore worked a total of 12 hours and 15 minutes on the environmental impact report for the stormwater project.
“Although Ms. Cacciatore’s job title of ‘Project Manager’ appears next to her name on invoices to the City for this project, she had only a minor support role on the stormwater project and was not responsible for managing/preparing the stormwater project’s environmental impact report,” Schwerin wrote.
He said Cacciatore didn’t “participate in high-level decisions related to the management and operation” of Helix.
Schwerin wrote that top management didn’t know that Briggs’ law firm was challenging Helix documents in court until after Cacciatore left in July 2011.
“Additionally,” he wrote, “as with all HELIX employees, Ms. Cacciatore entered into a Confidentiality Agreement with HELIX ... which precluded her from sharing project information with her husband, his legal associates, or anyone else.”
McIntyre said the California Code of Civil Procedure, which governs how law firms may obtain evidence, would prohibit Briggs from obtaining details from Cacciatore on city projects she worked on, and judges have been known to disqualify a law firm from a lawsuit in “severe cases” of conflicts of interest.
“The system assumes that by and large the lawyers are going to play by the rules,” he said.
Neither Cacciatore’s attorney, Marco Gonzalez, nor Briggs responded to requests from inewsource for comment Tuesday afternoon.