The $150,000 that city-council members set aside to hire attorneys to defend city attorney Jan Goldsmith in a taxpayer-waste lawsuit is getting put to use. Whether it was put to good use is another matter.
The lawsuit was filed in 2013, shortly after attorney Cory Briggs was denied access to emails that Goldsmith had sent to reporters from his private email account, some of which had already been released to several reporters. In the city's legal answer, Goldsmith and the deputy city attorneys on the case argued that the city attorney is not required to speak to the media, therefore he was doing so on his own accord.
In response, Briggs amended his lawsuit, claiming that if the city attorney does not conduct city business, he is wasting taxpayer money by talking with reporters. Ever since, the city and now the outside attorneys who the council agreed to hire have been attempting to shoot that claim down.
On Friday, September 5, they lost that argument a second time.
In July, before outside counsel was hired, judge Joel Wohlfeil rejected the city's argument that the taxpayer-waste claim had no merit. Yet, despite the defeat, Goldsmith's new attorneys, paid for by the city, tried again. On September 5, attorney Jaqueline Vinaccia of Lounsbery Ferguson Altona & Peak appeared in court to argue for dismissal of the claim.
Joining Vinaccia in court was the city attorney himself, along with two additional attorneys.
The extra firepower (at taxpayer expense) didn't do much good.
After considering the arguments for dismissal, Judge Wohlfeil not only refused to throw out the claim but gave Goldsmith and his attorneys 30 days to comb through thousands of emails that the city attorney had sent to reporters via private email accounts and provide reasons why they were privileged and not released to Briggs when he requested them last year.
That's not all. Attorneys must redact and give reasons for the redactions. Now, portions of the emails, including the recipients and the subject will soon be made public. That's a costly loss for the city and for taxpayers. Outside counsel will now be in charge of poring over an estimated 2600 emails.
"This Court's previous ruling established that sufficient facts are pled supporting the cause of action for 'waste,'" Judge Wohlfeil wrote in his September 7 ruling.
Executive assistant city attorney Paul Cooper rejected claims that the appearance by city attorney Goldsmith cost the city, specifically taxpayers, any more than they were already paying.
"Mr. Goldsmith sometimes attends court hearings as he is legally permitted to do," Cooper wrote in a September 8 email.
He then made the case that it was Briggs who was fleecing the taxpayers by not working with the city to drop the lawsuit.
"The motion for judgment on the pleadings was not the same motion as the demurrer and addressed different arguments. The motion was filed jointly by the city attorney’s office and outside counsel, although the city attorney’s office did the bulk of the work on the motion. The request was to avoid the cost of trying a case that involves such ridiculous allegations as the claim that communicating with the media and giving legal advice are illegal. Mr. Briggs wants his day in court to prove that. So, he will get his day in court."
Cooper believes the invoices for the outside council amount somewhere near $30,000.
"The only reason outside counsel was hired was because San Diegans for Open Government chose to file a baseless taxpayer so-called waste claim against the city and Mr. Goldsmith personally. These claims include such ridiculous accusations as communicating with the media and giving legal advice are illegal. As we told [Briggs] there would be no need for outside counsel if he would dismiss the taxpayer waste claim. Unfortunately, Mr. Briggs has refused to do so and, in fact, just asked the judge to have the city spend what will ultimately be hundreds of hours of attorney time reviewing seven years worth of Mr. Goldsmith’s emails solely to harass the city attorney."
To which Briggs replied. "Talking points: repeat them frequently enough and someone might eventually believe them."