SAN DIEGO (CN) – A California appeals court upheld the dismissal of an action against an investigative news outlet that had written numerous articles that raised ethical questions over an environmentalist lawyer’s lawsuits.
The Fourth Appellate District panel on Wednesday unanimously affirmed the dismissal, on anti-SLAPP grounds, of a case brought against nonprofit Investigative Newsource by San Diegans for Open Government, another nonprofit with strong ties to environmental attorney Cory Briggs. Briggs had been the subject of several investigative articles by the news outlet that delved into ethically questionable lawsuits targeting public entities.
Investigative Newsource, or inewsource, and its founder Loretta Hearn ran stories about Briggs and the environmentally oriented lawsuits he brought against multiple public entities in and around the San Diego area.
Briggs is married to an environmental consultant Sarichia Cacciatore, who prepares environmental analyses for public entities.
In February 2015, inewsource printed articles noting how Cacciatore was the consultant on several projects which later were the subjects of lawsuits brought by Briggs. The relationship prompted conflict of interest questions, given that it appeared Cacciatore tipped her husband about vulnerabilities in various environmental analyses that could result in lawsuits and court victories.
In one article, the news outlet said Briggs sued the city of San Diego claiming inadequacies in the biological analysis of a site near the Mexican border which was slated for development. Cacciatore was the project biologist for the site.
Hearn’s inewsource later reported the environmental-consulting business that employed Cacciatore agreed to pay the city $143,000 in an effort to resolve the potential conflict of interest claims.
Despite pushback, inewsource continued to publish unflattering articles about Briggs and Cacciatore, including one that found discrepancies and errors on documents about where they live and vote.
Briggs and Cacciatore consistently denied wrongdoing, demanded retractions and asked the articles be removed from the website. Hearn refused.
Other articles focused on the structure of several nonprofits, including San Diegans for Open Government, which were linked to Briggs, his law firm and some of his close relatives.
After this barrage of critical inquiries into his legal conduct, San Diegans for Open Government sued Hearn, inewsource, San Diego State University’s public-radio station KPBS, the university, the California State University system and the San Diego State University Research Foundation.
In the initial complaint, the group accused the university radio station and Hearns of self-dealing of public funds regarding an agreement between Hearns and the university to share resources in order to produce more in-depth investigative pieces.
Since Hearns is a professor at the university, the group said the 2012 agreement allowing Hearns and her inewsource staff to use KPBS facilities in exchange for letting the radio station run the investigative content amounted to self-dealing and a misuse of public funds since both parties were affiliated with the same public entity.
“The gist of San Diegans for Open Government’s complaint is the contracts between KPBS and inewsource violate statutory prohibitions on self-dealing involving public funds because Hearn was allegedly influencing both sides of the transaction – for SDSU as a faculty member, and for inewsource as its executive director,” Associate Justice Gilbert Nares wrote in the ruling.
However, the defendants quickly countered the lawsuits with anti-SLAPP motions, asking the trial court to dismiss the case as a blatant attempt to intimidate the media organizations and stop the steady stream of critical articles.
The trial court agreed and dismissed the case in 2016.
On appeal, San Diegans for Open Government argued that because its lawsuit targeted the impropriety of the 2012 negotiations for office space and not the production of any news stories, the case should be decided on the merits.
The appellate panel disagreed.
“News stories addressing issues of public interest do not arise out of thin air,” Nares wrote in the 41-page ruling. “They often require newsgathering using offices, internet access, studios, and production services. Providing office space and related newsgathering facilities in exchange for investigative news stories furthers protected speech.”
Nares also noted that even if the issue wasn’t about press freedom and protected activity, San Diegans for Open Government “offered no admissible evidence to support its claims” of improper self-dealing involving public funds.
Associate Justices Richard Huffman and William Dato concurred with Nares in the ruling.