San Diegans for Open Government “Has Hit a Nerve”

Our city governments serve many purposes.  One of the most important roles is to collect our taxes and use that money for the benefit of the residents, and to make laws for itself in a democratic way.  And then to follow those laws.

In San Diego it doesn’t always work that way.  For the most part, our city council does a good job balancing the needs of the city.  But there are times when our government overreaches, and the rights of the taxpayers are infringed upon.

That is where San Diegans for Open Government, or SanDOG, comes in.  In trying to complete our mission, our first goal is to fight for open and transparent government in order to ensure that taxpayer money is being used appropriately.  That doesn’t mean we decide how we think taxpayer money should be spent.  The voters have put laws on the books to ensure they will be the ones who decide what long-term debts the government incurs in their name, and what happens with that money.

Take for example the Convention Center issue.  The city had found a way to take out a $575 million bond for the expansion of the Convention Center, payable by the taxpayers, without putting it to a vote, as the law requires.  SanDOG has no opinion on whether that bond should be taken out.  But the law says the voters get to make the decision whether that $575 million (just under $1 billion after the interest is added) should be used to build an extension to the Convention Center or on the infrastructure backlog.  So SanDOG fought in the courts to require that it be put to the vote.  And it won.

SanDOG has had other victories for open government and taxpayers. Just consider what we’ve done since 2014. We got contractors who bribed Southwestern Community College officials in order to get huge construction contracts to return nearly $650,000 to the school. We made Mr. Goldsmith to turn over hundreds of pages of public records that he was hiding through his use of a private email account. We convinced the city to acknowledge that text messages sent by members of the city council during their public meetings are public records.

Currently SanDOG is fighting several new taxes illegally approved by the city, fighting to ensure that Belmont Park is returned to the public on the timeline voters approved decades ago, and fighting to make sure that if new taxpayer money is used in any plan for a new football stadium or an expanded Convention Center, it gets voter approval.

SanDOG hired Cory Briggs to be our principal attorney. Both he and SanDOG members knew what we were getting into when we decided to take up the fight against government secrecy, taxpayer waste, and political corruption. Too many people have made too much money through this abuse for them to take a citizen revolt without retaliating. Since the abusers are now some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in town, that retaliation could be severe.

And it has been. SanDOG has hit a nerve, but not merely for putting on further display the incompetence of Mr. Goldsmith (remember the “Chalk-gate” prosecution?). Having ensured the taxpayers a vote on any Convention Center expansion tax, SDOG has also brought a similar case regarding the Tourism Marketing District, or TMD. So hoteliers and other downtown special interests are very unhappy with us.

The People—you and I—require a say in all new taxes to ensure that our money is not misused. We amended the state constitution to require details about what the tax is to be used for and voter approval before a new tax can be levied.  About a decade ago, we voters were twice asked to approve a new tax on hotel guests that would have generated more money for the city’s general fund, to be used for everyone’s benefit for the public good. The first tax increase included a small portion set aside to promote tourism generally (not just hotels). The voters said no. The second tax increase did not set aside money for tourism advertising. The hoteliers successfully defeated the second proposal because it had no earmarks at all for them.

Fast forward to 2012. In order to further enrich the powerful, wealthy hoteliers in the city, the politicians devised another plan to impose a new tax on hotel guests, this time avoiding the voters. This new tax is turned straight back over to the hoteliers to do with as they please—to the tune of about $1 billion over nearly 40 years.  The hoteliers sit on a board of directors of a private corporation that receives these illegal taxes—you must own a hotel to sit on the board or even be a member of the organization—and that board approves advertising programs that will bring more guests to their hotels. That’s right. The city approved a new tax that is handed over to hoteliers to spend on bringing more guests to their hotels. Not one penny of this new tax goes to parks, libraries, sidewalks, water pipes, police, fire, etc. All of it goes to the hoteliers to decide how to spend. The tax’s approval never appeared on any registrar of voters ballot. The city’s registered voters were not given the chance to vote on this new $1 billion taxpayer subsidy for hotels.

If SanDOG wins in court, these wealthy, powerful hoteliers stand to lose a billion dollars of taxpayer money set aside to subsidize their businesses. And they are not going to allow that to happen without pulling out all the stops.

