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Behind the Smear Campaign Against Cory Briggs

Cory Briggs is the founder of Briggs Law Corporation, with a focus on representing small businesses and taking on public-interest lawsuits against the government. His clients consist of small businesses, non-profit organizations, and taxpayers across Southern California, and on their behalf he advocates for government transparency and holds public officials accountable to the highest legal standards. He believes that every public servant must always obey the law and that government agencies must prioritize the public’s best interest first and foremost.

In this blog, Cory personally addresses false allegations made against him by a for-hire “news” organization. He provides responses that the organization itself refused to publish or take into account, and when available he provides links to source documents. Continue reading to learn more about Cory’s background, the allegations made against him, and the evidence showing why these accusations are false.

 

WHY INEWSOURCE, THE SAN DIEGO CITY ATTORNEY’S OFFICE, AND THE TOURISM INDUSTRY ATTACKED THE LAWYER DEFENDING TAXPAYERS AND VOTERS

When I meet prospective clients, they almost always tell me that they googled me and, in addition to finding lots of positive reports, came across a website with dozens of outrageous articles about my clients, my family, and me starting in 2015. Then they ask: “What prompted it?” The short answer is that it was a purposeful smear campaign conducted by taxpayer-subsidized public officials in conjunction with a for-hire news organization and one of San Diego’s most-notorious special interests – all trying to get me disbarred and/or prosecuted; needless to say, they failed. The long answer can be difficult to follow. So that I do not have to repeat all the details when prospective clients ask, and so that they have something they can read at their leisure, this page provides the reasons why I believe they went after me. (When available, source documents are linked in the text.)

My Background

I obtained my law license in 1995 and spent my first three years learning the ropes from three outstanding lawyers at a firm known as Mundell, Odlum & Haws. In 1998, I went back to graduate school on the east coast and shifted my practice to representing small-business owners and suing polluters. After a few years my practice expanded to representing residents fighting harmful development projects in their neighborhoods, representing open-government advocates, prosecuting corrupt public officials within government agencies, and defending taxpayers and voters (in addition to representing small businesses).

Greed and Corruption in the City of San Diego and the Tourism Industry

Because I’ve made my home in San Diego since 2002, the public agencies and special interests in San Diego County are often the defendants my clients sue the most. By far the worst offender – and most-frequent defendant – has been the City of San Diego. The special interest with the most clout at city hall has been the tourism industry.

In 2012, San Diego politicians teamed up with the tourism industry to levy a special tax on tourists in order to finance an expansion of the San Diego Convention Center. The California Constitution and the San Diego City Charter both require two-thirds voter approval of special taxes. However, the politicians and tourism industry knew that flesh-and-blood voters would not authorize such a tax; the city had too many higher, unfunded priorities, meaning that any new tax revenues would go to them instead. To get around the voter-approval requirement, the politicians agreed to adopt a one-of-a-kind law that defined “voters” as hotel owners. Since the hotel owners wanted someone else to pay the tax – instead of the hotel owners paying for the expansion with their own money – they overwhelmingly “voted” for it. One of my clients, non-profit San Diegans for Open Government (“SDOG”), and another community activist sued to have the tax invalidated. They lost in the trial court but won on appeal in August 2014; the tax was invalidated and the convention center has not been expanded. Needless to say, the tourism industry was not happy with me because the $1 billion taxpayer subsidy had been nixed.

Also in 2012, the same tourism industry asked the City to extend a $30 million annual advertising subsidy. Money for the subsidy was raised by a special fee that hotels added to their guests’ bills. The hotels sent those fees to the City, who turned around and sent the fees back to a private corporation – the San Diego Tourism Marketing District Corporation (“TMD Corporation”) – controlled by a handful of mega-hotel owners. SDOG thought the so-called “self-assessment” was a tax in disguise – one reporter said it “quacks like a tax” – and eventually sued to have it invalidated because it had not been approved by real voters.

The City and the TMD Corporation tried hard to get the lawsuit thrown out, arguing that SDOG was a fraudulent non-profit that I controlled for my own financial benefit, but after a six-day trial the judge ruled there was nothing improper about SDOG or my role as its lawyer. Several months later, but just days before the judge would hear the evidence proving that the “self-assessment” was a tax – in August 2016 – the City and the TMD Corporation amended the law to make the fee a legitimate self-assessment but losing millions each year because of the change. Again, the City and the hotel industry were not happy with me.

