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.
By ED OCHS
Crushed in court, the CalCoast Crazies find comfort on the “Dave Congalton Show.”
When CalCoastNews, Karen Velie and Dan Blackburn were convicted of defamation on March 16 and ordered to pay Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg $1.1 million in damages, not all the guilty were present in the courtroom to hear the verdict and pay their fair share for playing their part. Most conspicuously absent was the one who worked the hardest to fan their flames, who put Velie and Blackburn together to form CalCoastNews, who promoted them and turned their libel into slander over the airwaves, spreading their lies to every corner of the county.
The day after the verdict, KVEC talk-radio host Dave Congalton – CalCoastNews co-founder and former contributing editor – something he doesn’t disclose on the air when he promotes them on his show – brought in Velie attorney James Duenow and Velie by phone to get their raw reactions to the verdict. The occasion served up a golden opportunity for Congalton to proclaim his undying support for the convicted defamers and rally the downhearted. What else could he do? He’s invested so heavily in Velie, emotionally if not financially, that even though she got caught red-handed, there was no turning back for the die-hard double-downer who had so faithfully and tirelessly churned Velie’s libel and attacked their common enemies over the air. Like Bill Loving, CalCoastNews editor who rubber-stamped Velie’s defamation and resigned his journalism professorship at Cal Poly, Congalton had escaped accountability by the skin of his teeth. Unlike Loving, though, Congalton wasn’t running from the mess he made; he was rolling in it like a pig in mud.
If Congalton has any conscience about how badly he failed Velie, any idea how badly he’s failed his job at KVEC serving two masters, he won’t show it publicly. He has too many other people to blame before he ever looks in the mirror at the one person who should have known better, who could have made a difference. On his March 17 show with Duenow and Velie, call-ins Keith Gurnee and Julie Tacker, a supremely arrogant and ignorant Congalton offered an 11-minute rant on Velie’s guilt versus, as Congalton sees it, her gifts.
“At the end of the day, what’s changed?” Congalton asked. “It’s not like Karen’s gonna have to pay any of that money. Karen doesn’t have anything. I know because I’m always buying her lunch. She has no money, so Mr. Tenborg isn’t going to get anything out of her.”
Aside from the crudity of publicly bragging about buying a woman’s lunch to confirm her poverty, Congalton takes solace in knowing Velie won’t be paying for her mistakes and never will, not now, not ever. Tenborg’s victory has sealed her game. But how, if Velie’s so comfortable with a lifestyle of taking handouts and living off of others to avoid paying for her mistakes, how will she ever really learn not to repeat them? It doesn’t bother Congalton at all that Velie uses her lack of income as yet another convenient shield to defame and avoid responsibility for her malicious handiwork. Congalton doesn’t buy all her food and drink. Velie continues to eat and pay her bills. She’s not as dreadfully penniless as she plays, as Congalton desperately tries to portray her.
Worse, not having to pay the consequences for the damage she’s done is nothing more than a license for her to continue her wicked ways – attacking her enemies with one-sided, half-baked, fact-starved, poisoned-tipped screeds that any real journalist would be ashamed to publish. Not Karen Velie. She’s haplessly addicted to impersonating a journalist. It’s the role of a lifetime. No matter what, she can’t stop writing badly. For Congalton, that’s the good-news silver-lining.
“CalCoastNews isn’t gonna shut down. People are not gonna stop advertising. People are certainty not going to stop reading it, and it’s gonna continue,” Congalton proclaimed. “Newspapers and websites … make mistakes and they have to pay for their mistakes, as they should, but you know what? Then they get back off the ground, they get back on the bicycle, and they keep going.”
Opining with 20/20 hindsight, however, Congalton admitted “Karen made a fundamental mistake. … I would have taken the article down” when Tenborg first objected to the article. “I would have kept this series going, because apparently this first article was just part of several articles to come. And for whatever reason, Karen and her attorneys made the decision not to touch the article and just to leave it alone. … Or at least (they should have) continued the reporting and address(ed) these concerns in future reporting. But you can’t have it both ways, and I can understand how a jury would have been bothered by that. So I think that that was a mistake.”
