Erik Howell ordered to pay $959,307 for attorney fees, court costs

Pismo Beach Councilman Erik Howell

By KAREN VELIE

A judge ordered Pismo Beach Councilman Erik Howell and four other members of the California Coastal Commission to pay $959,307 in attorney’s fees and court costs to attorney Cory Briggs and the nonprofit Spotlight on Coastal Corruption for an anti-corruption lawsuit that ended earlier this year.

Because the judge ordered defendants Howell, Steve Kinsey, Martha McClure, Wendy Mitchell, and Mark Vargas to pay the costs and fees “jointly and severally,” each of them is on the hook for the full $959,307, in addition to the penalty amount each must pay to the Coastal Conservancy Fund.

Even though the state previously offered to pay a $250,000 settlement, Briggs questions the legality of having the state pay fees and costs owed by the defendants.

“The Attorney General said in court papers that the defendants were private individuals sued in their personal capacities,” Briggs said. “The state may not pay a private person’s debts.”

Following the judgment, Briggs sought an order requiring the defendants to pay roughly $31,000 for court costs and nearly $533,000 for attorney fees.

The defendants also asked the court to order Spotlight on Coastal Corruption to pay the Attorney General, whose office represented the defendants for free, in excess of $649,000 because the plaintiff did not prove every violation it alleged and did not obtain the maximum penalties for the defendants’ violations.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor made the fees ruling Friday, after he previously fined Howell $3,500 over his failure to disclose ex-parte communications as a member of the California Coastal Commission.

In a detailed 12-page ruling, the court rejected the defendants’ request for fees and ordered the defendants to pay Spotlight on Coastal Corruption more than $959,000 to cover court costs and attorney fees. The award included an additional $400,000 in recognition of achievement of litigation goals and the lawsuit’s difficulty and novelty.

The court noted that the lawsuit was in the public interest and resulted in the California Coastal Commission changing disclosure practices.

“The main litigation objective pursued by plaintiff in this action was to shed light on lax ex parte disclosure practices at the Commission,” according to the fee and cost ruling. “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. Plaintiff’s then-nascent lawsuit was likely an impetus for the 2016 changes in Commission procedures which were discussed in the Statement of Discovery.”

In 2016, Spotlight on Coastal Corruption filed the lawsuit alleging five coastal commissioners illegally hid private meetings with developers and other lobbyists from the public. By law, coastal commissioners are required to disclose ex-parte communications within seven days.

Earlier this year, the court determined that the defendants had committed dozens of violations, and imposed a combined $57,100 in penalties.

“We are grateful that the judge recognizes the extraordinary public service this all-volunteer organization has provided and the tremendous risk we took in doing so,” said Spotlight on Coastal Corruption president Kathryn Burton. “Standing up to unethical public officials is never easy, but it was the right thing to do.”

The defendants have filed an appeal of the underlying judgment. Briggs then filed a cross-appeal because the court looked at violations only within the 12-month period before the lawsuit was filed, while Briggs was pursuing violations committed within a three-year period.

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