CalCoastNews’ Desperation and Downfall: A Teaching Moment

I haven’t written a SLO Truth for two months because I’m transitioning to CURRENT, which will be a full-fledged online news site. The beta is currently online. SLO Truth is undergoing some changes and will become an opinion-sharing platform for local activists and community leaders. Published columns will be advertised on social media to a custom-tailored target audience. Any donations received will go toward promotion and paying for web hosting-related expenses.

My intent is to make sure that voices in SLO County are heard and appreciated; that every prominent and credible voice deserves a venue.

I want to create a sharp distinction between what is opinion and what is news. On many occasions, news and opinion blend together; sometimes the blending is seamless. Other times, it’s not. I’ve always existed in the middle between news and opinion. To be frank, it’s more beneficial for readers to understand the differences between the two, and allow them to form their own opinions based on unbiased, thoroughly presented information.

I’ve heavily criticized CalCoastNews for a while because readers are unable to determine what is fact or fiction; what is information or opinion. You need some free time to dig in and verify. That’s why the recent lawsuit against them was so fascinating: much of what they claimed about the person — who sued them for defamation — could be easily checked. They claimed the plaintiff was fired for “undisclosed reasons” in the mid-1990s, yet his supervising employer confirmed that he wasn’t. Plaintiff also showed a memorandum announcing that he was leaving his position. They claimed the plaintiff did not have the proper licensing to haul conditionally exempt small quality generators and was also transporting them illegally. One call to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control confirmed he had the licensing and there was no evidence whatsoever that he transported hazardous waste illegally.

Yet after a jury reviewed the site’s “evidence” — which was heavily based on hearsay and no direct sourcing — and unanimously awarded the plaintiff $1.1 million in damages, CalCoastNews told their gullible followers that the lawsuit was “not about the truth,” that the lawsuit “was an attempt to destroy CalCoastNews.” Despite being proven wrong in the court of law, they never apologized or retracted their contentious article. They removed it, but insist they’re the victims, not the person who spent four years of his life, trying in vain to get the site to correct the record. Seeking corrections is not remotely the same as attempting to shut the site down. This hare-brained, zany vast conspiracy was not part of the trial. They tried, though, by deposing me and others they felt were colluding with the plaintiff to shut them down. Of course, they lied about my testimony to continue fueling this existential non-threat — all while trying to convince their readers that they didn’t libel anyone.

Since the verdict was reached, they unsuccessfully sought a new trial. Now they’re appealing. The basis of their appeal, they claim, is that “most of the reporters’ witnesses and evidence” was not admitted for a “variety of reasons,” but they don’t mention what those reasons are. That’s because the “witnesses” and “evidence” didn’t exist to begin with. Much of what they brought to the trial was hearsay, meaning they had no direct knowledge of their claims being correct. The “evidence” they introduced showed one “witness” claiming that he heard from someone else about the plaintiff being fired; that another witness, now deceased, claimed he saw the plaintiff disposing hazardous waste, but that claim wasn’t corroborated with actual evidence. At one bizarre point during the trial, CCN co-founder Karen Velie testified that she personally spied on the plaintiff and witnessed the plaintiff’s brother illegally hauling hazardous waste. The jury was not impressed, especially when Velie perjured herself in court by saying the plaintiff didn’t respond to her when she asked about the allegations (she later published as concrete fact).  Plaintiff’s counsel was able to show phone records of conversations that took place.

Despite all these missteps in their case and the verdict that followed, CCN/Velie have blamed everyone else for the problems they caused, and published their contentions as a news story. For example, they falsely accused me and District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill of collusion, “spreading misinformation” as part of a campaign of “harassing CalCoastNews advertisers and making false claims about staffers,” yet in the same article, they assert that I claimed multinational energy company Phillips 66 was funding their appeal. I’ve never made that claim anywhere. Velie, who brags about taking screenshots of my posts and pages, knows her claim is false, but the article remains unchanged. No clarification. No correction. Her bogus claim came weeks after she appeared on 920 KVEC’s “Dave Congalton Show,” and went on a tirade, alleging a number of people, including me, called her and her daughters “whores.” As a result, station management decided to ban Velie and the rest of CCN from future appearances. Last week, I personally challenged Velie’s lawyer to provide me documentation of this “misinformation” that Velie claims I’m spreading along with an explanation on why it’s misinformation. Nothing.

If CalCoastNews won’t hold themselves accountable, then it’s up to us to be accountable in what we do going forward. Every time they avoid personal responsibility, we should be reminded to continuously improve ourselves with how we disseminate information. With CURRENT and SLO Truth, I can forge a path far better than those I’ve been known to cover accurately.

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.