OPINION by DANIEL BLACKBURN
Six years ago today, an article was published on CalCoastNews that would forever reshape the lives of its authors and their families — and ultimately those of the article’s subjects.
The article discussed questionable practices by the county’s garbage agency, the Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA), its 20-year manager William Worrell, and a favored contractor, Charles K. Tenborg. The article bore the bylines of Karen Velie and me.
A few weeks later, Worrell and Tenborg sent a demand for retraction. It would be declined. Then Tenborg filed the lawsuit; Worrell did not join. Now it is apparent why.
At the time, we were puzzled by Tenborg’s choice of lawyers in filing the lawsuit, Kerr & Wagstaffe, a San Francisco law firm with a perceived reputation for representing First Amendment issues.
It was only much later that it was learned that Kerr & Wagstaffe has an ongoing 30-year-plus professional affiliation with local attorneys Adamski Moroski Madden Cumberland & Green. Raymond Biering is a partner. He’s also been counsel to the IWMA for the past 20 years, the guy whose legal opinions to Worrell and the IWMA board have led to the agency’s current disarray and ongoing criminal investigation.
“Please be aware that my law firm has a close professional relationship with Mr. Tenborg’s counsel, Jim Wagstaffe,” Biering wrote in an email following the trial, in which he said he was declining to provide public information regarding issues at trial because of his relationship with Tenborg.
This relationship was never divulged by Wagstaffe. Instead, Wagstaffe told attorney James Duenow, a prominent patriarch in the San Luis Obispo County legal community, that the firms were not affiliated. It is a conflict for an attorney for a government agency to serve as counsel for consultants to the agency.
There’s one place to look for overall culpability in the legal morass the IWMA currently finds itself in, and that’s at Biering.
Nevertheless, the IWMA board today will consider assigning a contract for Adamski Moroski Madden Cumberland & Green to serve as the agency’s counsel, simply demonstrating that some lessons are damned hard for some people to learn.
Wagstaffe, a dapper bantam rooster, was joined in Tenborg’s representation by partner Ivo Labar, a hulking presence whose primary task seemed to be intimidation.
One who wasn’t intimidated was Duenow. He approached Wagstaffe during a break in the trial, asking if Wagstaffe knew he was “representing a polluter.”
The comment was overheard by New Times reporter Chris McGuinness, who noted it in a brief article. McGuinness sat through the whole trial, to his credit, but as it turned out he didn’t seem to absorb much of it. McGuinness was given government codes, rules, and laws covering issues disputed during trial, but nothing came of that. The New Times was too busy attempting to discredit a competitor. These efforts continue to this very day.
It was an armchair turkey shoot for local media to determine the validity of the litigated report. They chose instead to dance upon what they prematurely thought would be our graves and that of CalCoastNews.
Introduction of much of our evidence was subsequently denied by Judge Barry LaBarbara on a series of technicalities. In the end, LaBarbara rejected 11 of 13 witnesses we planned to present.
We were the proverbial lambs led to slaughter. While our lawyers diddled, Wagstaffe and Labar trotted out a dog-and-pony show worthy of Perry Mason. The jury found, 11-1, that we had embarrassed and hurt Tenborg’s feelings in defaming him, and awarded him $1.1 million. This, despite testimony that made clear that neither Velie nor I had two nickels to rub together.
The lone juror siding with us approached us immediately following the verdict, introduced himself, and said he was a recent naturalized citizen of the United States of America. He said none of his fellow jurors “understood the First Amendment.”
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other major publications reported on the trial result, receiving the tip compliments of county supervisor Adam Hill and one of his blogging buddies.
Hill has boasted often and publicly that he is the juice behind the lawsuit; he was incoming president of the IWMA board when the lawsuit was filed.
Hill long has nurtured a grudge against CalCoastNews, the only news entity to report on his unethical behavior and exploitation of his public office. A long series of articles in 2010-11 focused on the activities of Dee Torres, who ran the homeless division of Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO).
