Tenborg vs. CalCoastNews: The Conclusion

Dave Congalton reacting to District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill’s election win (Nov. 8, 2016)

This is part two of SLO Truth’s coverage of the Tenborg v. CalCoastNews defamation trial. Part one can be found here. Read The Tribune’s article and the New Times article on the case for additional reference. Read about the $1.1 million guilty verdict here.

Because the local media extensively covered the verdict, I’m deferring to their reporting on it. The Tribune’s Matt Fountain and New Times’ Chris McGuinness covered the Tenborg v. CalCoastNews trial for nearly two weeks and did what responsible journalists do: they reported the facts and properly attributed their sources. Reporting on news, whether it’s a hot story or an enterprise story, can be laborious and time-consuming. However, reporting on a story correctly can be personally and professionally rewarding. We should recognize and thank reporters that take the time to get the story right.

I was asked by a few national media outlets what my personal thoughts on the verdict, given I’ve been covering the CCN beat for several years and was personally targeted by them partly because of my reporting on the Tenborg case.

Before I get to my personal thoughts, here’s some context.

In light of the defamation lawsuit filed against them by Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg, I reported that their claims about Tenborg were unsubstantiated. That conclusion was based on public records requests, calls to the California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control, research into the laws governing no-bid contracts with state joint power authorities (JPAs) and research into statutes governing small quantity waste generators (SQWGs), which were mentioned in the now-removed article on Tenborg.

During trial, San Francisco State University Journalism professor Venise Wagner testified as an expert witness for the plaintiff.  Regarding the article, Wagner stated, “I kept reading and I thought, ‘Where’s the proof?’ And I never saw any proof.'” Wagner added, “There were untruths, and it didn’t seem that reasonable care was taken to get the truth.”

I arrived at a similar conclusion in 2013 when I was employed at Information Press.

Karen Velie
CalCoastNews’ Karen Velie arrest mugshot

One year later, CCN co-founder Karen Velie threatened my family over that conclusion and communicated that threat to my employer.

Three years later, a unanimous jury and $1.1 million verdict agreed with my conclusion.

As some readers know, I’ve been candid on what happened to me. I would’ve never imagined anyone who claims to be “investigative journalists” would be bothered by someone fact-checking their reporting and investigating their allegations. It shouldn’t be surprising for a site like CCN to garner criticism since their “reporting” is clearly controversial, including their reporting on Tenborg. CCN was taken aback by my reporting and analysis of their work. They felt it posed a threat to their livelihood, so they tried to silence me. They failed.

While some people recognized CCN as local online tabloid riddled with uncorroborated rumors and hearsay, I recognized them as a corrupt entity whose malfeasance was no different than others they’ve reported on. While they published their “uncovered” exclusives, CCN did underhanded things to stifle dissent and punish dissenters — from threatening employers to deposing their critics and abusing the legal process to write inflammatory stories about them.

Then even crafted a conspiracy theory that accused all their critics, including myself, of conspiring to shut down their business. In an article from the New York Times that covered the case, Velie was quoted as saying, “I do believe this was done to shut down Cal Coast News because we have been very effective in bringing things out to the public that no one else reports on.” In an attempt to substantiate that theory, Velie filed two lawsuits against District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill. Velie claims that Hill, county officials and “co-conspirators” conspired to retaliate against her for her reporting. The first lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice by a federal judge because Velie was unable to provide evidence for her retaliation claim. The second lawsuit, which is a rehashing of the dismissed suit, was filed in Superior Court and is still active.

CalCoastNews is using excuses to avoid taking responsibility for their shoddy reporting. Because they’re using the legal system to carry these excuses forward, CCN is costing taxpayers a great expense. It doesn’t appear that CCN would be paying any of that money back either. According to her asset disclosures that were provided for the Tenborg case, Velie has no money to her name — that is, unless she receives cash payments on the side. Velie claims she is represented by attorneys that are working “either pro bono or for pocket money,” so it’s easy for her to pursue her frivolous claims in court. Though she’s over $1 million in debt, Velie is likely to continue fleecing taxpayers.

Despite hard evidence trumping her allegations about Tenborg, despite a jury unanimously finding CCN guilty of defamation, Velie has offered no apology. CCN has offered no contrition, no statement to correct the record, and no commitment to strengthening their editorial guidelines. Instead, she asserts that everyone is at fault for the fallout surrounding demonstrably false claims that she penned; that everyone is out to shut her down. These delusional denials are not only a clear affront to journalism standards like the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics, they’re also dangerous.

But there’s a silver lining. CCN’s credibility in the community has sharply declined and it’s irreversible. Despite a unanimous jury verdict, they’re still in denial. Their reaction to the verdict demonstrates a clear lack of journalistic gravitas. Everyone but them and their core supporters see that. CCN insists they will stay in operation as if to say they’re defying the nefarious forces yearning for their demise, but that bravado is unjustified. For as long as they’re in operation, CCN will serve as a reminder of what investigative journalism isn’t. Fine with me.

Author: Aaron Ochs

Aaron Ochs is a local columnist, entrepreneur and founder of SLO Truth. Ochs is also a member of the SLO Progressives club.

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