State to pay $1 million for Briggs’ legal fees in Coastal Commission lawsuit

Attorney Cory Briggs’ legal challenge of San Diego’s hotel surcharge for tourism is dismissed. Both sides claim victory.

San Diego mayoral candidate Cory Briggs prevailed in case challenging ex parte meetings between commissioners and people with business before the commission.

APRIL 5, 2019 5:21 PM

The state will pay more than $1 million in legal fees to San Diego lawyer Cory Briggs, who successfully sued members of the Coastal Commission for failing to properly disclose private meetings with people who had interests pending before the commission, according to the state’s Department of Finance.

In a letter to lawmakers earlier this week, Finance officials said California taxpayers will be on the hook for $1.003 million in attorney fees related to a 2016 lawsuit Briggs brought against five current and previous members of the commission.

“The Coastal Commission has requested this Unanticipated Cost Funding Request to pay the attorney’s fee judgment in the first case and the cost of retaining outside counsel in the second case,” stated the letter, which was dated Wednesday.

Finance also alerted lawmakers that another $200,000 will be required to cover costs related to a second lawsuit Briggs filed against the Coastal Commission in October. That lawsuit, which is still pending, is challenging the state’s legal defense and indemnification of the defendants.

The letter was addressed to Joint Legislative Budget Committee and other key lawmakers.

It came in response to a decision in September by San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy B. Taylor, who ruled that five current and former coastal commissioners did not properly disclose their meetings with lobbyists and others.

In addition to awarding attorney fees to Briggs, Taylor levied personal fines against the five political appointees, between $2,600 and $30,300 each.

Briggs, who is now a candidate in the 2020 election for San Diego mayor, has built a successful law practice filing suits against cities and other government agencies for alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act or other laws.

He said the ruling from Taylor will help ensure that other regulators and appointees properly report any private meetings with political contributors or applicants who have business interests pending before various boards and commissions.

“The message this sends is the judiciary is going to stand with the public when it comes to protecting the coast,” Briggs said Friday. “The judiciary is not going to stand for backroom deals being cut by a bunch of political appointees.”

A California Coastal Commission spokeswoman did not respond Friday to a request for comment on the $1.2 million in legal fees that will be absorbed by taxpayers.

In 2016, Briggs sued former and current commissioners Steve Kinsey, Erik Howell, Martha McClure, Wendy Mitchell and Mark Vargas on behalf of a group called Spotlight on Coastal Corruption. Howell and Vargas remain on the regulatory panel, which is charged with considering development applications along some 1,100 miles of California coastline.

The complaint accused the board members of improperly handling what are called ex parte, or private, meetings with applicants, lobbyists or other people with development applications or other business before the commission.

The Public Resources Code requires such meetings be disclosed in writing within seven days or disclosed on the record at the next commission meeting, if it occurs within a week.

The non-jury trial began early last year. Taylor in September issued fines against each of the defendants: $30,300 against Kinsey, $13,600 against Vargas, $7,100 against Mitchell, $3,500 against Howell and $2,600 against McClure.

The judge also awarded Briggs legal fees worth more than $900,000 for his work on the case.

“The main litigation objective pursued by plaintiff in this action was to shed light on lax ex parte disclosure practices at the commission,” Taylor ruled. “This objective was met, with the court finding violations by each of the defendant commissioners and awarding substantial penalties against each of the defendant commissioners.”

The budget request also noted that Coastal Commission staff learned in February that Briggs had placed a lien in San Luis Obispo County on real personal property owned by one of the defendants.

“Since that time, the Coastal Commission has verified that the plaintiff’s attorney filed the same lien in Del Norte and Marin counties, thereby encumbering the real property owned by two defendants in those counties,” the letter said. “The Coastal Commission anticipates that the plaintiff’s attorney will file the same lien in Los Angeles County, where the two remaining defendants reside.”

The budget document also said the money is important, “given the significant and urgent ramifications this litigation could have on individuals who chose to serve the public as legislative and gubernatorial appointees, as well as the chilling effect it could have on other current and future appointees.”

Briggs rejected the notion that his lawsuit might deter people from serving as public officials, saying California taxpayers would not have to pay legal fees for political appointees as long as they meet the obligations governing their conduct.

“There are plenty of people who are willing to follow the law and put the public first,” he said.

The Finance letter requests that the $1.2 million come from the state’s general fund.