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The California Second District Appellate Court unanimously declined to reverse the $1.1 million verdict against online blog CalCoastNews. On Jan. 29, the court ruled 3-0 to decline the website’s invitation to reverse a ruling from 2017 in which a unanimous jury awarded licensed hazardous waste transporter Charles Tenborg damages for libel.

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

SLO Truth’s December-January pledge is going strong — and our detractors can’t handle it. We’re nearing our fundraising goal. Chip in right now to deliver a strong message: “The truth is here to stay.”

So far, in 2018, we haven’t published a single news article or column, but we’ve already learned some of the people we’ve reported on are continuing to attack our readers. Readers they’ve targeted have either “liked” one of our posts or our page on Facebook.

CalCoastNews’ controversial co-founder Karen Velie and radio show host Dave Congalton have publicly accused our readers of participating in trolling activity by “demean[ing] women that don’t bow down” to someone they falsely assume is backing SLO Truth.

But as their mutual friend Julie Tacker once wrote on CalCoastNews, “‘Liking’ a page on Facebook does not make one part of a group; it merely allows their content to enter your Facebook feed.” Similarly, people who Facebook “like” something on our page or comment on our posts aren’t “trolls” or participating in troll-like behavior. That’s not to say our readers are exempt from criticism for their words and actions, but to personally harass people for reading us is harassment.

At one point, Velie was seen cyber-stalking District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill under an anonymous account her relatives previously used. Velie, who is currently suing Hill, has left a series of disturbing and clearly obsessed messages about him on social media. Some of which were directed at other people:

Truth is Adam Hill lives at the Country Club, has a new Volvo, is seen regularly dining out and posts about his frequent travels on Facebook, all while living alone on $90,000 a year before taxes. If he didn’t inherit any money how does he live his opulent lifestyle?

Adam Hill does not want the chairmanship so that he can help the poor, but so he has more power to threaten those in front of him with issues if they do not give him money. So Hill threatens to demean his fellow board members if they do not vote for him as chair, and he wants the public to believe he is asking on behalf of the poor. Just like Hill marches for women while his wife lives in an apartment across town and he dates a string of women. Hill marches for women while he and his trolls demean women who do not bow down to him.

Mr. Hill, you are a bully and a hypocrite.

Source: The Tribune (1/6/18)

[Redacted], this is another chance for you to attack and bully a women on the board. Adam Hill threatens to disgrace Lynn Compton if she doesn’t vote for him and you try to paint her as the bully. Wow! (This was supposed to be a reply to [Redacted].)

Compton hasn’t attacked anyone on social media or come out against Hill as chair. But the partisan male bullies continue to attack women, primarily Compton because a man who said he will vote lockstep with Hill is vying for Compton’s seat. Meanwhile, your allies are doctoring photos and attempting to show women they don’t agree with as brainless hotheads.

And the chair is not ceremonial, the chair controls the meeting and stops the bullies from lashing out at the public or others. John Peschong is quick to stop bullying and refuses to allow Hill to rant at public speakers he does not agree with. Aside from Hill’s frequent tantrums, the meetings are more professional and shorter.

Hill’s latest threats and juvenile online behaviors make it clear he is unfit for the chair position. Another year with Peschong would be the best choice.

In 2015, Velie emailed the employer of the commenter she’s addressing here and accused him of calling her a “clickwhore” on my Facebook page. An exhaustive search on the page determined the accusation was unfounded. Last May, Velie appeared on the “Dave Congalton” show and accused the commenter and others, who previously commented on my page, of participating in my “group” that demeaned women. Velie was permanently banned from the station after her unhinged appearance.

Source: The Tribune (1/5/18)

Congalton would attack the same commenter:

Why don’t you admit the real reason you don’t like Lynn Compton and John Peschong, [Redacted]? They torpedoed your handpicked replacement when you retired on your fat county government pension and brought in an outsider who would clean up the mess you left because you were too busy trashing people on Internet troll web sites, most likely on company time.

Source: The Tribune (1/5/18)

According to 920 KVEC station management, Congalton was personally reprimanded for allowing Velie to slander the commenter on-air.

Last month, Velie went after District 4 Supervisor candidate Jimmy Paulding for “repeating Hill.” In the same post, Velie once again attacked the same commenter:

Jimmy argues for whatever Supervisor Adam Hill votes for. It is clear he did no research into the housing issue, Jimmy just repeated Hill. 

[…]

A vote for Jimmy is a vote for Hill’s agenda. 

[Redacted], you sir are a sexist man. So you have determined Lynn Compton is not well because she does not agree with your views. It is good you are no longer running [redacted] and able to haras [sic] those you hate.

Source: The Tribune (12/30/17)

In fact, Velie’s pseudonymous harassment of our readers and supporters is nothing new.

Here are the facts.

SLO Truth supports women, including those unfairly and maliciously targeted by fake news extremists. Both Velie and Congalton have plagued the airwaves with misogynistic comments about women’s personal lives, romantic and sexual lives; insulted their personal appearance, their intelligence, and attributes that shouldn’t be publicly ostracized by public features in the media industry.