A million-dollar mistake.
Congalton encouraged Velie, “if she is indeed going to continue with CalCoastNews, to re-think her editorial process.” He mentioned that newspapers have people called copy editors and editors “who go over (the article) … and I think that Karen would benefit from that. Jeez, Karen, if you’re gonna play in the big leagues, you gotta be more careful… !” Unfortunately, CalCoastNews does have an editor. His name is Bill Loving and he didn’t do a very good job editing Velie’s Tenborg story or defending her on the witness stand.
“But make no mistake about it,” added Congalton, ringmaster of the circus that must go on. “On its worst day CalCoastNews is still better than anything else in town in terms of the type of subjects that Karen is covering… Maybe I’m wrong. Has the New Times investigated Mr. Tenborg and found him innocent of the charges? Has the Tribune? Has KSBY? Has KCBX? Because if the answer is no, then OK, what if Karen was even close to being right?”
Make no mistake about it: The jury’s unanimous verdict eliminated any and all doubt about Velie “even close to being right.” She was a Grand Canyon away from being close to right. If Congalton had just taken the time to get off his couch, if he truly cared enough to go to court and attend the trial of his dear friend, which he failed to do, he would have had all his questions answered, if the truth was what he was after, which it wasn’t. Instead, he moronically expects the Tribune to investigate proven-false claims made in a fabricated, libelous story written by two failed writers from a cannibalistic, extremist website. Why would any legit media waste their time going down that psychotic rabbit hole? Because the fake news site published a false and damaging story it couldn’t prove, and Congalton now wants the local media to do what CalCoastNews should have done in the first place: investigate? He would have been far more believable claiming that Tenborg’s attorney, James Wagstaffe, had somehow managed to hypnotize the jury.
“That does not excuse Karen if and when she is proven wrong – I’m not covering for Karen,” Congalton insisted, “but it’s just like, I’m with her. I’m sticking with her until you give me a better alternative, and I don’t see it out there. So on their worst day, Karen and Dan are still better than anything else we have in town when it comes to exposing the bad guys. And I agree with Jim Duenow that what this was really about are the bad guys trying to shut Karen up with a high-priced attorney from San Francisco. How did that come to be? I find that to be very curious.”
What’s curious is how little brain matter it takes to hold down a job as a talk-radio host in SLO County in 2017. Apparently, the job requires absolutely no talent or intelligence whatsoever. But credit Velie and Blackburn for exposing two of the worst “bad guys” in the county – Velie and Blackburn. On their worst day when, according to Congalton, they’re still the best reporters in town, they lost a $1.1 million-dollar defamation suit. So that “on their worst day” analogy doesn’t really work. Had he attended the trial instead being stupid on the air, all his nagging questions about who did what to whom would have been answered then and there. He wouldn’t have to be curious; he’d know. But he was too busy to support a dear old friend who was hanging herself on the witness stand. The answers would only have scared him anyway. He would have had to admit how wrong he’s been all this time, and that he enabled Velie rather than provide her the wise counsel expected from an adult and true friend, which led to her downfall. Had he shown a single strand of moral fiber, he could have saved her from the world of hurt the convicted liar finds herself in today. And he wouldn’t find himself in the situation he’s in today – having to apologize for being a total jerk.
“They’re trying to shut her up because of all the trouble she’s caused over the last eight years,” rails Congaton. “You tried to take away her grandchildren, and you’ve said some really disgusting things about her on the Internet, but she keeps going. You can do all this stuff to her, but she’s like that Terminator (sic) Rabbit commercial. She just keeps going and going and going.”
