Two lawyers walk into a swamp...

Cory Briggs and Sarichia Cacciatore mired in details of deposition

Cory Briggs
  • Cory Briggs

Adding Sarichia Cacciatore's name to the list of members of San Diegans for Open Government available for depositions in the lawsuit over the hotel tax was a costly error by the group's attorney — and Cacciatore's husband — Cory Briggs.

It was a mistake that attorneys for San Diego's Tourism Marketing District seized upon. During the deposition, Cacciatore was asked about her relationship with Briggs, her role in his law firm, and her former employment with the environmental consultant firm Helix Environmental, which has conducted several environmental reports for the City of San Diego, at least two of which Briggs later sued over.

Information from the Cacciatore deposition was soon released to Inewsource, an online news organization. A KPBS affiliate, Inewsource has since published nearly 20 articles on Briggs and potential conflict-of-interest issues, questionable land deals, and alleged perjurious testimony.

During the testimony, attorneys asked Cacciatore how long she has served as vice president of the Briggs Law Corporation. She said she didn't know and guessed 20 years, the duration that she and Briggs have been together. Her answer was another mistake, because it implied that she had served as vice president while she worked for Helix; it also suggested that she remained an inside source during subsequent lawsuits challenging those environmental reports.

Briggs's nemesis at city hall, city attorney Jan Goldsmith, seized on the potential conflict of interest.

Goldsmith wrote a letter to Helix's president, Michael Schwerin, alerting him to the issue and notifying him that the city auditor had been directed to start poring over all of the contracts from Helix. Schwerin, who had known about Cacciatore and Briggs’s relationship, agreed to pay back the $143,000 that the city paid Briggs to settle a lawsuit over one of the projects that Cacciatore worked on.

But documents recently obtained by the Reader show that Cacciatore was not named as vice president of the Briggs Law Corporation until March 2013, two years after she left Helix Environmental. In addition, the documents reveal that her role is limited to overseeing the closing of Briggs’s firm in the case that he dies or is incapacitated.

Records from previous years’ board meetings also show that there were no other officers other than Cory Briggs.

Cacciatore spoke to the Reader via email about the deposition and the imbroglio that ensued. Cacciatore says that the transcript that was later turned over to Inewsource was a non-amended version.

"I never have had any duties or responsibilities at Cory’s firm," writes Cacciatore. "I’m not an attorney or paralegal. I did make one correction to the transcript. During the deposition I was asked how long I had been [vice president] of Cory’s firm.

"I had completely forgotten about [being named vice president] at the time I was in the deposition — and I was also really nervous because I had never been deposed before — so I just guessed at the answer when the question came up.

"The court reporter incorrectly typed up my answer as though I was making a statement. I was actually guessing when I said 20 years because I couldn’t remember. Cory and I have been together that long, so it seemed like a safe guess. When I guessed 20 years, it should have been typed by the court reporter as a question not a statement. Right before that I had said, 'I don’t know.'"

When asked why the amended version of Cacciatore's deposition was not released, Briggs responded that it was still under seal from a previous court order.

"Because the final, corrected version of her deposition transcript remains under seal, and because there is obvious collusion between Inewsource, Jan Goldsmith’s office, and the city’s hoteliers and convention center boosters in attacking my wife and me (undoubtedly because of my success in court against them the last several years), I cannot take the risk of discussing directly or indirectly what is in the final, corrected transcript. Those three have demonstrated that they’ll stop at nothing to try to take me down, regardless of the facts or the existence of a court order."

Cacciatore's role at Helix and the limited time she worked there raises questions in regard to potential conflicts. According to information obtained by a public records request, Cacciatore worked 91.75 hours on city projects from 2003 to 2011 and was paid a total of $7788.31. For the storm-water maintenance project that Briggs later sued over, Cacciatore worked just over 13 hours and was limited to "technical coordination with geographic information system and document production" and was asked to "hand off project files to another Helix biologist.”

