With wildfires raging around us in California, San Luis Obispo County is doing relatively well.
I mean, that’s what we’re led to believe.
Residents are gearing up for the November general election, featuring the contentious mayoral race between San Luis Obispo mayor Heidi Harmon and challenger T. Keith Gurnee. There’s also the Arroyo Grande council race with Jimmy Paulding re-entering the political arena, this time as a council candidate. Morro Bay is undergoing its own sea change with candidates lining up to run for City Council during a fairly tumultuous period.
And there are issues not related to elections, which have made headlines recently. Grover Beach has become a destination for recreational marijuana enthusiasts and the community remains divided on that issue. City of San Luis Obispo has approved a number of controversial developments that critics say adversely impact the community and its unique character; this has become a campaign issue for their mayoral race. The History Center of San Luis Obispo County was accused of left-leaning partisanship after they received complaints about their involvement with the Central Coast Queer Archive Project, which documents LGBTQ people’s Central Coast experiences. The center’s pride flag was reportedly vandalized around the time the center began receiving complaints.
Then I caught a segment on KSBY about the manager of SLO County’s Integrated Waste Management Authority being placed on administrative leave after a private investigator hired by an unnamed citizens group alleged the manager was responsible for approximately $450,000 in undocumented, personal expenses. Bill Worrell will be placed on administrative leave until his retirement on Sept. 11.
After seeing their segment, I wondered: Wasn’t Worrell one of the people that CalCoastNews accused of illegally sole-sourcing contracts to hazardous waste recycling subcontractor Charles Tenborg? Carl Knudson, the private investigator who reported his findings to the IWMA, was hired by a group called “Friends of CalCoastNews,” which was originally called the “CalCoastNews Defense Fund.” According to the defense fund website, the original scope of the work Knudson was assigned to investigate was issues surrounding the defamation lawsuit they lost for $1.1 million and are currently appealing. But it appears they expanded their sights on IWMA’s accounting, which doesn’t address the original story they were sued for nor the allegations they made, which a unanimous jury found were demonstrably false last year.
Because District Attorney Dan Dow is investigating Knudson’s allegations, we should take the report seriously. Knudson, a 25-year veteran of the IRS Criminal Investigations Division, was also responsible for an audit of the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District’s past management and financial practices in 2016. After reviewing Knudson’s report, the SSLOCSD board voted unanimously to send his findings to the District Attorney, which later resulted in the arrest of former district administrator John Wallace for felony and misdemeanor conflict of interest charges. Earlier this year, Wallace reached a plea deal with prosecutors to plead to misdemeanors and pay about $60,000 in restitution.
Supporters of CalCoastNews have said the report and Dow’s willingness to investigate are somehow “proof” of a conspiracy between county officials and Tenborg (the IWMA subcontractor who filed the defamation lawsuit) to silence the website, regardless of the fact their a significant portion of their original reporting on Tenborg, Worrell and IWMA was proven untrue in the court of law. Others have praised the website for their intrepid reporting on the matter. Yet they outsourced their investigative prowess to a private investigator to exercise the same due diligence they should have exercised back in 2012 when they first reported on Tenborg and Worrell. So ironic they’re taking credit for someone else’s work — work they should be doing, but can’t and won’t. The defamation lawsuit and all this talk of elaborate conspiracy theories would have never happened if they put in the effort to investigate.
But when they talk about being silenced, I have to laugh.
It’s been a year since Velie, who’s repeatedly accused me of being in this conspiracy to shut down CCN, attempted to file a restraining order against me, falsely claiming I stalked and harassed her and her children. She continues to make those allegations as recently as this week, despite a judge being unable to find any evidence to substantiate it. On August 10, CCN once again alleged I was part of a “campaign” — implying it was a coordinated effort with Tenborg — to “defam[e] and harass CalCoastNews reporters, advertisers and reporter’s families.” In her restraining order request, Velie wrote, “A number of years ago I was informed that Ochs was working with Adam Hill, Charles Tenborg and James Wagstaffe [Tenborg’s attorney] to destroy me and my business.” Velie never said who informed her of that claim, which is false. Velie requested the court to prohibit me from writing any allegedly “false or malicious posts” about her: a clear and fortunately unsuccessful attempt to silence me and my First Amendment rights.
Truth be told, I initially wasn’t going to discuss recent developments about the case as I feel I’ve already talked about it enough. But in the spirit of free press, recent attacks on the free press by our president and increased threats against reporters, I feel compelled to speak out about events that transpired since I was vindicated in court.
Before I go on, I want to explain to readers that I’m not looking for sympathy. I don’t feel I’m personally in danger. I maintain an active, healthy relationship with law enforcement, which is keenly aware of this ongoing situation and can provide security when necessary. What I’ve been through, the threats and harassment I’ve received pale in comparison to known reporters who cover national news.
Since I left court in August last year, the SLO Truth Facebook page and Twitter accounts were hit with harassing threats and messages from people I didn’t know, but felt they had an understanding of the case based on her reporting on it, which was also misleading. I dutifully reported the messages. Both social media companies swiftly took action and I blocked the accounts that weren’t suspended.
Last December, I was hit with a wave of threatening messages on SLO Truth from Atascadero and Paso Robles residents. These messages appeared shortly after Velie spoke at the North County Tea Party meeting on December 4. Based on the message contents, it appeared Velie falsely claimed at the meeting that I expressed a desire to throw bleach in one of her daughter’s eyes. She repeated the claim in April this year, and that also triggered another wave of harassing comments, which I addressed without fanfare.
In May this year, I was followed by a car through San Luis Obispo to Los Osos by a known associate of Velie.
From April through July this year, I heard from several of my friends that Velie reached out to them, reportedly telling them that I “was going to dealt with” and “permanently.” I took her comments as a threat, though it appears her comments served as a warning shot for her most recent story.
She reportedly reiterated her false allegations about me, insisting I was part of this conspiracy to shut her down, yet she’s verbalized and put in writing her intent to do exactly that to me — all predicated on a series of lies that the court recognized were lies. Now it appears her rhetoric has escalated. She’s reportedly communicated her ambiguously threatening desires to at least six members of the SLO Progressives. This happened a year after she wrote in a declaration that she considered buying a gun to protect herself from stalking and harassment that, quite frankly, never occurred.
This situation, which is ongoing, reminds me of recent coverage of InfoWars and its founder Alex Jones. Jones, who was recently suspended from YouTube, Facebook and Apple, is a prolific conspiracy theorist who is being sued for defamation by several parents of Sandy Hook shooting victims. Parents claim Jones’ conspiracy theory that the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school shooting in 2012 was a hoax. Jones accused the victims and their families of being crisis actors. This led to harassment and death threats from Jones’ followers. In response to the defamation lawsuit, Jones’ attorneys requested the addresses and birth dates of Sandy Hook parents be made public: a move critics say appears retaliatory toward the lawsuit plaintiffs. Jones has claimed the plaintiffs are trying to silence him.
Like Alex Jones, Karen Velie is a pathological liar who can’t separate fact from fiction. One year after I defeated her in court, Velie continues to harass and incite harassment toward me — the clearest indication yet she will never learn her lesson. And Sandy Hook victims continue to endure similar hardship with Jones years after the massacre.
Whether or not the District Attorney finds criminal wrongdoing with the IWMA, CalCoastNews’ continued assault on critics will forever cement their legacy in SLO County as a public disgrace.