Looking to spread the blame for the verdict, Congalton wanted to know: Was it “some less than stellar lawyering on behalf of CalCoastNews”? That may or may not have some validity. But even if James Wagstaffe had represented Velie instead of Tenborg, he still couldn’t have conjured up evidence that simply didn’t exist. “I’m told, for example, that they really didn’t pursue a cross-examination of Charles Tenborg,” muttered Congalton in disbelief. “How do you not cross-examine the guy who brought the lawsuit?” Well, for those who weren’t paying attention, Tenborg was cross-examined, and Velie’s lawyers – good, bad or indifferent – couldn’t get much out of him apart from the dull truth.
“But at the end of the day this is squarely on Karen,” said Congalton in full, manic flip-flop mode. “It’s her reputation. A jury found that they were disappointed in her reporting on Tenborg, and I’m going to respect that decision. But I’m standing by Karen Velie, and I think that we all should until somebody else in the media steps forward and says, OK, we can do what she’s doing and we can do it better.”
There’s a lot Congalton doesn’t want to understand. He doesn’t understand what real investigative reporting is. He doesn’t understand the Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and he doesn’t understand that Velie and Blackburn got it flat-out wrong right off the bat in the very first article of the series they never rolled out. It was a lie from the beginning and no “future reporting” was ever going to make the lie become true, not unless the lie was corrected in that first story, which it wasn’t. That’s what the jury determined as they considered the verdict. But Congalton was right about one scary observation: CalCoastNews a/k/a Karen Velie is going to keep going. Not because there’s a genuine, insatiable demand for her pernicious brand of fake news, but because it’s all she knows how to do – pretend to be someone the jury ruled she wasn’t: a real reporter. She won’t stop because she can’t stop. Congalton accidentally explained it best: Velie is the “Terminator Rabbit.”
Does Congalton sound like someone who’s learned anything at all from what’s happened to Karen Velie and his role in bringing her down? Does Karen Velie act like someone who’s learned something from being exposed as a huge liar and paying the price most – except her – have to pay for lying so publicly and viciously?
Remarked Tenborg’s attorney, James Wagstaffe, after the trial: “[CalCoastNews] is not a newspaper; this is an online rag sheet that sensationalizes. And a local community can be terrorized by that activity. When there are false statements — I believe in the First Amendment, I believe in great investigative journalism. This was not that.”
When the jury announced its verdict at noon on March 16, convicting CalCoastNews, Karen Velie and Dan Blackburn of defamation for libeling Charles Tenborg, awarding him $1.1 million in damages, not all the guilty were present in the courtroom to hear a liar’s fate. One of the guiltiest and slimiest of the no-shows was three hours away from going on the air at KVEC to terrorize a community, because after 25 years rusting on the throne, it’s the only thing that old slanderer Congalton, the corrupt King of “Terror Town Radio,” really knows how to do well.
Some days are born different. Like the day you woke up to find Trump was president. You can feel the Earth shift on its axis. You can feel the steep change in air pressure. Nothing looks the same. You rub your eyes. It isn’t just that such a day is different from any day that came before, the world is different, different in a way that it will never be the same again. It’s a milestone, a breakthrough, one for the books.
March 16 was one of those days. It began when I heard Karen Velie and Dan Blackburn of CalCoastNews had unanimously been convicted by a jury in SLO Superior Court of defaming Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg and ordered to pay $1.1 million to Tenborg in damages.
Spring was in the air, just a week away on the calendar from becoming official. Even the birds in the trees outside the courthouse on Monterey Street were chirping about Velie and Blackburn getting what was coming to them. Justice had been served to Velie and Blackburn on a very expensive silver platter they dropped and broke. Now they have to pay for it.
As pleased as I was that justice unexpectedly made a stop in SLO to deIiver the good verdict, at the same time I was sad for all the others who had been targeted by CalCoastNews over the years and didn’t get the satisfaction of seeing Velie’s face when the verdict was announced. Tenborg’s attorney James Wagstaffe’s courtroom obliteration of Velie, Blackburn and their bumbling pro-bono team of plucked legal eagles is as close as they’re ever going to get to justice.