As reported by Inewsource, Cacciatore testified that she had not worked as an environmental planner on any projects that Briggs later sued on. Cacciatore could not be reached for additional comment as to why she answered that she hadn't.

Schwerin from Helix Environmental did not respond for comment on whether Helix will seek to recover the $143,000 payment made to the city. City attorney spokesperson Gerry Braun also didn’t comment in time for publication.

Alleged conflicts were not the only issues raised in Inewsource's investigations. The status of Briggs and Cacciatore's relationship was also looked into. During their investigation, reporters failed to find evidence that Briggs and Cacciatore were ever married. In fact, during her deposition, Cacciatore gave conflicting statements about their relationship, saying that she was not married to Briggs. Cacciatore also addressed the status of their relationship in her April email to the Reader.

"Cory and I had a private commitment ceremony several years ago. However, we did not bother to submit the paperwork to receive an official marriage certificate from the state and therefore never became married in the legal sense. We refused to submit the paperwork as a matter of conscience because the state was discriminating against same-sex couples who wanted to get married. We didn’t think our relationship should get special government recognition just because we’re a heterosexual couple and to make a point we decided to wait until marriage equality came for all Californians, including our LGBT friends. But Cory and I have considered ourselves ‘husband and wife’ since very early in our relationship.

"There’s a law in California saying that two people who are unmarried and living together as spouses can get a confidential marriage certificate, which is just as valid as a non-confidential certificate. Now that the state law applies to all couples without regard to sexual orientation, we’re proud to be legally married. And, yes, we do have the certificate."

San Diegans for Open Government has since filed a lawsuit alleging conflicts of interest between Inewsource and San Diego State University. It is unclear whether additional lawsuits will be filed.

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UPDATE: Cacciatore had the following to say in regards to her testimony that she had not worked on any projects that Briggs had sued over:

"I said I hadn't worked on any projects Cory sued over because I did not know he had sued over any of them and I had left Helix by the time the lawsuits were filed. Plus, he and I did not share specifics about his work and my work. It was not until Inewsource and Goldsmith falsely claimed I was Cory's VP in order to go after him that I learned of the overlap."

To be clear, it was Ms. Cacciatore's own attorney, Marco Gonzalez, who emailed the deposition to inewsource.

Wow. For a guy as savvy as Briggs seems to be, this whole thing looks as if he was asleep at the switch. Give Goldy any sort of opening, and he'll drive a truck through it. This sure doesn't look good for Briggs. Her excuses sound really lame to me. Too complicated, but that is what cases like this one usually are.

Inewsource looks incompetent at best. They have a lawyer on their board and hired a bunch of "experts." None of them realized they were looking at an uncorrected, unsigned transcript from Briggs' wife? Didn't that same transcript show her being told she could make corrections to it? If Inewsource read the whole thing, how could they miss that? Seems like they wanted to rely on an unfinished transcript to suit their agenda. I wonder if they ever asked Briggs or his wife if the transcript was final.

The marriage issue makes Inewsource look even dumber. Their lawyer and their "experts" didn't know about confidential marriages? I just did a google search and found a California health department website explaining what it is. You actually have to consider yourselves to be spouses and say you are not married to get a confidential marriage license. Wasn't that the situation with Briggs and his wife saying they were "husband and wife" but not married? The website says that is legal. With all the "investigation" and "research" Inewsource did, how do they not check google about marriage laws? Or did they?

Cancel my membership to KPBS.

The term "confidential" marriage is a misnomer. I just read about it, and apparently the fact of marriage is public but the wedding date is not. So it is really no secret that Briggs and his wife got married this year. Not sure why the actual date this year is anyone's business.

Few humans are perfect, including crusading idealistic lawyers and their biologist spouses who wait to be married until their LGBT friends have the same rights. I'm not sure "asleep at the switch" applies to Attorney Briggs here -- more like blindsided, angry and in need of a no-mistakes killer-lawyer of his own.

