(October 18) Upland-based attorney Cory Briggs has recently filed four lawsuits against the city of Chino on environmental grounds and a fifth against Chino City Attorney Jimmy Gutierrez and his law firm, alleging multiple violations of the state’s conflict of interest statutes.
Briggs is the attorney of record for the Inland Oversight Committee, which has as its stated mission the reform of governmental affairs in the Inland Empire together with the monitoring of governmental entities’ compliance with open government law and the California Environmental Quality Act. As an environmental attorney, Briggs has filed numerous lawsuits against San Bernardino County municipalities, including Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario, Hesperia and Chino.
Briggs has taken a special interest in the latter as a consequence of the success and the significant payday he experienced when three years ago he took up the case of Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development, which challenged the city of Chino in court over what were alleged to be deficiencies in the city’s general plan. As a consequence of that suit, the city amended the general plan on terms consistent with the Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development’s assertions, and the city paid Briggs $215,000 for his legal billings to the group for representing it.
Within the last four months, Briggs filed five suits in which Chino is a defendant or a real party in interest. Four of those suits relate to project approval or permits the city has given to the Watson Land Company, Viramontes Express, Hillwood Investment Properties and Stratham Homes. The fifth suit names Chino City Attorney Jimmy Gutierrez and his law firm, with the city as a real party in interest.
The Watson Land Company project approval suit alleges the city improperly approved, at its April 29 planning commission meeting, the Watson Land Company’s proposed 51-acre development at Kimball between Mountain and Cypress avenues. According to Briggs, there were shortcomings and defects in the planning commission’s findings cited during the April 29 hearing for the project. The commission failed to advertise the hearing properly, Briggs maintained, and did not adequately inform the public about changes to the general plan’s provisions for an environmental impact report for the project. Rather than complete a new environmental impact report devoted to the project, the city adopted the findings from its general plan environmental impact report and amended it to incorporate the Watson project. Watson is named as a codefendant in the suit, which was filed on June 21.
Briggs filed suit against both the city and Viramontes Express, the operator of a green waste processing plant on Hellman Avenue south of Chino-Corona Road, based on the city council’s June 18 approval of an agreement allowing Viramontes to up by 15 percent the 12,500 cubic yards of green waste it stores on its premises. The city’s approval of the green waste agreement was made after Briggs launched a protest, claiming an environmental impact report for the change had to be undertaken. Briggs alleges the plant is already in violation of the city’s zoning code. The city maintains the plant is “grandfathered in,” as it was in existence prior to the property on which it sits being annexed into the city. That suit was filed on July 18.
On August 15 Briggs filed suit against Chino, naming Hillwood Investment Properties as a co-defendant. Hillwood is undertaking, with city approval, a 409,930-square foot industrial building development at 13880 Monte Vista Avenue. The city council approved the project at its July 16 meeting, defying Briggs’ insistence that an environmental impact report for the project be completed first. He maintains the public hearing for the project was not properly advertised.
Briggs filed a second lawsuit on August 15 against the city of Chino, along with Stratham Homes, Inc, which is planning a 94-home development on 11.8 acres at the southeast corner of Riverside Drive and Fern Avenue. According to that lawsuit, the city improperly gave go-ahead to the project without completing an environmental impact report and prevented those opposed to the project from placing their comments on the record when the July 16 hearing for the project was conducted.
Briggs has also filed suit against Gutierrez, who as city attorney will be in charge of conducting the legal defense of the four suits lodged against Chino. According to that suit, Gutierrez was illegally involved in drafting his own firm’s professional services contract with the city. That suit is seeking the return hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees the city has paid to Gutierrez and his firm, Gutierrez, Fierro & Erickson.
Briggs, maintains Gutierrez ran afoul of the state of California’s conflict-of-interest law when he assisted in preparing agreements for city attorney services between the city of Chino and the firm. Gutierrez, according to the lawsuit, had a financial interest in the contract between the city and his firm, which he drew up “in direct violation of Government Code Section 1090. Section 1090 states members of the legislature, state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members.” According to Briggs, Gutierrez directly participated “in the making of the July 5, 2005 agreement for city attorney services and the October 3, 2006 agreement for city attorney services. Briggs referenced “the well-established notion that ‘the defining characteristic of a prohibited financial interest is whether it has the potential to divide an official’s loyalties and compromise the undivided representation of the public interests the official is charged with protecting.’“
According to Briggs, Gutierrez had worked for Chino as its city attorney since 1975 under a contract that did not secure work for anyone other than him. Until 2005, according to Briggs, the law firm of Gutierrez, Fierro and Erickson – including its predecessors and attorneys – were not employed by the city. In 2005, Briggs said Gutierrez participated in the making of the 2005 agreement between the city – whose city council Gutierrez influenced and for which he worked and was receiving compensation – and his law firm and its partners, Arturo Fierro and James E. Erickson. Gutierrez’s “financial interest in the economic well-being of his firm at the time he entered into the 2005 agreement resulted in a straight-forward violation of Section 1090, which was repeated again in the making of the 2006 agreement,” according to Briggs.
Gutierrez has declined to comment on the legal actions launched by Briggs against him and the city he represents. Gutierrez and Gutierrez, Fierro and Erickson are represented by the Los Angeles-based law firm Arent Fox.
Ontario mayor Paul Leon has questioned the motive behind the various legal actions Briggs has brought, saying that the environmental issues raised in those lawsuits are negligible ones that pose little or no threat to the wellbeing of the public. He said the suits have served as an impediment to economic development.
Former Hesperia city councilman Paul Bosacki was more blunt, referring to Briggs as a “legal shakedown artist” who files suits against major projects “and then goes away after he’s collected his legal fees for whatever bogus environmental group he happens to be representing. His lawsuits have nothing to do with legitimate environmental issues. It’s all about money.”
Nevertheless, Briggs has had some notable successes and rulings from courts that validate at least some of the causes of action he has cited on behalf of his clients.