There is a third series of events relevant to the smear campaign against me. In 2012, the City was planning a centennial celebration for Balboa Park – San Diego’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park – to occur in 2015. The planning was overseen by a committee that hired a number of consultants, one of whom was Gerry Braun for $6,000 per month. Braun had previously worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune but in the early 2000’s went to work for the City’s mayor until his term ended in 2012. After some tumult in the committee’s top ranks, Braun was tapped to serve as its final leader. Unfortunately, Braun was not up to the task and was eventually out of a job. When the committee disbanded with nothing to show for its work except millions of missing dollars – the planned centennial celebration was a bust – the City’s auditor was asked to investigate. The audit report revealed, among other things, that Braun (who had been paid over $140,000) was improperly hired and his committee could not adequately account for substantial sums of money.

When the audit report came out in October 2014, I repeatedly called for Braun (and others) to be prosecuted civilly so taxpayers would get back the money he had squandered; and to be prosecuted criminally if there were evidence of criminal guilt. Instead of being prosecuted, Braun was hired (less than two weeks after the audit report was released) to handle press relations in the San Diego City Attorney’s Office – conveniently enough, the public agency that would have otherwise been responsible for prosecuting him. (Braun is not a lawyer and has never gone to law school. He is not subject to any of the rules of professional ethics that licensed lawyers must follow.)

Braun’s new job gave him the perfect opportunity to exact his revenge on me for calling for his prosecution, and to get rid of one of the main adversaries of the City Attorney’s Office. The hotel industry also had an axe to grind because it did not get its convention-center tax and had to significantly scale back its advertising subsidy to avoid losing it altogether.

In fact, the smear campaign began not long after Braun started his new job. As explained below, Braun worked with one of his former Union-Tribune colleagues whose own “news” business, Investigative Newsource (“Inewsource”), operated inside the studios at a local affiliate of National Public Radio housed on the San Diego State University campus. Public records show that Inewsource was financed in part by a major donation from one of the City’s best-known hotel families, while the TMD Corporation planned to take trumped-up “news” stories to the state bar as a basis for having my license revoked and the City Attorney’s Office fabricating criminal charges.

Rolling Out the Smear Campaign

In the first days of January 2015, I had been tipped off by a colleague in the City Attorney’s Office (yes, I have an excellent working relationship with many of the deputies there) that Braun was helping one of his former colleagues at a local news outlet to “investigate” my business practices and that they were trying to orchestrate state-bar and criminal prosecutions; that’s all the person could tell me. A few weeks later, I received a call from a reporter at Inewsource asking to interview me about a client’s lawsuit against the Port of San Diego.

Suspecting that this was part of the set up, I agreed to the interview. Not long into it, the reporter abruptly changed topics and accused me of taking millions of dollars from two fertilizer salesmen in Chino, California – yes, it was that preposterous – in exchange for my efforts to have former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner removed from office because of his abusive behavior toward his constituents and employees. The accusation was itself “fertilizer,” and I told the reporter to leave my office immediately. On his way out, he lobbed this threat: “We know that your wife is your vice-president; and if you don’t talk to us on the record now, we are going to expose her conflicts of interest.”

At that point, I knew this interview was part of the set up and who was involved. Here’s why: In late 2014, as part of the TMD Corporation’s lawsuit, its lawyers took my wife’s deposition as part of their search for proof that I was secretly controlling SDOG and using it for improper purposes. The judge agreed that interviewing my wife was extreme, but he also knew that the law gives lawyers broad latitude to investigate their theories. He compromised by requiring the interview to be confidential and kept under seal; recall that, when we finally went to trial, the judge rejected the TMD Corporation’s accusation. During that deposition, my wife – to whom I was not legally married at the time – was asked two questions relevant here: Why did she refer to us as “husband and wife” if we were not legally married, and how long had she been my law firm’s vice-president. She answered the first question by explaining that we had been together for so long that we considered ourselves “husband and wife.” She answered the second question by saying that she did not know and then nervously guessed, “20 years?,” since that’s about how long we’d been together at the time of the question; in reality, she hadn’t been named vice-president until March 2013.

