Cory Briggs: Taxpayer Advocate Fighting for Us
Challenging an incumbent elected official for public office is usually an uphill battle, but the task is even more difficult when it’s the City’s chief lawyer and also someone with the power to prosecute criminal misdemeanors: in this case, the San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott.
But someone in the City has the background and the courage to call out Elliott for failing to protect the rights – and dollars – of taxpayers, and has a long history of winning legal challenges that may seem to insiders as frivolous, technical, or even nit-picky but have already saved us nearly one billion dollars.
Cory Briggs has stopped unlawful taxes for the Convention Center, challenged and overturned flawed local land use decisions, and exposed government agencies that denied the public complete transparency in their actions and decisions.
He has been criticized for suing government agencies – the City of San Diego in particular – more than anyone else ever, but he’s not given credit for how many times he has won and forced changes that have protected taxpayers, the environment, and the future of our city.
In 2012, Briggs sued the City on behalf of taxpayers after the City Council allowed a new tax on all hotels in San Diego to help fund the expansion of the Convention Center. The new tax was only voted on by hotel owners, not the public, and would have funded nearly $975 million in bonds. Briggs successfully defeated the tax that was ruled unconstitutional and in violation of the City’s Charter.
The same year, Briggs also stopped a portion of the $30 million a year in hotel room charges that were collected by the City from small lodging operators then returned to a private special interest group called the San Diego Tourism Marketing District Corporation controlled by large hotel owners and used to promote their own hotels. On the eve of trial, the city caved and made changes to the charges to protect the small businesses Briggs and his client were trying to protect.
And in 2013, Briggs was one of the first to call for the resignation of Mayor Bob Filner, someone who Briggs voted for but who was accused of sexual harassment of employees and women he met while in office. Briggs stood up for women – four years before the #MeToo movement – to help expose and confront the pervasive assault on women in the workplace. Filner eventually resigned in shame and plead guilty to felony false imprisonment and two misdemeanor charges of battery.
But these past actions only show part of what Briggs has been fighting in San Diego. He’s currently fighting two important issues that affect not only taxpayers’ wallets, but our privacy, too.
First, Briggs has been an outspoken critic of the 101 Ash Street building debacle that has already cost taxpayers tens of millions in payments for a building that was closed by County health officials for being toxic to employees and workers. The City is still on the hook for a $128 million lease, and repairs to the building could cost another $100 million or more.
Briggs is critical of City Attorney Mara Elliott for having executed the final agreement, a point she contests because she had only been in office for one week, but she concedes she had access to the office and employees for briefings for a month between the election and taking office. Elliott should have reviewed the deal and raised red flags before signing it, not three years later and after the deal had proven to be a financial disaster and Briggs was criticizing her in the campaign.
Language in the lease-to-own agreement – on Page 1 of the deal – completely shields the landlord from any liability and shifts all costs to taxpayers, a point that is not only lopsided, but most likely illegal under state law. The “AS-IS” language may be acceptable for a cheap used car but not in a $100+ million government contract with taxpayers on the hook for the downside.
Elliott never alerted the City Council or the public to the onerous language that, had it been consistent with protections required by law, would have required the landlord – not taxpayers – to fix the building and would have let the City walk away from a now $200+ million problem. Lawsuits and claims are already filed, and no clear resolution appears likely.
City Attorney Elliott has also been involved in a complicated and still-developing saga over a disputed memo related to an outside investigation on the 101 Ash building. Elliott says a memo reported by NBC7 is fake but has declined to release documents to prove her claims.
(And her first reaction to the issue was to threaten to criminally prosecute a reporter for having a leaked document – clearly a First Amendment issue which she smartly and quickly dropped – but then made up her own story that the document is fabricated.)
Secondly, Briggs has been fighting the City’s new streetlight program that secretly included the deployment of thousands of cameras around town that have been used by police to track and monitor residents. When the program was approved, City staff did not inform the City Council of the advanced capabilities of the “Smart Cities” streetlights that can track car license plates and use facial recognition software to find someone anywhere around the City.