Velie is mistaken. We’re not criticizing her because she is a woman. We’re criticizing her because she lies about community members, harasses and tries to blackmail critics, abuses the legal process by using the courts to silence dissent and weaponizes fake news to influence our local elections. We’re taking a stand against a dangerous, unstable and influential “reporter” who is unfit to print, and any influential figure who condones her practices.

With your support, SLO Truth will strive to bring the best reporting to the Central Coast when others — who brag about “reporting” the news — haven’t.

Chip in today.

T. Keith Gurnee

I took two wonderful months off from writing columns.

For the most part, it’s been peaceful and quiet. I managed to clear my mind, read the news from a safe distance and focused on doing absolutely nothing except relax. I’ve had a rough couple of years, so it was nice to take a break from the daily drama.

Dave Congalton
920 News Talk/KVEC radio show host Dave Congalton

920 KVEC radio show host Dave Congalton has hosted “Hometown Radio” for over two decades. He’s the person you go to if you’re looking to promote a nonprofit organization or a special event. Often times he’ll discuss local and national issues with a variety of guests.

He’s got a little bit of everything packed into four hours of programming. That’s a lot of time to fill every day from Monday through Friday. The last hour of his show is typically dedicated to his “Last Call” segment when he gives listeners an opportunity to call into the show and talk about anything that’s on their mind. In those quiet moments when the phones aren’t lighting up in the KVEC studio, a different Dave Congalton appears to take on the silence.

For his March 28 show, “Last Call” was originally going to feature Congalton’s take on the cultural differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But an hour after his segments were announced on KVEC’s Facebook page, that discussion on cultural differences was replaced with “Kevin Rice.”

Rice is a self-proclaimed activist who is known for his harassment and misinformation campaigns against his political adversaries. His newest stunt is trolling The Tribune’s website under the pseudonym “Patrick Rich,” and claiming he’s a member of the SLO Progressives while attacking progressives. As far as why he’s doing that, no one knows but Rice. A lot of the “activism” he partakes in doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Most of the time, his stunts backfire in the press. You have to admit: It’s strange to have a feature on San Luis Obispo’s Ballet Theatre and later feature Rice on the same show — the same Rice who just days before alleged on The Tribune that one of the county supervisors was a “drunken drug abuser” without any evidence.

Congalton brought Rice onto the show to discuss a recent interview FOX NEWS’ Sean Hannity did with veteran broadcaster Ted Koppel where Koppel affirmed that Hannity, in the words of Hannity’s own question, was “bad for America.” The implication is that highly politicized personalities on major networks and talk radio contribute to a growing rift in political discourse. Rice stated that personalities on the left and right of the political spectrum use their own facts and statistics to pursue a heavily biased narrative. Congalton stated that opinionated broadcasting was problematic because it’s difficult for people tuning in to discern between fact and opinion.

The interview between Hannity and Koppel was about the rise of politically charged vitriol in broadcasting since the Federal Communications Commission revoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The Fairness Doctrine required public broadcasters to present controversial issues in a fair and honest manner. The doctrine was revoked because judging a broadcaster’s fairness and honesty is left to subjective interpretation. More or less, the overall idea behind the doctrine was to present both sides of a controversial argument and provide both sides equal time.

On March 17, Congalton dedicated a significant portion to the show to his reaction of the Tenborg v. CalCoastNews verdict. CalCoastNews is a controversial online tabloid that recently lost a defamation lawsuit and was ordered to pay $1.1 million in damages. Congalton brought onto his show attorney James Duenow — who was part of the legal team representing CCN — and CCN co-founder Karen Velie. Everyone featured on the show decried the verdict as a miscarriage of justice. They speculated that unscrupulous forces were secretly funding the lawsuit in hopes of shutting down the website. They named PG&E and District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill as potential backers of the lawsuit. At one point, Congalton took aim at Hill’s wife Dee Torres-Hill, claiming she texted him a photo of her raising a glass to celebrate the verdict. Torres-Hill denied sending him a text. Congalton claimed that she wrote her back and replied, “I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you. You put on so much weight.”

It’s strange to fat-shame a county supervisor’s wife while hosting a segment about the importance of good manners on the same show. That on-air cognitive dissonance is a little harder to chew than the Pie of the Week that Congalton enjoyed from Linn’s of Cambria that same day.

Congalton regularly features CCN and their writers on his show to discuss their reporting. Those segments typically feature a string of unfounded allegations that the website is making with Congalton later reiterating those allegations over the airwaves as a matter of fact. The accused are not invited onto the show to counter or refute the allegations. When the accused are invited onto his show and decline to appear, Congalton retaliates.

Occasionally, Congalton will question the website and encourage them to strengthen their editorial process, but he doesn’t question the allegations as they’re levied on-air. He provides no active filter. Congalton’s concerns are always a fleeting afterthought. Nonetheless, Congalton stated that CCN is “still better than anything else in town, in terms of the type of subjects that Karen [Velie] is covering,” despite losing a case that calls into question the accuracy of all the other investigative pieces they’ve done.