Prior to the deposition, nobody knew that my wife was my law firm’s vice-president. Other than her deposition transcript, the only place where my wife was ever recognized as my firm’s vice-president was in our estate-plan documents, kept in a safe. Furthermore, the documents gave her that authority only if I were to become unable to operate the practice and she needed to wind it down.

Because my wife’s deposition transcript was still under seal, the only way that the reporter could have known my wife was my firm’s vice-president was from someone leaking the transcript to him. The only place where the transcript could be found, other than in my office, was in the City Attorney’s Office and in the TMD Corporation’s attorneys’ office.

The first story about me ran on Inewsource’s website and over the NPR affiliate’s airwaves a couple weeks after that interview, and it questioned my firm’s practice of obtaining liens against land owned by my clients. I issued a statement explaining that lawyers who represent large corporations receive large retainer deposits in cash and that lawyers like me who represent individuals without deep pockets may take security against their land instead if they cannot afford the deposit. The state bar has issued a rule for lawyers in such situations, and I have always followed it. Because of my explanation, the story went nowhere.

That’s when Inewsource turned up the heat and went after my wife, accusing her of giving me confidential info to use in a lawsuit years in the future and accusing the two of us of having an illegal conflict of interest that resulted in a settlement through which my firm and another firm were paid about $133,000 (with less than 30% going to my firm). The accusations were false.

It’s true that I represented a client who in November 2011 sued over the City’s failure to clean its stormwater channels properly. Years earlier my wife, who at the time worked for an environmental consultant, billed a handful of hours under a multi-year contract that the City had with her employer for an earlier phase of the project my client was suing over; she left the consulting firm in July 2011. I didn’t know my wife had any connection to the City’s stormwater project (she worked under dozens of contracts with different agencies but didn’t tell me about them due to client confidentiality); and my wife didn’t know that I represented a client suing the City over stormwater (I represented clients in multiple environmental lawsuits but likewise didn’t talk about them with her due to client confidentiality). The lawsuit settled in 2013, and during the negotiations I informed the City’s lawyers that my wife had worked for the same consultant who had worked on the project my client was suing over (even though I had no idea she had worked years before on an earlier phase of the same project). The lawyers looked into the matter, verified that there was no conflict, approved the settlement, and in an abundance of caution even included language releasing my wife and me from any potential claims. Thereafter a judge – not the City or the City Attorney’s Office – independently decided how much the two law firms should be paid; my wife had no part of it.

When this story broke, the City Attorney’s Office went into high gear and sought an emergency order to have my wife’s deposition transcript unsealed because the very reporter who had written the story was asking Braun for more information. This was merely a ruse because the reporter already knew the contents. At his interview with me weeks earlier, he said: “We know that your wife is your vice-president. . . .” But there is no way he could have known about the contents of the confidential, sealed transcript when he published the story cited by the City Attorney’s Office unless the reporter already knew what was in the transcript.

Clearly someone had leaked the information in violation of the judge’s gag order. Apart from my office, the only two offices that had a copy of the transcript were the City Attorney’s Office and the office of the TMD Corporation’s lawyers. Both had motive, as explained above and below, but the TMD Corporation’s lead lawyer swore to me that his office did not leak the transcript.

Because any lawyer in the City Attorney’s Office who would leak a transcript risked losing the right to practice law, the most likely culprit would have been someone who didn’t have a law license to lose. Braun did not have a law license. Equally convenient, he handled the Office’s media relations.

Of course, the report containing the conflict-of-interest accusation never mentioned that the relationship had been disclosed during settlement discussions, that it had been independently investigated by the City Attorney’s Office, that City Attorney’s Office signed off on the settlement, and that the settlement agreement itself waived all claims against my wife and me. I suspect that is because telling the truth was not the goal of the story.

For the next several months, Inewsource continued to write false stories. In one, they accused my wife and me of committing a felony when we recorded a mortgage document referring to ourselves as “husband and wife” even though we were not legally married at the time. What they conveniently left out is that, under California law at the time, any man and woman who wanted a confidential marriage certificate (as my wife and I did) had to sign an affidavit stating under penalty of perjury that they had already been living together as “husband and wife.” That law had been codified in Family Code section 500, and at least since July 2007 the process had been described in detail on a state agency’s website. What my wife and I did was perfectly legal. (The law and the website were readily available with the help of google.)