And who was the last elected official to approve the $35 million contract for the system without informing the public about the danger lurking within? City Attorney Elliott.
Briggs has also sued agencies that fail to properly disclose public documents under the Public Records Act (PRA), an important tool for the public to gain access to records usually hidden from view.
Over and over, Briggs has succeeded in publicizing thousands of documents that agencies first denied through PRA requests, then were forced to release in compliance with the law.
Earlier this year, when La Prensa San Diego was denied documents on facial recognition technology being used by the San Diego Police Department, we sought the help of the most experienced local lawyer in fighting for the release of public documents: Cory Briggs, Esq.
We don’t have a conflict simply because we previously hired Briggs; instead, we have direct experience with his work that gives us a better understanding than most to evaluate the quality of his work.
After being told repeatedly that no further documents existed, we successfully sued the City and the Police Department to force them to comply with our PRA request. In the end, more documents were released, and the City was forced to pay our legal fees. Another win by Briggs and for the public.
On this same point of public disclosure, City Attorney Elliott’s record is literally the opposite.
Last year, Elliott asked local State Senator Ben Hueso to carry a bill to change state law to make it harder – not easier – for the public to obtain records through PRA requests and raising the bar for being able to win lawsuits against agencies by having to prove they “knowingly, willfully and without substantial justification failed to respond to a request for records,” a nearly impossible standard.
When faced with public opposition, not only did Hueso drop the bill, but Elliott’s office tried to cover its tracks of having asked for the bill in the first place. Briggs sued and Elliott’s Chief of Staff Gerry Braun admitted under oath that he asked Hueso’s office to delete emails he sent regarding the proposal. The City Attorney’s office then asked a judge to keep the damaging testimony sealed. The judge refused.
The City Attorney’s office tried to hide from the public the fact that they were trying to pass a law to hide things from the public.
This is the crux of our criticism of City Attorney Mara Elliott and our endorsement of Cory Briggs. One candidate has a history of obfuscating responsibility and hiding information from the public – even while serving as the public’s attorney – and the other has a history of fighting for transparency and protecting the public.
Two months ago, Mara Elliott sued Briggs (ironic since he’s the one criticized for suing too much) to challenge Briggs’ use of “Taxpayer Advocate” as his description on the official election ballot. The judge ruled that “the evidence clearly shows that Mr. Briggs has a long history of legal advocacy on behalf of taxpayers”. Elliot lost.
(Elliott has now opened a legal defense fund to allow campaign donors to contribute to pay her legal fees, and she may soon be forced to pay Briggs for his legal fees, too.)
Those who criticize Briggs for filing too many lawsuits should consider this: if you’re going to hire a construction company, plumber, doctor, or yes, even a lawyer, do you want someone that has done it many times with great success, or someone that has never done it before? Do you want brain surgery by the surgeon with a waiting list, or the surgeon who has only done a few surgeries with mixed success?
San Diego elected another outsider, Mike Aguirre, as City Attorney in 2004, but he lost his re-election four years later when he was seen as an unstable and combative force within the City. The lesson here is not only that an outsider can win – and an incumbent can lose – but also that their actions while in office are the most important gauge for voters.
Elliott has struck out on important issues that demonstrate her seemingly hostile view toward transparency and accountability to the public.
We believe Cory Briggs will fight for the public, defend taxpayers, and provide clear-eyed advice to the members of the City Council BEFORE they make decisions that could end up costing even more in the long run.
Briggs deserves the chance to put his experience in litigation and his dogged pursuit of transparency and fiscal responsibility to work for taxpayers from the inside after years of forcing compliance from the outside.
The City Attorney’s office should not be the politicians’ shield against the public, but should be a sword for the public good.
Cory Briggs would be an effective protector and steward for the public’s interests.