It’s difficult to reconcile this side of Congalton with the Congalton that profiles rescue animals from Woods Humane Society.

“Hometown Radio” can’t live up to its name when hometown values are presented for half of the show and the other half is a blistering, one-sided rebuke of community members. It doesn’t have to be that way, and it shouldn’t, but it is, and just when you’d think it couldn’t get any worse, it does.

After 24 years of being on the air, it’s time for Congalton to step aside and restore the “Hometown Radio” brand. If people support the good things Congalton has done for the community on a part-time basis, they will also support those same hometown values when they hear them or where they hear them from.

It’s time to make a change.

 

This is part one of SLO Truth’s coverage of the Tenborg v. CalCoastNews defamation trial. Each part will cover approximately one week of events. 

Introduction

Before I document what happened in the trial, I want to make a few necessary disclosures. That way, I’m able to provide context for my personal observations.

Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg filed a defamation lawsuit against CalCoastNews (CCN) on May 10, 2013. The basis of the lawsuit was an article the website published nearly a year earlier, titled, “Hazardous waste chief skirts law.” The article accused Tenborg of illegally transporting hazardous waste, being “fired for undisclosed reasons” in the mid-1990s, encouraging municipalities to ignore proper protocols, among other things. The article also strongly insinuated that Tenborg and Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) manager William Worrell were in some illicit contractual relationship, based on a no-bid contract that CCN suggested wasn’t legal.

Shortly after it was published, the article was distributed to an intranet mailing list called “Morning Coffee,” which had several subscribers from the waste management industry. Many of those subscribers knew Tenborg on a professional basis. The article, which remains online and untouched to this day, was spread among his professional contacts and clientele.

Shortly after the article was published, Tenborg and Worrell issued a detailed joint demand for retraction of the article to CCN. The website didn’t respond to the retraction demand. The failure to retract led Tenborg to file his defamation claim several months later. Tenborg is seeking personal damages for the tarnishing of his reputation.

Leading up to the trial — which started over four years after the article was published — CCN has argued that every assertion mentioned in the article is true based on discussions they’ve had with several of their sources, but ultimately conceded they had no notes, documentation or additional physical evidence to verify the claims Tenborg contested.

The website later pivoted to a defense strategy, asserting that Tenborg’s legal claim was a strategic lawsuit against public participation; that the lawsuit was attempting to stifle their free speech and prohibit them for producing stories in the public interest. The trial court ruled against that defense motion and ordered the case go to trial. The website appealed that ruling to the Second District Appellate Court in 2015, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

After their appeal was struck down, CCN unveiled a new defense. In support of their effort to raise money for legal expenses, co-founder and defendant Karen Velie claimed Tenborg’s case was a malicious lawsuit that was financially backed by District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill. She asserted on the website’s GoFundMe page that Hill “boasted in writing” that he is pushing the lawsuit against CCN “in an undisguised effort to destroy the eight-year-old online news agency.” None of the exhibits they’ve presented for their case provided a foundation for her claim.

In 2011, my father Ed and I were in preliminary discussions with CCN and a few other alternative news platforms to form a news aggregate network similar to the Huffington Post. Talks fizzled after I expressed concern about Velie’s reporting as a legal liability.

I covered the lawsuit since it was first reported in The Tribune in 2013. At the time the lawsuit was filed, I was employed as a writer for Information Press, a monthly newspaper. As someone investigating and fact-checking the website, I reported that CCN published unsubstantiated assertions about Tenborg. Approximately a year later, my employer heard from Velie, who claimed I libeled her by stating her claims about Tenborg were unsubstantiated. As a result of reporting on the case, Velie personally threatened my employer and my family. I’ve covered my experiences with CCN since then in this article.

“Disgrace to the Bar”: Circus Before Trial

More than four years after CCN published their article about Tenborg, the trial for Tenborg v. CalCoastNews began. As the New Times pointed out, the trial had a contentious start.

Appearing noticeably gaunt, disheveled and disoriented, CCN attorney James Duenow made disparaging comments about the law firm representing Tenborg, Kerr & Wagstaffe. Outside the courtroom, Duenow specifically took aim at Tenborg’s lead attorney James Wagstaffe and called him a “fucking disgrace to the bar” and a “motherfucker.” The insults were coupled with Duenow aggressively poking Wagstaffe. This behavior continued into the courtroom during a brief recess. Before leaving the courtroom, Duenow mused, “How about if I punch him?”

As he wobbled around in the audience, Duenow made a handful of claims that could not be independently verified. One of the claims was that District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill was “biasing” witnesses against the defendant. When pressed for evidence by presiding Judge Barry LaBarbara, Duenow failed to muster a response. The other claim was that an attorney from Kerr & Wagstaffe threatened one of the witnesses in the case had been threatened over the phone with a lawsuit. Judge LaBarbara pressed Duenow for a foundation to his claim, but he came up empty-handed.