In another story, my wife and I were accused of committing the sort of mortgage fraud that contributed to the 2007-2010 market crash because we obtained a mortgage on a home that was not our primary residence but stated in the mortgage document that we would live in the property as our primary residence. Once again, the accusation was false. Our mortgage document required us to live in the property unless we obtained our lender’s approval to move or circumstances reasonably required us to move. This exception was not mentioned in the story even though my wife and I relied on it when, due to several serious incidents of vandalism, we were forced to move out of the neighborhood.

What made that story especially egregious is that Inewsource’s executive director, Lorie Hearn, and its board chair, Karin Winner, had a relationship in which they owned separate homes in San Diego but together purchased a condo based on a mortgage document that had its own owner-to-occupy language like that in the document my wife and I had signed. Even worse, in order to get a property-tax break on their homes, which both Hearn and Winner received, they would have had to sign affidavits under penalty of perjury claiming that they regarded their respective homes as their primary residences. On top of that, Inewsource had checked the “no” box on its tax returns when asked whether any of its top personnel had a business relationship with each other. None of this hypocrisy was ever mentioned in the false story about my wife and me.

The phony stories kept piling up. Inewsource ran a story about a former client and his family that I allegedly evicted from their home for no good reason and ended up ruining their lives. Relying on a legal-ethics expert in New Jersey, the story claimed that I violated California’s legal ethics by loaning money to this client, going so far as to accuse me of “playing with ethical fire.” But the article was nothing but spin. What happened is that my client (a very nice guy) had been suckered into getting a mortgage that he could not afford – one of the mortgages that did contribute to the Great Recession – by a broker who falsified his pay stubs. When the interest rate went up to the point that the loan became unaffordable, my client lost the house and his investment. I represented him in getting a substantial judgment against the dishonest broker. While the lawsuit was in progress, I had separately settled a large case and offered to help the client buy a home. Because he had a foreclosure, he could not get a loan at a rate he could afford. After I made all the disclosures that California ethics rules required, the client went to another attorney to make sure that the loan terms I offered were fair. The other lawyer signed off, and I went forward with the loan. Unfortunately, the client and his wife lost their jobs just a few months later and could no longer afford the mortgage. I did not foreclose on them or evict them or report them to any credit agency. They moved out of the house on their own and voluntarily signed it over to me in exchange for full forgiveness of the debt.

Apparently things did not go well for my client after he moved out, and I suspect he grew bitter. Several months later he reported me to the state bar and accused me of improperly entering into a business transaction with him. I fully cooperated with the investigation, turned over my files, and was eventually given a clean bill of health by the state bar. All of this happened years before the Inewsource story.

Another phony accusation made against me – one that fueled the TMD Corporation’s theory that my non-profit clients were all secretly controlled by me – is that some of them were not in good standing with the government. It is true that some of the non-profits that I represented at one time had been suspended for not filing paperwork etc. A couple of them had lost their good standing while I was representing them, but I was unaware of the situation and always took action to fix it once I learned about it. But in all the other cases, I had stopped representing those non-profits long before they lost their good standing and no longer had the legal authority to act on their behalf. Even though this was shared with Inewsource and the NPR affiliate, they did not correct their reporting.

What they also left out of their reporting is that Inewsource – at the same time it was trying to blame me for former clients losing their good standing – had itself become “delinquent” with the California Attorney General for not filing proper financial disclosures. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Financing the Smear Campaign

After writing so much false and misleading information about me, Inewsource decided to tell the public about how the “investigation” came to fruition. They claimed that they’d been doing research for months before the first story aired, putting their starting point sometime in the last days of June 2014. So how did they pay for it? In 2013, Harvard College published an article by Hearn – “Cold, Hard Facts to Cold, Hard Cash” – in which she bragged about how her business finances “investigative” reporting. “That’s right, we actually approach funders.” Translation: If Inewsource can find someone willing to pay for an “investigation,” they’ll take the money and report their product as “news.”

