By Alberto Garcia
One of San Diego’s largest laws firms amended its official disclosure forms with the City of San Diego in March after an article in La Prensa San Diego exposed that some of its lobbyists had failed to properly document campaign contributions given to City Attorney Mara Elliott.
A complaint was filed with the City of San Diego Ethics Commission after a LPSD article revealed both Elliott and lobbyists with the Sheppard Mullin law firm had failed to properly disclose several political campaign contributions donated to Elliott as she was raising money to retire over $37,000 in debt she owed after the November 2020 election.
The complaint alleged that both Elliott and the lawyers had violated the City’s Campaign Finance Ordinance by failing to report the contributions. The Ethics Commission separated the issues into two complaints: one against the lobbyists and another against Elliott.
Today, the Ethics Commission announced they had decided to “dismiss [the investigation against the lobbyists] after reviewing the results of the staff’s investigation” because the lobbyists had amended their filings to add the previously undisclosed contributions, but the Commission has not yet made a determination as to the allegations against Elliott.
“Sheppard Mullin’s quarterly report filed in February 2021 was amended in March 2021, prior to an investigation being approved in this matter,” Sharon Spivak, Executive Director of the Ethics Commission, wrote in an email to Cory Briggs, who filed the complaint. “The amendments corrected errors in the original report,” Spivak added.
The Ethics Commission accepted their amendments as corrections, not violations.
The contributions from lawyers at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, an international law firm with offices in San Diego which lobbies for several clients with interests before the City, seem to be connected to a fundraiser the law firm co-sponsored for Elliott on December 17, 2020. Other lobbyists also donate to Elliott on the same day.
Elliott later sent out email solicitations and invitations to two separate fundraisers to help retire the outstanding debts from her campaign.
In March, Elliott sent out fundraising email announcing “a fun virtual evening with Mayor Todd Gloria to support our debt retirement efforts.” The email promoted the online event held on March 24th, and provided a link to donate online, as well as to RSVP for the event.
Elliott and other candidate which ended their campaigns with debt only had six months after the election to pay off outstanding bills. That debt payoff deadline was in early May, but campaign financial disclosures for that period are not due until July so fundraising totals for the period are not yet available.
Mayor Todd Gloria, for example, ended his campaign for Mayor with $88,614.58 in debt after having raised $1,101,187.59 in contributions, and continued to raise money until the May cut-off date. His report will also be released in July.
In addition to having to report political contributions, lobbyists must also report their clients and any City officials they lobbied on behalf of those clients.
Lobbyists for Sheppard Mullin reported that two other their lawyers, Jeffrey Forrest and Inga Lintvedt, met with Elliott and members of her City Attorney staff for their support of client projects during the same period they gave the contributions to Elliott, including on some of the biggest decisions pending before the City at the time.
The Sheppard Mullin lobbyist report filed with the City details lobbying fees and activity during the period when they gave contributions to Elliott, including:
- $105,000 from the California State University system to lobby for “Approval of agreement with the City of San Diego allowing for the acquisition of the stadium site in Mission Valley”;
- $56,000 from Caydon USA to lobby for “Approvals of permits and entitlements for redevelopment of ” the California Theater building at 4th and C St downtown;
- $55,000 by Holland Partner Group to lobby “to obtain development permits for a residential project at Kettner & Cedar in Downtown San Diego”;
- $48,000 from Hines International to lobby for “discretionary approvals and development permits for master plan community project located at Riverwalk golf course site in Mission Valley”;
- $15,000 from IKE Smart City to lobby City officials, including Elliott, seeking support for their “digital wayfinding program, including establishment of interactive wayfinding kiosks, in the Downtown Community Plan area of the City of San Diego”; and,
- $1,000 from Pardee Homes to lobby for a “development permit and related environmental approvals and annexation for properties known as Nakano Park in Otay Mesa and Chula Vista Border East of I-805.”
The complaint against Elliott and the lobbyists was filed by San Diego attorney Cory Briggs who ran unsuccessfully against Elliott in the 2020 election. Briggs has a long history of representing clients against the City of San Diego to oppose tax increases and demand the release of public documents.
Elliott used Briggs’ name in her fundraising solicitations where she titled her email “We still need your help“, claiming that “Cory Briggs personally sued me three times” and that “I need your help to support our Legal Defense Fund to beat back Cory Briggs’ ridiculous attacks in court“.
Elliott’s email linked to a website that provided two links to lawsuits she claimed Briggs filed, but one of the lawsuits is one where Elliott sued to challenge Briggs’ ballot title as a “Taxpayer Advocate” on the official voter ballots in the November 2020 election. Elliott claimed that the term was misleading to voters.
The “Lawsuit 2” link downloads a motion filed in the case of “MARA W. ELLIOTT, Petitioner and Plaintiff, v. ELIZABETH MALAND, in her capacity as SAN DIEGO CITY CLERK & MICHAEL VU, in his capacity as SAN DIEGO COUNTY REGISTRAR OF VOTER.”
In this case, Elliott was the Plaintiff suing, not the other way around.
One of the other three cases which Elliott claims Briggs filed against her was actually against the City Clerk and Registrar of Voters when Briggs challenged Elliott’s use of a San Diego Union-Tribune endorsement she used on her ballot statement.
Briggs argued that the newspaper had only endorsed Elliott for the March Primary Election, and that the paper had not yet endorsed any candidate for City Attorney in the General Election. Elliott admitted the endorsement was only for the Primary and not for the General Election.
The Judge ruled against Elliott and issued a permanent injunction requiring the City Clerk and Registrar of Voters to use an amended ballot statement that deleted the UT endorsement. Elliott created the legal defense fund exactly one month after that court ruling.
Briggs has and continues to represent the Publisher of La Prensa San Diego, Arturo Castañares, in lawsuits filed against the City of San Diego and other government agencies to enforce provisions of the California Public Records Act and the California Brown Act. Briggs has won every case filed on behalf of La Prensa and has received reimbursement of his legal fees from the City of San Diego. La Prensa San Diego has never paid Briggs or his law firm for work on any of those cases.
One pending case filed just two weeks ago came after Castañares filed a Public Records Act request for a memo sent from then-Councilman Todd Gloria to then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer regarding potential policies related to the City’s use of facial recognitions technology. The City denied that any such document existed, but responded to a nearly identical request from the Voice of San Diego online news outlet by saying the document existed but was exempt from disclosure.
Briggs filed a lawsuit to enforce to release of the document. Within days, the City released the document and admitted City staff had violated the California Public Records Act in failing to release the document to Castañares and La Prensa.
Two other open cases against the City of San Diego involve the release of documents related to the 101 Ash Street building, as well as documents related to a once-secret police funding committee exposed by La Prensa in December. In that case, City staff have not released documents related to over $200 million they allocated to local police agencies over the past 16 years.