Understandably irate, Wagstaffe informed Judge LaBarbara about the verbal and physical altercations with Duenow. LaBarbara hesitated to admonish Duenow, instead suggesting to help resolve the dispute in his chambers. Wagstaffe turned down the suggestion. According to two sources close to the case, Wagstaffe reportedly opted to file a formal complaint against Duenow, and discovered something peculiar. According to the State Bar of California, Duenow had a suspended law license from July 2016 until the first day of trial. According to archives of the San Luis Obispo Courthouse, Duenow has presided in several pretrial conferences during the time his license was suspended. On CCN, Duenow had two columns published during that time period that prominently mentioned he was currently practicing law as a “semi-retired” civil trial lawyer.

CCN decided to drop Duenow from their counsel. Records show that a criminal complaint was filed against Duenow for practicing law without a license, a felony.

Aside from the spat between Duenow and Wagstaffe, the trial addressed a number of pretrial motions.

In one motion, CCN attorney James McKiernon attempted to claim that Tenborg was a public figure, though the trial court previously ruled that he wasn’t. If he was ruled a public figure, Tenborg would have to show actual malice: that evidence showed the defendants knowingly attempted to tarnish his reputation. McKiernon argued that Tenborg was a public figure because he “injected himself in a public controversy,” but McKiernon could not identify the controversy. When that line of argument failed to sway LaBarbara, McKiernon focused on Tenborg’s involvement at conferences where he allegedly educated the public on hazardous waste management. Tenborg was called to the stand to clarify his public involvement, if any. Tenborg testified that his public involvement, which was mostly at waste management conferences, was limited to promoting his business and garnering clients. After hearing Tenborg’s testimony, LaBarbara ruled that Tenborg is a private figure.

CCN’s counsel touched briefly on another motion, which pertained to their trial subpoena of Adam Hill. According to LaBarbara’s tentative ruling dated March 3, CCN sought to examine Hill on four topics: (1) Whether Hill urged the plaintiff to file the lawsuit; (2) Whether it was true that Hill sent text messages to CCN advertiser/developer John King that stated he was behind the lawsuit; (3) Whether the purpose of the lawsuit was to put Velie out of business; and (4) Whether contracts with IWMA for more than $100,000 must be sent out to bid. LaBarbara ruled that the first three topics were irrelevant and the fourth could be gathered from other sources. LaBarbara also ruled that Tenborg’s alleged motivations were irrelevant to the case and the article in question.

It’s worth noting that Velie filed a lawsuit against Hill last month, alleging the supervisor conspired with other county officials and myself to ruin her reputation and shut down her business. The lawsuit, which remains active, is a slightly revised version of a claim Velie filed in federal court last year. The federal claim was dismissed with prejudice by the presiding judge, who ruled that Velie failed to furnish evidence of retaliation. There is a question of whether CCN’s subpoena of Hill constitutes an abuse of process claim, given the fact that CCN sought Hill’s irrelevant testimony in Tenborg’s lawsuit, and that testimony uniquely relates to her retaliation claim.

On the first day of trial, CCN’s counsel decided to withdraw their subpoena of Hill.

Who Were CalCoastNews’ Sources?

Once the jury was assembled, plaintiff’s counsel called Tenborg to the stand. From the onset, it appeared the counsel’s focus was to capture Tenborg’s personal and immediate response to the article. His attorney James Wagstaffe asked Tenborg to not only review the allegations, but also discuss the insinuations made in the article. For example, Tenborg answered yes when he thought the article’s headline, “Hazardous waste chief skirts law,” referred to him. Tenborg explained the implication was clear, given he was the subject of the article’s lead paragraph and five subsequent paragraphs. In later testimony, CCN claimed the “hazardous waste chief” was Worrell, not Tenborg, and that the article was about the IWMA, not Tenborg specifically.

A significant portion of Tenborg’s testimony focused on CCN’s claim that he was fired in the mid-1990s for undisclosed reasons from the SLO County Environmental Health Certified Unified Program Agency. Counsel admitted into evidence a memorandum of his resignation from 1997. Counsel also brought in Tenborg’s former employer at the time, former SLO County Director of Environmental Health Curtis Batson, to testify. Batson stated that Tenborg had a good reputation prior to his resignation and confirmed he wasn’t fired. Batson reportedly told Velie of Tenborg’s employment status shortly before the article was published. CCN attorney David Vogel sought to discredit Batson’s testimony on cross-examination, stating that it wasn’t proper protocol to discuss the nature of employment status of his subordinates; that he should have referred Velie to the personnel or Human Resources department. However, no records show that Velie made any attempt to contact Human Resources about Tenborg.

Later, when Velie took the stand, she stood by her reporting that he was fired, despite hard evidence showing otherwise. Velie claimed she relied on “several” sources that turned out to be three, two of them now deceased.

One living source, former San Luis Obispo city employee Doug Dowden, claimed that he heard Tenborg was fired, but didn’t have proof. Plaintiff’s counsel admitted into evidence an email Dowden sent to CCN, which stated exactly that. Counsel argued that the email showed, in no uncertain terms, that Dowden’s comments were hearsay and uncorroborated rumor. Velie claimed Dowden was credible because he was a “whistleblower.” CCN reported in Jan. 2011 that Wastewater Collections Supervisor Bud Nance reportedly told staffers to remove contents of the hazardous waste storage shed at the city corporation yard on Prado Road and empty cans in a nearby yard. Dowden blew the whistle on what happened, stating that city officials failed to report the illegal discharge as required by law. Tenborg was not involved in that incident.

