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Listen to our interview: click here.

By Miriam Raftery

September 18, 2019 (San Diego) -- Cory Briggs has a two decades-long record as an attorney challenging insider power brokers who’ve dominated city hall for decades. He’s been described by Times of San Diego as the “bane of downtown developers” and has filed numerous lawsuits successfully championing taxpayers, voters’ rights, the environment and government transparency. He’s also taught law--including professional ethics.

Now he’s running for San Diego City Attorney against incumbent Mara Elliott, promising to be a taxpayers’ advocate if elected.  In our interview originally aired on KNSJ radio, he criticizes Elliott for trying to gut California’s Public Records Act, backing “frivolous” suits thrown out of court, and mishandling allegations of child abuse at the San Diego Junior Theatre, among other issues.  Click the audio link to hear the full interview, and scroll down for highlights.

Asked why he’s running for the City Attorney office,  Briggs replies, “I’ve been fighting city hall for almost two decades. Running for office was never on my bucket list. But I’ve seen the consequences of not having good professional legal advice given to the client, in this case the city, and I’ve been watching it for administration after administration.”

He adds, “The city is facing big issues, but if you read the news, you see that the city frequently ends up in the court and it usually ends up on the wrong side of the cases. This costs the city a lot of money, it costs the city progress, and it’s time for the Mayor and the City Council to have a lawyer who is giving them sound advice without the lawyer’s political agenda driving that advice.”

Asked what advice he might have offered that would differ from Elliott’s, Briggs mentions lawsuits filed over the SDSU West and Soccer City initiatives.  “She wrote memos critical of those proposals,” Briggs says of the measures that were put on the ballot by voters. “The City Council and the mayor all said these were going on the ballot. And the City Attorney’s office pushed hard in secret to get permission to file lawsuits. The lawsuits were frivolous,” he says, adding that the suits were thrown out of court but cost taxpayers around $600,000.

“One of my clients had me intervene on behalf of the voters to make sure the voters would have their say on these items. The city attorney’s office fought it,” he adds.  “This makes no sense. The public spoke. The public wanted a say. The politicians had years to do something without going to the ballot and they couldn’t get their act together.”  Despite voters’ clear intent, however, Briggs states, “The city attorney used taxpayer money to try to disenfranchise SD voters. That’s not acceptable.”   

He also slams Elliott for a proposal that she introduced earlier this year that Briggs says would weaken California’s Public Records Act – the law that allows any member of the public or press to obtain public documents and records. He says Elliott misrepresented the proposal as one that would make it easier to get documents “when in fact the real purpose of the law was to make it nearly impossible for citizens to hire lawyers to go to court to enforce these rules. The legislators who carried this were not told the true nature of the changes,” says Briggs.

He adds, “The impetus for all of this was a very humiliating defeat that the city had a couple of years ago in court where it had represented to the court that it had turned over all the documents, and on multiple occasions after saying there’s nothing else, the city  would do another search and discover that there were more documents, sometimes hundreds more.”

From a practical standpoint, the only way to enforce the Public Act is when people who can afford an attorney go to court and get reimbursed for attorney fees if they win. "None of their time is covered,” Briggs notes. “Meanwhile when the cities are stonewalling, all of their staff is being paid the entire time when they’re blowing off the public and resisting turning over information so it’s completely unfair to start with, and yet her approach was to make it even more unfair by making it impossible for you to get a lawyer.”  But he adds, “Worse than that is misrepresenting the nature of what she was doing to the Legislature, not telling them she was making this big change, and she did this all on her own without going to the Mayor and the City Council.  I was at the hearing when they shot her down. They were learning about it for the first time.”

Elliott has touted, among other things, her work as City Attorney to crack down on sex trafficking and abuse of minors.

But recent news reports include allegations that Elliott improperly disclosed complaints about child abuse at the San Diego Junior Theatre to a board member who was also a donor to her campaign.  (See this recent update in the Reader with new details since our interview.) A spokesperson for Elliott told the San Diego  Union-Tribune in May that the whistleblower, Matt Valenti, “shared widely his 2017 complaint to the Attorney General, and even posted it on the Internet. It was never a confidential document.”

Briggs represents the father who blew the whistle on the alleged child abuse. “He tried to get information from the city to find out what they were doing to make sure that the issue was fully investigated and to make sure this never happens again,” he says, adding that documents obtained through Public Records Act request revealed that when Elliott received complaint about child abuse allegations, “instead of investigating it, she sent it to one of her campaign donors, a lawyer for the Junior Theatre and said `I haven’t read this yet but I recognize the person’s name.’ So as the city’s top law enforcement officer, even before finding out what was being alleged, she’s leaking it to the lawyer for the subject of the investigation..… It’s beyond unprofessional, it’s beyond unethical, but it is symptomatic of how the office is being run,” Briggs says.

