The San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority Board voted unanimously on Wednesday to place the agency’s manager on paid administrative leave because of criminal allegations of misuse of public funds.
In May, several members of the public asked the board to call for a forensic audit of the IWMA’s handling of tax dollars entrusted to it. At that time, SLO County supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson argued against an audit claiming there had been no improprieties. Legal Counsel Ray Biering wanted to limit the discussion of possible financial wrongdoing to an executive committee, which may not have been legally formed.
Following a contentious discussion, the board nevertheless voted unanimously to place a discussion of an audit on its next meeting agenda in September.
Shortly afterwards, the SLO District Attorney’s Office announced it was investigating the IWMA for possible fraud, prompting the board to call for a special meeting.
At Wednesday’s meeting, many of the speakers asked the IWMA board to put manager Bill Worrell on paid administrative leave and to order a forensic audit .
“Fraud and corruption in the IWMA isn’t going to just go away. It can’t magically fix itself,” said Templeton resident Claire Mamakos. “It is time for your board to take constructive, decisive, and corrective measures to get this agency on a proper course for the first time since its’ inception.”
One speaker, Charles Tenborg, asked the board to weigh the “credibility of the information presented against Bill Worrell especially from biased CalCoastNews supporters, who you have heard today misrepresenting themselves as concerned citizens.” Tenborg claimed he had been horribly defamed by CalCoastNews reporters.
In 2012, Tenborg sued CalCoastNews and two reporters over an article about the IWMA and its relationship with contractors, including Tenborg. It was to be the start of a series focused on the IWMA, which was never finished because of the legal threats.
In the two years leading up to the trial, two allies of Tenborg, San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill and online commenter Aaron Ochs, engaged in a campaign of defaming and harassing CalCoastNews reporters, advertisers and reporter’s families.
Hill then threatened advertisers who had business before the board of supervisors. In one instance, Hill sent a CalCoastNews’ advertiser a text that said he was working with Tenborg to destroy CalCoastNews, and the advertiser would also suffer harm if he did not pull his advertising.
CalCoastNews advertising losses left the news site and its staff with virtually no money for a defense.
Two of CalCoastNews’ witnesses died before trial. One died shortly after writing a declaration and the other died before she could be deposed. A third said he was run off the road by another vehicle and was hospitalized during the trial.
In March 2017, most of the reporters’ witnesses and evidence was ruled out of the trial by Judge Barry LaBarbara. Following multiple false statements by Tenborg, the jury returned its verdict, and a judgment was then entered for $1.1 million in favor of Tenborg, an investigator found.
In Aug. 2017, friends of CalCoastNews hired Carl Knudson Investigations to reexamine details of the published article which resulted in the litigation.
During the litigation, Tenborg’s attorney James Wagstaffe failed to inform the court or opposing council that he was professionally connected to the IWMA, a fact only later disclosed by Biering. Generally, attorneys disclose possible conflicts of interest to the court.
“I am not available to meet to discuss the IWMA and the relationship with Mr. Tenborg,” Biering wrote in an email to Knudson. “Also, please be aware that my law firm has a close professional relationship with Mr. Tenborg’s counsel, Jim Wagstaffe.”
Several months after the citizens’ group retained investigator Knudson, Tenborg’s attorneys proposed settlement offers to Karen Velie and Daniel Blackburn.
Velie’s offer stipulated that Tenborg would abandon his entire financial claim in exchange for the her agreement to never again report on him or his companies.
Kerr Wagstaffe attorneys wanted the same pledge from Blackburn, but that situation was different. Tenborg already had forced Blackburn into bankruptcy, who nearly lost the home he and his wife have owned for 21 years. A trust fund had been established by the bankruptcy trustee and funded by a second on Blackburn’s home. Tenborg offered to divide his “share” of that funds money.
And, in what was described as a “non-negotiable” provision, a similar gag order was proposed to cover Worrell and the IWMA, also. Neither the IWMA nor Worrell were a party to Tenborg’s libel complaint against CalCoastNews.
The offer also would have required termination of Knudson’s investigation, a matter over which neither Velie nor Blackburn had any control. Both rejected Tenborg’s demands.
On Aug. 8, the IWMA Board of Directors voted to immediately place manager Bill Worrell on administrative leave effective until his retirement on Sept. 11, a retirement that was not previously scheduled. In addition, the board voted to have the executive committee hire an outside investigator to conduct a forensic audit.