The second source of Velie’s “firing” claim, Valarie Alvarez, was a criminal investigator employed by the California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control. According to Velie, Alvarez communicated to her that Tenborg was fired. Additionally, Velie claimed that Alvarez was investigating and “following” him. Alvarez passed away in Jan. 2016. In questioning Velie, Wagstaffe revealed during trial that she didn’t save any notes of her communications with Alvarez, so Velie’s claims could not be verified.  Velie claimed she wrote notes that she later typed on the computer. Velie stated she subsequently threw away her handwritten notes once she converted them to digital format. However, her computer “broke” shortly after the article was published, and taken to the “shop [from] over there” — presumably in San Luis Obispo — but most of her files on the hard drive couldn’t be recovered, she claimed.

The third source was Aaron Wynn, a former employee of Tenborg’s. In his declaration, Wynn claimed that Tenborg illegally transported and disposed hazardous waste. Tenborg questioned the credibility of his testimony because Wynn was fired from his position and didn’t understand why, and he was denied a license to transport hazardous waste because of “an incident on [his] record where the authorities thought [he] was transporting a pipe bomb.” Following his declaration was a video Wynn posted on YouTube in 2014, which he narrated. The video showed Wynn walking around the Cold Canyon landfill where Tenborg hauled waste to, and made accusations that mirrored the ones he made in his declaration. Though he was shown collecting soil samples, nothing in the court records show that the samples were tested or that the soil was dumped onto the ground by Tenborg himself.

In 2014, Wynn committed suicide. On CCN, anonymous commenters supporting the website insinuated that Wynn was murdered, and that the murder was allegedly orchestrated by Tenborg and his supposed co-conspirators. CCN fueled the conspiracy theory in a Facebook post on their page dated Oct. 25, 2016, insinuating that Wynn died from a “gunshot wound” as a result of videotaping and reporting the “wrongful dumping” of PG&E waste.

The anonymous commenters that originally floated the conspiracy theory created a Facebook page called “Fire Adam Hill.” Shortly before CCN tried to subpoena Hill for a deposition on the same grounds, “Fire Adam Hill” claimed they had “evidence” that the County of San Luis Obispo and Hill were behind the lawsuit. Similar to CCN, the page offered no evidence.

Wagstaffe scrutinized the sources one by one, and determined that Velie relied on hearsay and uncorroborated rumor from a few questionable sources over the hard evidence provided by several sources. Yet Velie still maintained that she had “several sources,” some of whom she claimed were anonymous and confidential. When pressed about her creative interpretation of state laws governing no-bid contracts of joint powers agencies (namely the IWMA), Velie stated she “didn’t know what the laws were” specifically, and that she consulted “several attorneys” to confirm her claims.

However, CCN’s witness list had no attorneys listed and Velie could not name a single attorney that specifically assisted her in legal research. She did name her attorney, James McKiernon, as an attorney who allegedly reminded her that he spoke with her about the article at an unspecified time. Velie had also communicated with William Worrell and visited his office to discuss questions she asked about IWMA regulations. Worrell testified on the stand that he provided specific statutes that clarified her misconceptions about conditionally exempt small waste generators. Velie’s reporting contradicted the statutes Worrell personally provided her in email.

After she was thoroughly scrutinized over her sources, Velie reiterated her allegation that Tenborg dumped PG&E vault waste from the hillside of the Cold Canyon landfill, and that she personally witnessed Tenborg’s brother Maurice illegally transporting hazardous waste. The jury was not impressed.

Who Dropped the Ball?

Plaintiff’s counsel revealed the article was passed around CCN staff, including to co-founder/Senior Correspondent Dan Blackburn and editor Bill Loving. Blackburn and Loving assisted Velie by providing editorial notes. Some of the notes asked Velie to either elaborate and provide more information or cite her sources. The article went through several revisions prior to being published, but the claims Tenborg contested appeared in the final draft. For at least two months prior to the article being published on their website, CCN had focused their investigation on IWMA’s practices, not Tenborg or Worrell specifically. However, shortly after Dowden contacted Velie about Tenborg and his professional relationship with Worrell, the overall tone of the article changed.

Within an hour of Velie receiving the email from Dowden, Blackburn contacted a reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune and stated as fact that Tenborg or Worrell were in an illicit contractual relationship. Blackburn contacted the San Diego Union-Tribune because Worrell once served San Diego County as their Deputy Director for the Solid Waste Division. According to “several sources,” Blackburn wrote in the article that Worrell had a “long list of questionable activities” during his tenure in the early 1990s.