I was one of the those targets, along with my son, Aaron, ever since Congalton intercepted and published on CalCoastNews an email sent from County Counsel Warren Jensen to Aaron in 2010. In a curious twist in 2011, CalCoastNews approached us about forming a partnership, which we rejected for reasons I’ll explain later. Shortly after, without any provocation, they started lying online about our stillborn business encounter and denigrating us on their blog. Having had enough of their abuse, Aaron and I started investigating CalCoastNews’s reporting and tactics in 2013, writing a series of articles published on my website, The ROCK, including “The Wild Imagination of Karen Velie,” “V is for Vendetta: Inside the CalCoastNews, Congalton Chaos Machine,” and “CalCoastNews and The ROCK: A Brief History,” clearly revealing the motivations behind our articles. Aaron followed up with critical commentary on his blog The Razor, website The Core, and, most effectively, his Facebook page, CalCoastFraud, which became a popular destination for the growing audience of readers and their families directly affected by CalCoastNews’s ceaseless, unsubstantiated accusations and allegations against public figures and private citizens.
We knew they would retaliate against us – they especially wanted to shut Aaron up – but we underestimated just how far they’d go to accomplish that. We soon found ourselves on the receiving end of derogatory emails sent to ROCK readers from Congalton’s camp, then random Congalton potshots at Aaron on the air on KVEC, referring to him as “little blogger boy” and “little Internet troll.” It’s gone on for years, and continues as Congalton seeks to blame everyone but himself for Velie’s fall.
It escalated from there. We soon received calls from the IRS and Social Services. Velie hooked up with a few Los Osos malcontents who claimed to know us back in 2006 and spread the lie that we were paid by Supervisor Adam Hill to write about CalCoastNews, a lie often repeated by Velie. A neighbor began spying on us, listening to our conversations, reporting back to Velie, who claimed she had someone go through our garbage looking for anything she could use. Fake news articles about Aaron were concocted by Velie and Blackburn to incite violence against him. Velie spear carrier, Dane Senser, slandered Aaron at a Morro Bay council meeting and Board of Supervisors meetings, uninterrupted by the Chair. Velie lackey Kevin P. Rice orchestrated a series of obscene robo-calls about Aaron throughout Morro Bay, which led to Aaron resigning from his volunteer position with the Parks & Recreation Committee and Eco Rotary to spare them. Velie called Aaron’s boss at work and tried to get Aaron fired, threatening to write about his boss if his boss didn’t pay for Velie’s silence. Velie’s private investigator/process server Mike Brennler showed up at our door to serve Aaron with a cease and desist order from Velie pro bono lawyer, Stew Jenkins, which, of course, Aaron promptly posted online.
In January 2015, the anonymous FireAdamHill.com Facebook page appeared, long suspected of being a CalCoastNews spin-off (the FPPC says it’s still investigating), ushering in a new low in endless personal attacks featuring and mimicking Velie conspiracies almost word for word. Aaron and I were both prominent targets. Aaron earned a wanted poster sent throughout the county again and again with the phone number of the sheriff’s office, urging CalCoastNews followers and its violent fringe to report him. Others called for direct violence against him and offered to help. My photo appeared along with headshots of other CalCoastNews/FireAdamHill targets under the headline, “Help Arrest and Convict Adam Hill Trolls for Harassing SLO Residents,” which was boosted on Facebook repeatedly for more than a year leading up to the election of Adam Hill. A constant flow of incendiary blog comments against Hill, Aaron and other CalCoastNews targets sought desperately to reinforce the lies and keep the flames of faux outrage burning high through Election Day.