The TMD lawyers, in conjunction with city attorney Goldsmith, have tried to have the case thrown out by the judge in every way they can think of. Again and again, they failed. The case is a good one because every new tax must be put to the voters, but this one wasn’t.

Mr. Goldsmith and his friends have tried all kinds of ways to stop Mr. Briggs from representing SanDOG. They have repeatedly tried to prove that SanDOG doesn’t really exist, that Mr. Briggs fabricated our organization, but their attempts fail time and again. They have asked over and over that Mr. Briggs be fined, yet the judge has never found any wrongdoing by him. Twice they tried to bribe Mr. Briggs with large pay-outs, which he refused.

Now desperation has sunk in.  Often unable to win on the merits, the attacks Mr. Goldsmith and the hoteliers have made against SanDOG and Mr. Briggs have become stronger, angrier and more drastic in recent weeks.

It is clear that Mr. Goldsmith and the powerful hoteliers are setting the stage for criminal charges against Mr. Briggs. They began a concerted effort with KPBS and its in-house affiliate, inewsource, to create an atmosphere of doubt surrounding Mr. Briggs. (Anyone who doubts that KPBS and inewsource are taking money from our opponents should check out their highest-level donors and board members. Several of them have immediate connections to the hotel industry or the convention center, and some of the donations were made during the period that KPBS and inewsource claims to have been “investigating” Mr. Briggs.)

First, KPBS and inewsource accused Mr. Briggs of shady real estate deals based on a variety of real estate liens ensuring that his firm is paid monies that it’s owed. But such liens are commonplace and their accusations included no evidence that Mr. Briggs failed to follow the rules that authorize such liens.

Starting the next day these opponents accused Mr. Briggs and his wife of sharing “inside information” and having conflicts of interest because she worked for an environmental firm that wrote an environmental report Mr. Briggs sued over. Mr. Goldsmith, KPBS and inewsource began sharing a confidential deposition transcript prepared under a gag order in SanDOG’s TMD lawsuit. They claimed that Mr. Briggs’ wife was his vice-president at the same time she was working for the environmental firm, a claim that was based on nothing more than a typo. The final, corrected transcript said no such thing; and because the uncorrected draft fit their theory of illegal activity, I can only assume they must have made a conscious decision to use the draft instead. The Reader published a story providing all the facts, but KPBS/inewsource never bothered to correct their story.

Apparently unhappy that the stories were not being well received, these opponents decided to accuse Mr. Briggs and his wife of having fraudulent real estate dealings because they claimed to be “husband and wife” in their estate planning documents even though they were not legally married when they signed the documents. KPBS and inewsource conveniently forgot to mention the laws in California regarding confidential marriages, which make the story baseless and allow unmarried persons to live together as “husband and wife.”

If that accusation were not enough, the opponents went on to accuse Mr. Briggs and his wife of lying on a mortgage document to refinance a residence because it was not owner-occupied. Not only did the couple not lie, but it turns out that inewsource executive director Lorie Hearn and inewsource chair Karin Winner themselves bought a condo in 2007 and signed a mortgage document containing identical owner-occupancy language. According to county records filed by Hearn and Winner under penalty of perjury, each of them lived in a separate residence before buying the condo together and each of them has lived in that separate residence ever since. Neither of them has ever occupied the condo. If Hearn and Winner read the false story about Mr. Briggs and his wife and didn’t catch the hypocrisy, or if they don’t know what their reporters wrote, that’s incompetence; but if they read it and chose to do nothing about it, that’s much worse.

More recently the opponents decided to attack many of the small non-profit community groups that have hired Mr. Briggs to stand up for their rights, groups that do not have the unlimited funds the wealthy hoteliers and other special interests do. The gist of this latest attack is that the groups aren’t following the tax and non-profit laws because sometimes the paperwork contains a mistake. The timing of this story is interesting. Back in April, SanDOG sued SDSU, KPBS, and inewsource because KPBS gave inewsource a secret, no-bid contract that allows it to use KPBS facilities and equipment for fifty cents per year; even though Hearn is an active faculty member at SDSU, which owns KPBS, she negotiated the sweetheart contract and signed it on behalf of inewsource. SanDOG’s lawsuit pointed out that Hearn and Winner have a business relationship renting out their condo but denied having such a relationship on every federal inewsource tax return ever submitted. I am pretty sure it was SanDOG’s decision to point out the lack of transparency and dishonesty at KPBS and inewsource that resulted in the retaliatory article about the non-profits Mr. Briggs has helped over the years.