On the witness stand, Blackburn scrambled with his narrative, stating initially that he may or may not have had information about Worrell/IWMA’s no-bid contract with Tenborg, but that he withheld publishing it. Blackburn stated the information would later appear in a follow-up to the Tenborg story, which wasn’t published because of Tenborg’s lawsuit. However, Wagstaffe revealed that Blackburn stated, in his 2013 deposition, that he had no evidence to show Tenborg and Worrell engaged in any wrongdoing by being in a no-bid contract.

Blackburn maintained that he worked on one half of the story, which covered Worrell’s activities in San Diego, and Velie worked on the other half, which mentioned Tenborg and the contested claims. Velie backed Blackburn’s testimony, adding she was responsible for her reporting and research. Likewise, Blackburn testified that he worked independently of her and was not intimately familiar with her reporting methodology for the story. Wagstaffe reminded both Velie and Blackburn that they share responsibility for the article since they share the byline. Additionally, Blackburn could not separate himself from the fact that he participated in rewrites and several revisions of the story, as evidenced by the various emails between him, Velie and Loving that were submitted into the record.

Though most of the article singled out Tenborg and Worrell extensively, Blackburn insisted the article was more about the IWMA.

In what appeared to be a move to reduce his personal liability in the article’s publishing, Blackburn testified that he has not been a business partner with Velie since 2010. This is true, since CCN announced at the time that he was departing the website to focus more on producing short news documentaries for his new website, KCCN.tv. According to state records, the only owner listed on CCN’s limited liability company forms is Velie.

However, since 2010, Blackburn has appeared numerous times on the 920 KVEC’s “The Dave Congalton Show” on behalf of the site and rigorously defended Velie’s reporting, including her reporting on Tenborg. In Dec. 2015, Blackburn appeared as a featured speaker at Freedom Force International’s “Operation Destination” workshop in Paso Robles. In the workshop’s press materials, Blackburn was listed as CCN’s publisher.

Observations

The Tenborg v. CalCoastNews trial offers a shocking inside look into a local tabloid’s journalism methods. The plaintiff’s counsel was able to create a revealing juxtaposition between a site that brags about being “non-partisan and adhere to the strictest journalism ethics and standards,” yet they recklessly abandon those standards in their delusional pursuit of scandal.

The delusional aspect comes from their willingness to value hearsay over hard evidence. It was intriguing to see Velie state unequivocally on the witness stand — in spite of hard evidence appearing before her, contradicting her published claims — that she has not retracted the story or corrected it, in any way, since it was published over four years ago. And yet, leading up to the trial, it was clear CCN knew they were in trouble. Prior to trial, CCN used the discovery process as a costly substitute for due diligence that they should have done for the story. They scrambled to find witnesses and connect dots they once connected in their written work, but not in reality.

CCN’s attorneys David Vogel and Berndt Ingo Brauer couldn’t muster a defense that CCN once promised would be “vigorous.” Vogel argued over the accuracy of page numbers in plaintiff exhibits while Ingo Brauer failed to cast reasonable doubt of plaintiff’s witness testimony during his listless cross-examinations. At times, their attorneys appeared resigned and withdrawn. For the trial’s second week, CCN is expected to bring in their witnesses, but it seems unlikely that their testimony will have a strong impact.

During one of the breaks, I overheard Velie complaining to her attorneys that the lawsuit was hurting her reputation. Given her incoherent, often rambling testimony, her narcissistic self-pity on display outside the courtroom and her rampant peddling of self-victimizing conspiracy theories, it’s clear to me Karen Velie has severe psychological problems. You have someone who is literally incapable of admitting to mistakes or making corrections. Velie’s legally and factually unjustified hubris has cost residents and taxpayers hundreds of thousands in litigation-related costs, despite her site decrying the fleecing of American taxpayers. That’s not taking into account the financial and emotional toll of those she’s maligned in her reporting.

Now, it seems karma has come to finally settle the score. Let’s see what happens in the second week.

Donate to SLO Truth

See that big red box that says “Donate” on it? Anyone can click on it and donate to SLO Truth, or you can click here.

SLO Truth was launched in July 2016 as a political organization that combats political extremism in San Luis Obispo County. It started as a progressive platform. Over time, SLO Truth evolved and became a bipartisan-supported organization. In this post-“alternative fact” world, people on the left and right are tired of misinformation and disinformation that’s pervaded our public discourse.

Your donations resulted in a number of successful grassroots campaigns last year.

We used social media and directly engaged with District 3 voters and helped re-elect Adam Hill for Supervisor. We also educated and informed Los Osos residents of Julie Tacker’s record and costly public records requests. Voters responded. Tacker, who is now the subject of fraud and elderly abuse allegations, was unable to reclaim her director seat on the Los Osos Community Services District. Our #DropDontShop campaign educated residents on the controversial tabloid site CalCoastNews and informed them of advertisers supporting their defamatory and incendiary reporting. After launching #DropDontShop, consumers have taken their money elsewhere. CalCoastNews recognized the effectiveness of our campaign and introduced it as “evidence” in a lawsuit they filed against Adam Hill, which was recently dismissed with prejudice.

We need your continued support and your donations count more than ever.

