By CCT STAFF
A private investigator who spent 23 years as an IRS special agent and whose work helped dismantle a Colombian drug cartel is suing San Luis Obispo County’s waste disposal agency and District Attorney Dan Dow to force the release of records that have been sought for more than seven years.
Carl Knudson, the private investigator, says that the defendants have been involved in an effort to conceal the contents of the records. Knudson’s attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan, from Davis, Calif., filed Knudson’s suit in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court. The suit names the county’s Integrated Waste Management Authority and the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney.
Knudson’s lawsuit asserts that the defendants’ conduct violates the state’s Constitution and the California Public Records Act. Because the IWMA is a government entity, the state’s public record act applies.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the agency to provide the requested documents.
Knudson came to San Luis Obispo following a libel suit brought by Charles Tenborg, an IWMA private contractor against CalCoastNews and two of its reporters. CalCoastNews began the first of a series of investigative articles about the IWMA, Tenborg and practices that they engaged in.
When the reporters sought IWMA records to be used in their defense, IWMA manager William Worrell claimed that most records prior to and including 2013 had been destroyed.
After Tenborg won a $1.1 million judgment in 2017, a group of county residents hired Knudson to investigate Tenborg, the IWMA and the facts of the case.
Knudson also was retained to probe the finances of the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District. There, he uncovered what he believes to be evidence of wrongdoing by district officials, staff and a contractor.
In Knudson’s 10-month investigation of IWMA, he found significant evidence of unlawful use of public funds. One of his findings was that IWMA employees used an agency credit card for personal expenses, and that nearly a half-million dollars was unaccounted for.
Knudson also obtained extensive public records from state agencies in 2018 showing that Tenborg unlawfully filed false claims to CalRecycle for 17 consecutive months.
Tenborg was forced to reimburse the state and sign a statement admitting to the transgressions three weeks prior to the start of the CalCoastNews trial. Other documents showed an ongoing pattern of unlawful waste disposal practices by both the IWMA and Tenborg.
Knudson provided Dow with his reports and accompanying documents. Dow then contacted IWMA’s then-manager William Worrell to request IWMA records.
Employees of the IWMA quickly brought in a large shredder and destroyed hundreds, if not thousands, of documents pertaining to decades of questionable financial transactions and private spending by the agency, according to former IWMA interim administrator Michael Giancola. Agency officials also authorized and carried out the deletion of voluminous computer records.
Giancola responded by ordering a forensic accounting for the agency’s many computers.
When CalCoastNews reported extensively on the unfolding revelations, the IWMA board asked for and received Worrell’s early retirement. Then the board – comprised of 11 county and city elected officials – voted to retain an independent auditing firm to perform a “deep forensic audit” of the agency’s records. Subsequently, David Walls provided “one or more reports” to IWMA officials, according to Knudson’s lawsuit.
Additionally, a computer expert, Steve Burgess, managed to recover “some or all of the lost data” and provided that information to the IWMA.
In Nov. 2018, reporter Karen Velie made a public request for grant applications made by the IWMA.
Months after the 10-day period that agencies have to respond to records requests, IWMA staff said Velie could pick up the documents. But before her arrival, IWMA staff called back to say investigators from the district attorney’s office had looked at the documents. The DA investigators asked if they could have them and directed the IWMA not to give reporters the documents, IWMA staff said.
Dow subsequently told Velie that he gave no such direction to the IWMA.
Shortly before the end of 2018, Knudson made a request for IWMA records of the computer forensic audit and the financial audit. A month after that and without getting the records, Knudson asked where the records were. IWMA staff said, first, that they were still working on gathering records, and subsequently that they could not find the reports.
In July 2019, Velie told IWMA staffers that their refusal to provide the records that she and Knudson requested amounted to a violation of the Public Record’s Act. Shortly after that, IWMA staffer Patti Toews said the records both Velie and Knudson requested would be provided to them on thumb drives.
Toews is the sole staffer to remain following CalCoastNews’ reporting. She has said she had no knowledge of the agency corruption which surrounded her.
When Velie arrived at the IWMA offices in August, Brook Stayner, the agency’s new manager, said that Jeff Minnery, IWMA’s attorney, and the District Attorney’s Office had asked that he not provide the records. Even so, Stayner provided records of the grant applications, Velie said.
Later in August, an IWMA staff member told Knudson the records he sought could not be found. On the same day, Stayner wrote in an email that the IWMA had given the records to the District Attorney’s Office. The IWMA did not keep a copy, Stayner wrote.
Knudson was incredulous.
“It defies logic that they would spend tens of thousands of dollars for that computer forensic work and not keep a copy for themselves,” Knudson said. “What was the purpose of doing the research if you were not going to use it.”
Among other demands, the lawsuit seeks a peremptory writ of mandate ordering the respondents to immediately provide all of the documents Knudson sought.