She was placed on leave and left the agency following CalCoastNews reports of her abuse of gift cards intended for the homeless at Christmas.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Torres and Hill were in a relationship. They have since married. And Hill went off.
Hill and his sycophant blogger fed a steady stream of of lies throughout the local community with obvious intent to poison the jury pool. They insulted Velie’s grandchildren and even helped facilitate the kids’ kidnapping by the county’s Child Protective Services. And they unleashed an unholy band of forked-tongue online assailants whose sole objective was trashing Velie.
There was a very specific reason things went awry at our trial. It’s called perjury.
For example, two weeks before the trial’s start, Tenborg admitted guilt in 17 separate incidences of fraudulent invoice submittals to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and agreed to repay the state the full amount of money he had unlawfully obtained. Each of those deceitful invoices was for more than $2,000.
However, Tenborg testified before and during trial that he had always complied with all environmental regulations and that he had never been the subject of any enforcement action by the DTSC, a false claim that several government officials also parroted in court. Prior to our trial, DTSC officials declined to share that information because of the agency’s ongoing investigation into Tenborg’s allegedly illegal practices.
In the aftermath of the trial, Velie and I learned that we have many friends in this county and beyond. A group of them banded together to hire Carl Knudson, a prominent private investigator with a background as an IRS forensic sleuth whose work is credited with bringing down the Columbia cartels and unraveling the Oliver North fiasco in the late 1980s.
Knudson’s assignment was to verify the facts contained in the offending article. He would discover much more beyond that scope.
The investigator’s insertion into the equation had an almost immediate impact. Just months after the citizens’ group retained Knudson, Wagstaffe proposed settlement offers to Velie and me.
As previously reported, Velie’s offer stipulated that Tenborg would abandon his entire financial claim in exchange for her agreement to never again report on him or his companies. (Yes, this is just as suspicious as it sounds.)
Wagstaffe attorneys sought the same pledge from me, but my situation was different. Tenborg already had forced me into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and I nearly lost the home I’ve owned with my wife for 22 years. A trust fund had been established by the bankruptcy trustee and funded by a $100,000 second on my home, thanks to the generosity of one of my wife’s sisters. Tenborg offered to divide his “share” of that fund’s 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 was party to Tenborg’s libel complaint against CalCoastNews. (What does this say?)
The offer also would have required termination of Knudson’s investigation, a matter over which neither Velie nor I had any control. We both rejected Tenborg’s demands.
While these negotiations dragged on, Hill and his blogger buddy wondered online if Velie and I would choose suicide, or simply leave town. The blogger buddy threatened to throw bleach in Velie daughter’s eyes, earning him a temporary restraining order.
Now, however, armed with facts that Worrell, Tenborg, and Hill hoped we’d never possess, it’s time to return serve. It is likely that all three men may have thought more than once that this is a fight they wish they’d never started.
Worrell, faced with evidence of his history of fiscal mismanagement and astounding abuse of an IWMA credit card, was forced to resign a year before he planned while county officials determine the status of his tax-supported retirement. And now he, Tenborg, Hill, and others are under a criminal investigation by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney for their unchecked plunder of county taxpayers.
The IWMA has been a piggy bank for its employees and favored contractors.
These bullies thought we were fatally wounded by their spurious lawsuit, and frankly, they came close. Hill and Tenborg boasted openly about “getting Blackburn’s house.” And Velie gets hassled into court every three months to explain, again, that she has no resources because of the lawsuit.
But we remain standing and continue publishing, unwilling to bend to this malicious attempt to muzzle this news agency. We continue to hold government accountable and to inform the public. Why? Because we care about our community and we care about the truth.
It’s been one hell of a ride, but the finish line is in sight — and that should be very, very disconcerting to Worrell, Tenborg, Hill, and their lying, scheming associates.
Daniel Blackburn can be harassed at email@example.com