When Tenborg launched his lawsuit in 2012, CalCoastNews shifted its strategy, going after Tenborg on its anonymous blogs, pitching an assortment of conspiratorial scenarios where “the bad guys” were operating against the real victim, CalCoastNews. FireAdamHill was eventually tasked with constantly connecting and conflating Tenborg, Hill, PG&E, Wagstaffe, the law firm of Adamski & Moronski, Aaron, and a changing cast of others in a master plot to shut down CalCoastNews because, it claimed, the forces of corruption had allied against its truthtelling.
In 2016, as the Tenborg trial date approached – after gaining continuances to delay the trial and run up legal expenses in an attempt to force Tenborg to drop his suit – CalCoastNews turned to GoFundMe.com to raise money for depositions and their legal defense. Without a shred of evidence, they blamed Adam Hill and PG&E for being behind Tenborg’s suit, figuring it was a lot easier fundraising against arch nemesis Adam Hill than for a defamation suit they couldn’t really defend. They raised more than $10,000, but not all that money was used for their legal defense in the Tenborg case; part of it went to deposing Aaron to confirm their conspiracy theory that Aaron was a “business associate” paid by Adam Hill to write about CalCoastNews, a clear abuse of process. The allegation is featured in Velie’s personal lawsuit against Hill, which remains active. Immediately following the deposition, Velie made up more fake news about Aaron, claiming revelations that didn’t exist, without a single quote from the deposition transcript because she didn’t have a copy to quote from to support her fabrications. I know how bogus Velie’s account was because I went with Aaron to the deposition and listened at the door. Velie wouldn’t let me in the room, but that didn’t stop me.
When the guilty verdict was finally handed down, Velie again turned to GoFundMe to raise money for an appeal. One of her GoFundMe updates was aimed squarely at me: “We thought our supporters need to know about the constant flow of garbage aimed at CCN by one of SLO Supervisor Adam Hill’s paid flunkies. Although we are loathe to cite the page in any way, we have linked as an example an article from a Facebook page that demeans CCN daily […] Help spread the word!”
Cited was my article that appeared on Aaron’s website, SLOTruth.org, “Karen Velie: The Journalist Con.” Like Velie, I encourage you read it to learn the truth about Karen Velie.
Which brings me back to 2011 and what I told Blackburn when he asked me to explain why we declined to partner with CalCoastNews. I told him I wanted nothing to do with Velie. I told him Velie needed her own editor and lawyer by her side 24/7, and I didn’t want the potential liability of working with someone who required such high maintenance. I knew sooner or later Velie was going to get caught crossing the line one too many times. It was inevitable. You had to be blind, or in love, not to see it. I told Blackburn that if he ever decided to go above ground with their reporting and sources, he could call me. But I also knew that wasn’t going to happen. Finding a scoop and reporting the news were never good enough for Velie and Blackburn. The money, they believed, was in creating news, news that made news. Then they became the news, the kind of news you never ever want to make if you’re in the real news business.
So it was no surprise to me when a jury unanimously found Karen Velie and Dan Blackburn guilty of defamation. I mean, they defamed Aaron and attacked my family for pointing it out! But I have to admit I was a little surprised how long it took for the terrible twosome to be stopped in their tracks. I always knew I was watching a slow-motion train wreck, car crash, ship sinking, or disaster of your choice; I just never accounted for how protected they were by their firewall of attorneys, politicians, extremists, enablers, lackeys and henchmen, and a legal system that makes suing them almost impossible. Until Tenborg stepped forward.
I have no illusions about Velie. She loves to hit the keys. She loves the sound of each letter, each word landing in a space on a computer screen. She loves the idea of writing and reporting more than her ability to actually produce anything remotely resembling good writing and reporting. But it’s a free country, especially for Karen Velie, for whom everything is apparently free, and you can sue a girl for failing, but you can’t make her pay if she claims she doesn’t have any money, living instead entirely off the good will of friends. How convenient. And so Karen Velie will continue to do what Karen Velie does best, what she loves to do most of all: type, type, type. Knitting, knitting, knitting words together, like tricoteuse Madame Defarge in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, knitting her patterns of evil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.