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Cory Briggs Brings Controversial Record To San Diego City Attorney’s Race

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An attorney known for battling government now wants to be San Diego city attorney. He’s known for advocating for transparency and the environment, but his record also includes a record of forming and representing nonprofits that have frequently violated state and federal disclosure laws.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Lawyer. Corey Briggs is well known for using nonprofits to Sue public agencies. Now he's running in the March primary to be San Diego city attorney. Our partner, I knew sources found problems with the nonprofits linked to Briggs here with more is I knew source investigative reporter Jennifer Bowman. Jennifer, welcome. Thank you. So I knew sources previously investigated nonprofits associated with Corey Briggs. Why did you look into them again and what did you find out this time? We have looked at him before, um, particularly his network of nonprofits. And in 2015 we found that his private practice had formed dozens of nonprofits and then sued on their behalf. And at the time we found that over half had been suspended by either the franchise tax board or the secretary of state for failing to file legally required documents. These documents show things like finances, mission statements, and board structures. Um, and now he's running for office again.

Speaker 1: 00:57 He's, I'm challenging Mara Elliot along with another challenger Pete message. Um, and so we, we looked and reviewed these nonprofits again and, and what we found was that most still are out of compliance. Um, most had been suspended by the secretary of state or franchise tax board. Some, both in some cases. Um, the 11 nonprofits had received a cease and desist orders from the state attorney general for failing to, uh, to file as charities and a few owe $1,000 or more to the franchise tax board. Um, we asked Briggs, uh, for an interview to talk about our findings. He did not respond to our requests. Well, tell us about his practice of suing on behalf of nonprofits. I mean, what happens when he wins in court and what happens when he loses? So, most of his clients are nonprofits and he's closely associated with these nonprofits.

Speaker 1: 01:49 Um, some of them he incorporated or his law firm incorporated, um, addresses match his law firms. Sometimes he's an officer, um, for these nonprofits and, and Briggs wins sometimes in court. And that means, uh, attorney fees and settlements, uh, that he wins. Uh, in fact, a candidate filing that he gave, uh, just last year in December shows, um, his law firm lists, uh, the city and other public agencies for, for each providing $10,000, at least in income to that law firm. Um, but Briggs also loses and, um, this has been challenged in court when he loses because he claims his clients have no money and inability to pay. And attorneys on the other side have challenged that before. So you've, you've heard attorneys argue that these groups are purposely kept penniless. And in fact, um, just a few years ago when Jan Goldsmith was still city attorney, his office filed court documents saying that San Diego is for open government, which is one of Briggs most frequent clients, um, was a mere alter ego of Briggs.

Speaker 1: 02:54 Hmm. So why does all this matter? Why are nonprofits required to file documents about their finances and officers? Well, it's the law, but there's a reason for those laws. So nonprofits are required to follow those documents that talk about their finances, their board structures. And if they plan on receiving donations than the attorney general requires that they file, they register as, as a charitable nonprofits. Um, there's a reason for the laws. The point is to be transparent with the public. The ag has that so they can monitor charities, make sure that the donations are not being misused. Um, and, and it's to be transparent with the public and, and, and that includes the people who make those very donations and Briggs has hit Mara Elliot hard on issues like her failed public records act proposal. Um, and even the city smart streetlights program. How has she responded to his criticism? So, so Corey Briggs has said during his campaign that Mara Elliott consistently provides bad legal advice to the mayor and city council. Um, and, and points to things like the records bill when he says that Mara Elliot's office is obsessed with secrecy. Mara Elliot spoke with us for our story and this is what she had to say.

Speaker 2: 04:11 It's unfortunate because the argument that someone like him will make is I am doing this for the taxpayers. I don't believe that for a moment because when he wins a pay out to, they're not substantial, but they certainly do add up. That money's coming from the taxpayers.

Speaker 1: 04:28 So he, she argues that Briggs is actually part of the problem is she was trying to address what the public public records bill rising number of records requests as well as costly and sometimes frivolous lawsuits. And, and when it comes to the smart street lights program, she is largely dismissed that criticism. Um, she's been hit for, uh, owning some of general electric stock. GE owned the company that, uh, was installing the sensors. That's no longer the case. They've since sold that company, but she argues $18,000 worth of stock is going to help pay for her college education for her children. Um, and then it does not constitute a substantial holding and therefore there is no a violation of law that's been alleged and there are no conflicts of interest. All very interesting. I have been speaking with, I knew source investigative reporter, Jennifer Bowman. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for more on this story. You can go to, I knew source.org I knew source is an independently funded nonprofit partner of KPBS.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.