Sept. 3 2014 10:16 AM

Fresh off a victory in a fight over convention-center expansion, his sites are now on the Tourism Marketing District

Cory Briggs
Photo by David Rolland

“When the game is over, the king and the pawn go into the same box.”

—Italian proverb

The attorney who kicked sand into the gears of the San Diego Convention Center expansion plans says he’s just getting started.

Cory Briggs, the aircraft-carrier-size thorn in the side of City Hall, is many things to many people, in much the same vein as was former City Attorney Mike Aguirre—defender of the taxpayer and environment to some, publicity-hound and shakedown-artist supreme to others.

In contrast with Aguirre, however, Briggs seems to maintain a rather levelheaded public persona. But when an opposing attorney in a related case involving the San Diego Tourism Marketing District (TMD) referred to the late activist Ian Trowbridge as “conveniently dead” in a legal brief, Briggs admitted he went “ape-shit.”

“If anyone in my firm had written something that insensitive— even about opponents,” Briggs told Spin, “that person would have been in the unemployment line before I had turned the page.”

The Los Angeles-based attorney representing the TMD in that ongoing case, Michael Colantuono, told Spin he “meant no disrespect” to Trowbridge or the bereaved. He said that “it can be difficult to convey complex ideas in a 15-page limit.” What he was trying to say, Colantuono said, was how frustrating it is to determine whom Briggs represents, given how he fights “tooth and nail” to protect the identity of his clients, in this case the makeup of the group San Diegans for Open Government (SanDOG).

While it’s clear that Briggs can crawl under the skin of adversaries, he can also offer praise when he deems it worthy, as he did to frequent nemesis Jan Goldsmith on the Convention Center financing deal, which the city attorney considered a legal crapshoot from the get-go. Voice of San Diego even suggested a “bromance” was emerging.

That ain’t happening, folks. 

Last month, the Fourth District Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the much-ballyhooed expansion-financing plan, through a special hotel-room tax, was unconstitutional because it sidestepped a public vote. Instead, former Mayor Jerry Sanders convinced hoteliers themselves to vote on the tax by turning over convention booking and marketing duties to the hotel-dominated San Diego Tourism Authority, which relies on TMD funding for its existence.

But with the ruling, those duties may now be in question. Gil Cabrera, an attorney who sits on the Convention Center Corporation board of directors, has requested that the board discuss the relationship at its Sept. 24 meeting. (Convention Center officials have long detested the transfer of duties.)

In an Aug. 15 letter to board Chairman Nico Ferraro, Cabrera notes that the transfer of sales and marketing duties from Convention Center staff to the Tourism Authority “was entered into as part of the overall funding scheme.’ 

“Given that the recent decision invalidates the special tax,” Cabrera continued, “I believe we have a responsibility to review this agreement to determine whether it is still in the SDCCC’s interest going forward and explore our options within the contract.”

He further requested that the board’s legal counsel “opine on whether the appellate decision changes the conditions of the agreement and our consideration for entering into it….”

Ask Briggs, and he’s happy to throw more sand: “I think the Tourism Authority, if it doesn’t go away, gets a serious haircut with the TMD withering and dying.”

Of course, the TMD croaking isn’t a foregone conclusion just yet—that portion of the lawsuit is still winding through the discovery phase, “conveniently dead” references and all—with a likely court date in December. Briggs said he’s making the same argument that brought down the Convention Center financing scheme, just aimed at the TMD.

Briggs also has a lawsuit pending that challenges the city’s reliance on lease-revenue bonds— without voter approval—to attack its growing list of deferred-maintenance projects, which city officials acknowledge will cost more than the $898-million figure that it’s frequently relied on.

What Briggs wants to know is: Do bond underwriters know exactly how much higher those costs will be into the future?

In a letter mailed last Friday to the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Briggs, on behalf of SanDOG, requests “any and all records… that disclose the City of San Diego’s liability for deferred maintenance of the San Diego Convention Center from September 1, 1998”—when the city took over financial responsibility of the center—“to the present,” as well as the city’s “liabilities for retiree health-care expenses through 2036.”

Briggs argues that while various city financial reports make “veiled” references to those liabilities on a year-to-year basis, nowhere can he find in the city’s annual financial reports or financial statements to the bond market any reference to the fully anticipated liabilities for either retiree healthcare or necessary repair work at the Convention Center, Petco Park and Qualcomm Stadium.

Spin couldn’t get a comment by press time from the office of Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who formerly chaired the City Council’s Audit Committee. Other city officials, speaking privately, pointed to mentions of the expected $30 million in deferred maintenance in Convention Center audit statements and a lengthy discussion of healthcare matters in financial statements approved by the City Council in March.

The battle over public acknowledgement of the city’s deferred-maintenance situation is not a new one. Former City Councilmember Donna Frye frequently refused to sign off on disclosure statements, fearing that not all information had been disclosed.

“These statements make clear the city knew the extent of the deferred-maintenance liability,” Briggs said. “The question is, has the city accurately accounted for those liabilities as required by law? From what I can tell, the backlog does not take into account the Convention Center, Petco Park or Qualcomm Stadium. That’s some serious deferred maintenance not to lay out in detail.”

Without some straight answers, count on Briggs returning to sand-kicking mode really soon.

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