This year, SLO County residents elected a deeply partisan majority on the board. For the past two weeks, their actions have betrayed their constituency. They are proudly in lockstep with the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business (COLAB), a deeply partisan lobbying organization. The current board chairman, John Peschong, is also a lobbyist, having served as a political and public affairs consultant for decades. Your donations will support a robust grassroots campaign that educates and informs the public of what’s at stake by having a hyperpartisan majority on the Board of Supervisors. Any campaigns relevant to the Board of Supervisors would be coordinated with other local political organizations and concerned citizens.

We’re also seeking legal representation. CalCoastNews, which is backed by the SLO County Republican Party and former State Senator Sam Blakeslee, has shown a willingness to file frivolous litigation and use the legal system to curtain their opponents’ First Amendment rights. Though their “reporters” are board members of the local ACLU chapter, CalCoastNews has shown their intent to chill constitutionally protected criticism of their “reporting.” SLO Truth founder Aaron Ochs was targeted by the website. Last year, CalCoastNews deposed Ochs for a defamation lawsuit he was not involved in. The website published a falsified account of his testimony and is stonewalling attempts to release the deposition transcript. Legal counsel would fight to release the transcript and hold CalCoastNews accountable for their defamatory reporting practices and lack of transparency.

Thorough research, reporting and community outreach takes time and effort. The work we do is purely on a volunteer basis. We’re not commissioned by anyone to do what we do. Readers like you support us because you believe in our ability to educate and inform the public of truth in local politics. We’re not beholden to special interests or candidates, and we’re proud of that.

Donate today and support SLO Truth. Together, we can make a difference in our community and take a stand against local extremism.

On Jan. 23, a federal judge dismissed CalCoastNews’ Karen Velie’s legal claim against District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill with prejudice. After the dismissal was made, I was able to access the court records, which are now public.

View the available case files here:

 

Last October, Velie, the co-founder of CalCoastNews, filed a lawsuit against Hill, alleging that he and several “co-conspirators” personally harassed and threatened her because of her reporting. According to declarations provided in support of her case, Velie’s closest allies allege that they were targeted by Hill because of their association to Velie and support of her reporting. Velie claims that Hill retaliated against her by having the county deny access to “press releases, interviews, and County documents that were provided to other media outlets.”

Karen Velie
CalCoastNews’ Karen Velie arrest mugshot

Velie asserted that her constitutional rights were “deprived”; that Hill and several unnamed John Doe defendants violated the Bane Act; that defendants intentionally interfered with prospective economic relations and contractual relations; that Hill violated the Bane Act; that Hill and SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson threatened radio show host Dave Congalton for having Velie as a regular guest.  As a result, Velie sought damages for loss of income, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

But On Monday, U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer methodically dismissed all of her claims and legal theories. Fischer decreed that he would not grant her the ability to amend her claim, citing the claim “fails as a matter of law; she cannot cure the defects in this claim by pleading it with more particularity.” In other words, she cannot file her claim again.

In other words, goodbye. Have a nice trip.

The “evidence” Velie supplied against Hill included heated email correspondence between her and Hill, between Hill and advertisers and random screenshots from the predecessor to SLO Truth, “Cal Coast Fraud.” Velie also solicited declarations from Congalton, CalCoastNews co-founder Dan Blackburn, Grover Beach city councilwoman Debbie Peterson and others. Each alleged that Hill threatened and/or harassed them over their support for CalCoastNews. What wasn’t disclosed was the fact that each person who filed a declaration had a long, personal grudge against Hill — and an affiliation with CalCoastNews. They weren’t exactly victims with clean hands.

I wasn’t surprised to see that I was mentioned in Velie’s court documents, but I was surprised to see how prominently I was mentioned. Allow me to address that.

Velie has long held the operating theory that I’m being paid by Supervisor Hill to criticize her and CalCoastNews, despite the fact that I’ve corrected her repeatedly with public statements and court testimony for several years.  Velie provided screenshots of my posts as “evidence,” yet she showed no evidence that I was — what she called — a “business associate” of Supervisor Hill. The word “business” implies the existence of business transactions between us. For three years, she’s provided no evidence that it exists. There isn’t any.

But that hasn’t stopped Velie from trying to prove her conspiracy theory. In Oct. 2016, Velie attempted to subpoena Facebook for payment information associated with my Facebook pages. The subpoena was issued for a defamation lawsuit filed against them, which I have nothing to do with. The information they were seeking was completely immaterial to their case, yet Velie raised the specter of this frivolous pursuit in her lawsuit against Hill one month later. That is abuse of process.

Though no evidence exists, Velie and her supporters continued to perpetuate the lie, stating in declarations that I magically appeared to criticize them with “untrue” claims after Hill allegedly threatened them; that my comments echoed that of Hill’s. Not once did they consider that maybe, just maybe that I felt their public lynching of public figures was a matter of public interest. Not once did they float the possibility, in their ridiculously one-sided testimony, that I empathize with the people they’ve maligned because I was also maligned by them. To them, showing empathy is synonymous with collusion.