And then we have "inewsource," a newish online arm of SDSU's media operation run by former U-T big-wigs, along with its public radio/TV twin KPBS -- both funded by public contributions (from little listeners) that are disclosed along with serious large$$e from special interests whose big gifts to SDSU's Campanile Foundation get laundered into the two media enterprises run by SDSU.

Corey Briggs is an environmental attorney and zealot who long has been a thorn in the side of hoteliers, developers and other special interests who would like to see him disappeared, much like liberal fallen former Mayor Bob Filner whom, ironically, Briggs himself publicly denounced for sexist behavior in office. Still, SDSU's KPBS and inewsource have worked unusually closely with City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, an establishment GOP stalwart, and all three have figured prominently in the orchestrated take-downs of Filner and now Briggs.

I don't believe inewsource is a reputable credible objective news agency. It unethically develops "stories" at vulnerable subjects' expense (like last Fall's "Impossible Choice" series) and then hustles "awards" to justify them and to satisfy powerful funders who finance the whole shebang -- inewsource, KPBS and San Diego State.

Nonetheless, Briggs now has become snarled in a slew of inewsource allegations, findings and protestations and Briggs has fired back. We'll see if he can extricate himself from the mess and continue his work in the public interest.

monaghan: Looks like you were right. Inewsource has been taking big money and other support from the people Briggs has been fighting lately, the hotel owners and the convention center expansion lovers. They have an ex convention center chair on the board, an ex tourism authority head honcho on the board, and they have been taking big bucks from these folks and from a current convention center board memberand a major hotel owner. They also claim to be a memberof INN, which rewuires the website to post the policy on keeping fundraising and editorial decisions separate. But I do not see that policy posted. I'm guessing that is not an oversight.

Briggs did nothing wrong In my opinion. Using an unsigned and uncorrected deposition Is unfair. I wondered why Goldsmith kept referring to some cryptic statement.

To attack Briggs through his wife to protect special interests Is really hitting below the belt. I see an invasion of privacy case, too.

The reporter enlisted all the "ethical experts" but provided them with misleading and incomplete "facts." With all the facts on the table, I'd say that Briggs did nothing wrong. I am sure that those same experts would agree. Just vary the hypothetical with the real facts and their opinions would probably change. If fact, Dorian, you should do this and ask the same experts if Goldsmith did anything wrong. That would be a real story!

Andrew Jackson was attacked through his wife as he fought the bank. Did his critics really care about the validity of Jackson's first divorce? Or was it just political and financial reasons for their "professed morality?"

In the stipulation at the end of most depositions it usually says that if not signed and corrected within thirty days, an unsigned copy may be used for any purpose. Does that mean that the City Attorney should give that deposition transcrpt to the press before it is corrected and signed? Only if he is trying to crucify an opponent in the press.

This seems to be an abuse of discovery by the office of the City Attorney. Briggs may well sue. Where is the fairness in this? Use of incomplete testimony is misleading and unfair. It is false by omission. By publishing it in writing, it is defamatory about Brigg's character regarding his profession. Damages are presumed in such "libel per se" (regarding one's professional integrity) cases. It also appears to have been done with "malice," or reckless disregard for the truth falsity thereof. Even if Briggs is a "public figure," such conduct meets the test of New York Times v. Sullivan for "malice" of the press, despite the First Amendment protections accorded to the press.

I was really surprised when this story broke and such condemnations were aired by the "reporter." It did not pass the smell test. It is way worse now - but not for Briggs - for Goldsmith and the reporter.

To reiterate, it was Ms. Cacciatore's own attorney who emailed the deposition to inewsource, saying she had no objection to its release.