So how much was Inewsource paid to write false stories? It’s impossible to know for sure, but its tax returns for July 2014 through June 2015 – when it was investigating and reporting about me – show that it booked a $420,000 promise to pay; that amount more than doubled its income for 2014-15 compared to prior years, and nothing close to that appeared in the years before or after. Its own audited financial statements reported that money not as a foundation grant but as a donor pledge – that is, as a donor’s legally enforceable promise to pay money. When one compares Inewsource’s disclosure of major donors (i.e., over $5,000) before the first story about me and then a few weeks later, there is just one new name on the list and she (Anne Evans) happens to be the mother of the man who was a member of the TMD Corporation’s board of directors while SDOG’s lawsuit was pending: hotel owner Bill Evans. (His mother and Winner, Inewsource’s chair, socialize together at opera events.)

I attempted to rule out other donors by scouring Inewsource’s website for grant information, doing my own extensive google searches for announcements about foundation grants to Inewsource, and comparing the differences on its donor disclosures before the reporting and after. I found nothing, which is consistent with what Hearn had told the American Journalism Review when she launched her business: she was “shying away from the foundation-supported nonprofit model.” So assuming the financial information Inewsource put on its website is comprehensive and accurate, it appears that most if not all of the $420,000 had to have come from the matriarch of the “Evans Hotels” brand.

Spending Public Money for State-Bar and Criminal Investigations

While these stories were running, the TMD Corporation’s lawyers were proposing to spend public money – that is, a portion of the advertising subsidy they received from the City – to have me investigated by the state bar. Conveniently enough, the top lawyer for the TMD Corporation happened to be on the state bar’s board of trustees.

Around this time, the City Attorney’s Office was trying to concoct criminal charges against me. In a lawsuit filed by a former prosecutor, she claimed she was fired in part because she refused to file politically motivated criminal charges against me (due, of course, to the actual absence of any evidence). It seems that Braun was the one pressuring her to go along with the charges; he once told her, “[i]f you would just get your hands dirty, they would let you in the room.” More generally, she described him as “inextricably involved in” the City Attorney’s “day-to-day decision-making, strategy and tactics.”

Late in 2015, after the phony stories had run, I was working on a ballot measure to reform San Diego’s tourism industry. Bill Evans was present for some of the negotiations, as was former state senator and finance director Steve Peace (among others). Late one evening, as we were having a working dinner, Evans admitted that the TMD Corporation was actively working with Mr. Braun and the City Attorney’s Office to smear my good name by giving Inewsource information obtained through the lawsuit. What Evans said next has been confirmed by Peace in sworn testimony: “I realize now that it was wrong for us to go after you and even more wrong to go after your wife. You are an honest, decent person, and I am very sorry for what we’ve put you through.” Candidly, I believed then and now that Mr. Evans was sincere. His apology was moving, and to this day I remain appreciative for it.

Clean Bills of Health – Twice from the State Bar and Twice from the Superior Court

The state bar has investigated me twice in connection with what was reported by Inewsource. One of the investigations covered the same subject matter as the reporting without mentioning either outlet by name, while another mentioned Inewsource directly. The results have been provided to them, but they never retracted or corrected the false stories.

Their accusations about my improper relationship with my non-profit clients – in particular, SDOG – have also been litigated twice. The first time was in the lawsuit involving the TMD Corporation, when its lawyers spent six days trying but ultimately failing to persuade a judge that the non-profit was illegitimate; in legalese, they said I was SDOG’s “alter ego.” The judge rejected the allegation and found that SDOG enjoyed considerable success in its litigation endeavors because of my skills and abilities. Braun sat in the audience during the trial.

In another lawsuit involving SDOG but not me (it had another lawyer), Inewsource tried to persuade a different judge that I was SDOG’s “alter ego.” After my client lost that case, Inewsource asked the judge to order SDOG and my law firm and me to pay their legal bills. They put all their reporting about me in front of the judge, and even though I wasn’t even there to defend myself he concluded that their reporting and request had no merit. And while they did not appeal his ruling, they also never updated their stories to reflect that he was unpersuaded by their “evidence.”

So that is my opinion and those are the reasons why I believe that Inewsource, aided and abetted by Braun, launched a smear campaign against me.

Written by Cory Briggs of Briggs Law Corporation

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