In his deposition, Blackburn claimed that I became Hill’s “apparent sudden friend,” appearing with him “in photographs taken at recent Hill parties and political functions.” Blackburn feels like he personally knows me enough to unequivocally state who my friends are, but he left out an important detail. I criticized CalCoastNews long before they began covering Hill with obsessive zeal. The relationships I’ve cultivated with people maligned by Blackburn and Velie is anything but sudden. I’m not surprised that Blackburn claims he has photographs taken of me, given the fact that he and CalCoastNews personally stalked me for three years.

U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer correctly reminded Velie that yes, her critics also have the First Amendment and it’s not exclusive to her, and it’s not up to her to decide who has free speech and who doesn’t. And when her defamation trial starts in March, we can only hope that the law will finally strike her down, and bring closure to the people she’s hurt.

I began covering the defamation lawsuit filed against CalCoastNews in May 2013. At the time I was working at Information Press, and asked the publisher if she was interested in the story; she was and I posted a link to public information about the case. Not only did the lawsuit validate my criticism of CalCoastNews, it also made San Luis Obispo County residents aware of their questionable and indefensible journalism practices. I always maintained the website rarely substantiated their salacious allegations. The lawsuit methodically revealed that Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg, the lawsuit plaintiff, reached out to correct them — only to be ignored and cast aside as the inconvenient truth. If you asked me to identify a widely discredited, vindictive tabloid, I wouldn’t hesitate to mention their name.

So I wasn’t surprised to receive a deposition subpoena from them on Sept. 1. This is the subpoena:

CalCoastNews Issues Deposition Subpoena to Aaron Ochs by Aaron Ochs on Scribd

They’ve sent me threatening legal documents before. Nothing new. Through their attorney David Vogel, CalCoastNews subpoenaed me to be deposed as a “witness” for the defamation trial, though I’m not involved in the lawsuit.  The subpoena didn’t explain why I was being deposed — only that my deposition would be videotaped and my deposition could be used in their upcoming trial, which is set for November.

Clearly their unfounded deposition subpoena is harassment in the form of a fishing expedition, and it perfectly exemplifies CalCoastNews. Here’s why.

In May 2014, CalCoastNews co-founder Karen Velie contacted, harassed and threatened my former employer. One of Velie’s many ridiculous complaints about me included my lawsuit coverage.

After being attacked by Velie in a series of defamatory articles on CalCoastNews, I published a column in the Tolosa Press’ Bay News, stating the website was successfully sued for defamation — meaning the case successfully passed the pretrial phase, and that’s uncommon for most defamation cases. After the column was published in June 2015, Velie sent me a letter, demanding a retraction and an apology for stating she was successfully sued. In the same letter, Velie also threatened to sue me.

Afterwards, I noticed a handful of anonymous accounts on CalCoastNews were discussing the lawsuit, making unsubstantiated allegations about Tenborg and the lawfirm representing him. I found it puzzling that CalCoastNews would host many potentially libelous comments about someone who is suing them for defamation. Given they allowed these anonymous comments to spam their site, I deduced that CalCoastNews and Velie were complicit. After all, they have a history of circulating their allegations anonymously.

These accounts accused District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill of assisting or bankrolling the lawsuit, but never once provided evidence. The same people accused me of somehow being involved in the lawsuit. I retained the same law firm that currently represents Tenborg, Kerr & Wagstaffe — one of the more prominent law firms in California that specializes in defamation cases — to issue a retraction demand to CalCoastNews. Naturally, CalCoastNews failed to comply and produced more defamatory articles about me with reckless abandon.

Last year, one of those accounts wrote the following on CalCoastNews: “When CCN published a story about Adam Hill’s internet troll, Aaron Oches [sic], guess who sent CCN threatening legal papers? James Wagstaffe, and he personally signed them,” wrote Velie. “It will be fun to see the list of cronies called to the stand for CCN!”

The operators of these accounts formed an anonymous Facebook page called “Fire Adam Hill.” In addition to sharing mostly CalCoastNews articles, the page posted more unsubstantiated allegations about Tenborg and his counsel.

Here is one screenshot I took on June 26, 2016 of a now-deleted post by “Fire Adam Hill.”

062616 Wagstaffe

“If you have any information about about Kerr Wagstaffe accepting money from Team Adam Hill for filing a malicious lawsuit against any accredited news agency, please report to federal police,” wrote the page. Page organizers “tagged” — notified, in other words — several local organizations and the media about the post.

One month later, Velie launched a GoFundPage to raise money for CalCoastNews’ legal defense. In her GoFundMe page description, Velie wrote, “[Adam] Hill has boasted in writing that he is pushing the lawsuit against CalCoastNews in an undisguised effort to destroy the eight-year-old online news agency.” Naturally, Velie never revealed these written boasts from Hill.

Hours after the GoFundMe page was published, “Fire Adam Hill” paid money to advertise it throughout Facebook. In their ads, the anonymous Facebook page called the lawsuit “abuse of the legal system.”

Without a doubt, the deposition subpoena is abuse of the legal system. In addition to their bad “reporting,” CalCoastNews’ harassment of critics wholly disqualifies them from being a news source.