A typical admonishment at the outset of a deposition advises the deponent that, while she will have the opportunity to review and make changes to the transcript, any substantive changes -- saying the light was green instead of red, or that she was the VP for 2 years instead of 20 -- may later be commented on by the questioning attorney (i.e., at trial) as adversely affecting the deponent's credibility. Two other thoughts: First, court reporters are really good at what they do; if Cacciatore had phrased her answer as a question -- "I don't know; 20 years?" -- that is how the court reporter would have transcribed it. Second, who was the attorney defending her at her deposition? If she had phrased her answer as a question, her attorney should have jumped in, noting that she appeared to be guessing, and advising her to answer "I don't know" if she truly didn't know.

To answer your question, Mr. Briggs was her attorney at the deposition.

Is does not go to her credibility. She is allowed to look up facts. This was not a "what color was the light" question.

It is called an admonition, not admonishment. There are ambiguous verbal responses in many depositions. The CSR has to make a judgment.

if the dependent needs to verify periods of employment or other objectifiable facts, then is it really about her credibility? That is the purpose of the period of thirty days to review and correct the deposition.

I guess we all make mistakes. It is indeed admonition, not admonishment; on the other hand, Diogenes, it's deponent, not dependent. Quibbles aside, if she didn't know the answer, she should have said so; a deposition is not the time for flippant responses. "I don't know," or "I'll have to look into that and fill in the blank in the transcript" are better responses than a WAG.

Android did not like "deponent." But at least I myself know the difference. A "better answer" is one thing but someone's professional reputation is at stake. Briggs already returned a lot of money.

Anyone with the cajones to stand up against the good 'olé boys and girls downtown has my admiration.

Briggs has stood up to Goldsmith before about using text messaging for public business. There are countless other times Briggs has done this. Better answer for a first time deponent Aside, character assassination is inexcusable.

Are you at court reporter or a lawyer? If the later, do you want some know-it-all reporter to disparage your reputation on half truths and innuendos? Briggs is a law professor and a much better lawyer than Goldsmith.

If you are a women, how about someone talking about your chastity? Your marriage?

You get the point, I am sure. 'Nuff said.

No offense intended to you. Briggs is a friend of mine. I have seen them go after Aguirre. This time, they went too far.

Antisthenes, his wife did say "I don't know" immediately before guessing at the length of time. Mr. Hargrove reported that. The draft transcript that Goldsmith gave to Inewsource probably says the same thing. Should be easy enough to check if Inwsource posted it along with all the other "public records" it manages to unearth.

WIWTW- I should clarify that Cacciatore's attorney, Marco Gonzalez, was the one to give the transcript to Inewsource. They did so as the City Attorney was trying to get an expedited hearing needed to release the official one. The hearing was cancelled after the transcript was handed over. Briggs has said that the amended transcript is currently sealed and cannot be released. Thx-dH

Now that we know who's in bed with whom -Briggs with his wife and the City Attorney with developers, we should ask ourselves if environmental attorneys act as brakes on unlimited development. That is a good thing for many. That hurts developer profits and many union jobs, but those "brakes" protect what is left of the environment by slowing down over-building.

An oncologist slows down your cancer. That gives you a few more good years. Rarely are you cured. The cost is high for chemo, radiation and surgery, especially if there is no cure. The cancer is population growth. Developers profit from that.

Nothing personal - I like the environment more than the cancerous process we call "progress" and "growth."

Briggs is just slowing the cancer. If developers had their way the entire ocean front would be high-rise by now.

Mr. Hargrove:

Something about Racino's attempt to bully you on twitter over this story really bothered me. He seemed to be accusing you of being duped by Briggs and his wife, linking to some rule that doesn't allow nonlawyers to be officers in a law firm. But when I read the rule, it began with an exception. I think Racino didn't read it or, as I am strongly believing, purposefully ignored it. The rule in the exception says a nonprofessional can be an officer if the corporation has only one owner. Isn't that the situation with Briggs? I think I saw that somewhere. I'm no lawyer but the rules look pretty simple. Again, Racino keeps making crazy accusations that don't hold up. He must get paid well to be the spokesman for the hotel and convention special interests.

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