And so it will continue. KPBS and inewsource will continue to attack everything he does, and everyone who associates with him; to selectively pick comments and “facts” that seem to back up their slanted theories; and to bring in their “experts” who will state that KPBS and inewsource’s version of the “facts” looks really bad for Mr. Briggs.

Mr. Goldsmith is also doing his part. Along with leaking confidential info to inewsource, he recently filed papers accusing Mr. Briggs of committing a misdemeanor crime in the course of representing SanDOG in the Convention Center lawsuit. To appreciate how desperate this stunt was, remember that Mr. Goldsmith not only represents the city in civil matters like the Convention Center case, but is also the misdemeanor prosecutor for crimes committed in the city. Rules governing prosecutors strictly prohibit them from mixing their activities in civil and criminal cases involving the same people. Despite the rules, during a hearing a few days ago, a deputy city attorney was so adamant about a misdemeanor being committed that the judge felt he had to step in and advise Mr. Briggs of his right to remain silent. It is obvious that Mr. Goldsmith’s plan was to use the threat of criminal prosecution to gain an advantage over Mr. Briggs in our civil lawsuit.

As frequently happens when up against SanDOG and Mr. Briggs, Mr. Goldsmith lost that hearing. So just a few hours later—literally on the same day—he had one of his assistants send a letter to Mr. Briggs accusing him of filing false documents in court because his signature does not look the same on every document he files.

SanDOG has been asked why Mr. Briggs has not responded to all the false attacks being made against him by KPBS, inewsource, and Mr. Goldsmith. He has not discussed that with me. But as a retired police officer, I can clearly see why Mr. Briggs has remained silent and has no choice but to step back from the conversation and instead focus on his usual work.

Criminal charges are a serious thing.  Mr. Briggs cannot and should not participate in a system that is so clearly biased against him, that is doing everything it can to take him out of the equation. But with bogus criminal accusations flying—including from an angry criminal prosecutor who, when wearing his civil litigator hat, has been beaten time and again by Mr. Briggs—the best course of action is to say nothing. Mr. Goldsmith has tremendous investigative resources at his disposal (all paid for by the taxpayers, at no cost to him). Given the tremendous animus Mr. Goldsmith has demonstrated toward Mr. Briggs in court and in the press, Mr. Goldsmith is almost certainly putting his taxpayer-funded resources to work trying to find something to rationalize charging Mr. Briggs with a crime. There is simply no reason for Mr. Briggs to play into this false narrative. Besides, it is readily apparent from the lack of coverage the false accusations have received from other local media that the only people who believe them—if they believe them—are Mr. Goldsmith, KPBS and inewsource.

To be clear, I don’t think Mr. Goldsmith and the hotelier-supported media sincerely believe Mr. Briggs has broken any laws. But the goal here is not to see Mr. Briggs behind bars, though that would certainly help them and all the other special interests that he fights on SanDOG’s behalf. They would be happy just having a superficial reason to charge Mr. Briggs with a crime, snap a mugshot, and blast a picture of him holding up a booking placard across the airwaves (with inewsource and KPBS “breaking” the story). The false accusations will eventually fade from memory, but that mugshot will live on forever—at least in the minds of Mr. Goldsmith and all the hoteliers and special interests Mr. Briggs has been fighting.

It is not easy to do what SanDOG does.  As the face of the organization, of course, Mr. Briggs is the person our opponents have chosen to attack.  But the directors of SanDOG understand clearly that if the attacks on Mr. Briggs are unsuccessful, we or the organization’s other members will be next.

What is playing out right now in one biased media outlet and in the city attorney’s office is a perfect, and now very personal, example of the sort of government abuse and political corruption that SanDOG was formed to fight. Those who stand to benefit from it the most have a lot of resources to sustain their attacks, to get rid of Mr. Briggs and then to get rid of SanDOG.

As for Mr. Briggs, I know him well. I know the truly great things he has done for this region. He is an honest, kind, selfless person. He is a man I deeply respect and whom I am proud to call my friend.

Pedro Quiroz, Jr.                                                                                                           Chair, San Diegans for Open Government

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