Briggs own long legal career has at times sparked controversy.  Several years ago, articles published by inewssource suggested that liens filed by Briggs on properties may have been efforts to fraudulently shield assets. The articles also faulted Briggs for filing suits on behalf of some nonprofits that his family or close associates controlled. 

We asked Briggs about those allegations. He denies any wrongdoing and says in two inquires by the California Bar Association, “I received a clean bill of health in both of those instances. It’s a shame that the source of those false reports never reported that I was cleared..I appreciate you asking, so I can set the record straight.”  ECM checked the Bar Association’s website and confirmed that Briggs has no disciplinary actions listed.

“On the issue of the liens, I’m a small law firm. My clients aren’t big corporations,” he says.  For some clients who don’t have money to cover hefty legal fees, he explained,  “They will give our firm liens against property they own. There is a procedure we have to go through to disclose potential conflicts to them. They have to run it by an independent lawyer that they choose… Not only is it not illegal, the rules for lawyers have provisions that explicitly contemplate this arrangement. As long as you follow the rules, it’s perfectly fine.”

As for the issue of nonprofits, he says he has represented many through the years. “The law allows citizens to form nonprofits when they are working for the public good in order to protect their personal assets. “ He says it was “totally legal” to help his clients establish nonprofits.

Briggs suggests that the media outlet which published the reports critical of his actions had conflicts of interest. “Follow the money,” he says. “Their revenues increased by more than 100% in the year that they were writing the stories about me..If you go look at the list of donors, they are wealthy individuals with business downtown where my clients were suing over the projects.”

We asked Briggs to talk about some of his most successful cases as a public interest attorney that he’s won on behalf of taxpayers, voters, and the environment.

“I had a client who sued because the city was raising taxes to expand the convention center without a public vote. In California, new taxes require a public vote. There will be a public vote next year to raise taxes for the convention center. You can thank my client for fighting that lawsuit along with a now deceased watchdog named Mel Shapiro,” he says. “We won that in the court of appeal."

Briggs also cites a case he won against Walmart for “essentially buying an election against a city.” He says Walmart wrote a large check to the city in question to put a measure on the ballot, violating the Brown Act, which requires that the public be notified and have input.  “We sued over that. The court of appeals concluded that if you violate the Brown Act even if it’s for the purpose  of holding an election, the violation will invalidate the results of the election. That’s how important the Brown Act is.”

He has also spent “many, many years suing Walmart over their new stores to make sure they were 100% green,” says Briggs, who has forced the nation’s largest corporation to add solar, minimize greenhouse gasses, and improve energy efficiency.

One of his earliest cases was filed on behalf of San Diego Coastkeepers, he recalls. “A number of Marines were having to train in raw sewage up at Camp Pendleton. We sued to get the base to change that around. That was an important case. The men and women that are risking their lives ought not to have to train in raw sewage.”

He’s also represented community groups over “harmful development where the city wasn’t following the rules.”  A recent case involved a city that tried to claim the Coastal Act didn’t apply to its efforts to put a transitional housing project into the area’s last motel serving tourists. “We sued and the judge said of course the Coastal Act applies. That’s an example of trying to protect  neighborhoods from overreach at City Hall.”

Briggs says his goal in running is to get politics out of the City Attorney’s office. 

“Every client is entitled to objective, sound legal advice without the attorney trying to do what’s in his or her best interest. The client comes first--and for too long, the city attorney’s office has not put the clients first,” he contends.

He says the city attorney hides behind confidentiality to push an agenda. “When the next Mayor and the next City Council are seated, they need to know that there is someone who understands municipal law,  who is concerned first and foremost about the Mayor and the Council being successful on behalf of their constituents.”

The firebrand attorney who has often sued the city and won concludes, “I don’t have any desire to seek another office.  I didn’t have a desire to seek this one. But we’re not making progress on huge issues: housing, homeless, environment, energy efficient, transportation…We have huge deficits. Things just keep getting worse, and its very often because the mayor and the city  council are getting political advice masquerading as legal advice “ while running up big legal bills, he observes.

The office is officially a nonpartisan position, though both Briggs and Elliott are Democrats.  Briggs makes clear that he will provide nonpartisan advice—and is taking steps to avoid even the appearance of special interest influence.

“I’m not out soliciting endorsements from people who are suing the city,” he concludes. “In fact, I’ve said anybody who wants to donate to my campaign, you have to certify that you’re not a lobbyist.”

“You can learn more about Briggs’ campaign at www.CoryBriggs.com.

Full disclosure:  Cory Briggs wrote a cease and desist letter on behalf of East County Magazine earlier this year to the Cajon Valley Union School District, which resulted in the District halting its efforts to prevent our reporter from lawfully recording public meetings. 






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