CalCoastNews and The Sobering Truth

UPDATE (August 27): The New Times has published Velie’s police report. Their staff writes, “There are a lot of opening lines in this story” in their article. That’s an understatement.

UPDATE (August 25): The New Times published a memo to the San Luis Obispo City Council by SLO Police Chief Steve Gesell, who reiterated information presented in this article. Dated August 23, 2013, the memo states, “[Statements made by Velie claiming she was targeted due to her position as a reporter for the Cal Coast News] are false and the Police Department is releasing the following information in order to provide accurate factual background as to the events leading to Ms. Velie’s arrest.”

On August 13, CalCoastNews (CCN) Publisher Karen Velie was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence.  The timing was impeccable. Around that time, Velie and CCN posted a flurry of blog articles micro-scoping District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill and his fiance, Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo Homeless Services Director Dee Torres. Then, news broke. According to a tentative ruling issued by SLO County Superior Court judge Barry LaBarbara, CCN private investigator Mike Brennler‘s comments to Torres’ ex-husband — about her allegedly stealing gift cards donated to CAPSLO — was constitutionally protected.

So what’s the takeaway from all these developments? According to Velie, Adam Hill and CAPSLO masterminded her arrest. 

Never one to shy away from controversy, Velie published an article on August 16 about Hill allegedly trying to get a special witness in Torres’ defamation lawsuit, Ralph Almirol, to change his story about Torres. Special witness Almirol is Torres’ ex-boyfriend. Though she did not disclose his criminal history to readers, Velie published an except of a Facebook conversations Hill had with Almirol. Part of the conversation was paraphrased by Velie with no text logs to quantify the amount of texts she claimed Hill sent to Almirol. Velie provided an excerpt of two conversations that took place: one on March 26 and the other on June 22.

The conversation on March 26 showed Hill confronting Almirol. Though CCN reporters and readers speculated tirelessly over what Hill meant by “123,” there was little attention given to Almirol’s line, “Would you like to know the things I sexually did to your finance?” On August 20, Velie appeared on 92.0 KVEC’s “Dave Congalton Show” to discuss the article. When Velie was about to mention Almirol’s derogatory remark to Hill, published by CCN, Congalton intervened.

“Don’t go there,” he told Velie. “Don’t go there.” Congalton prevented Velie from incriminating her questionable source, and kept listeners from learning what CCN actually published.

Later in the show, Velie attempted to justify her source’s exasperation with Torres.

“[Almirol] only hit her once,” said Velie.

Velie awkwardly defended Almirol’s violent conduct by stating that Torres that filed restraining orders against him gratuitously in order to keep him away from his daughter, but she didn’t go into detail about his criminal record.

In journalism, a source’s criminal record is often considered as a means of determining character and establishing credibility. Here, Almirol’s criminal record is undoubtedly relevant to Velie’s August 16 article. Velie has repeatedly acknowledged that his record exists and that it was posted on Razor Online. The record offers much-needed context, which would’ve helped illuminate the conflict between Hill and Almirol. That context wouldn’t necessarily make one person more righteous or dignified than the other. Nonetheless, Velie’s repeated acknowledgment of Almirol’s criminal record on the air and the repeated omission of that information on the website signifies textbook deception.

“It’s Complicated”

To date, Almirol and CalCoastNews have offered nothing more than anecdotal evidence of theft of gift cards; an exhaustive forensic analysis of e-mails and articles from CCN has revealed no hard evidence of wrongdoing. Razor Online previously discussed the fallibility of proving donated gift card theft. The lack of hard evidence naturally led us to question Almirol’s motives.

The conversation between Hill and Almirol that Velie showed readers offered a glimpse into Almirol’s motives.

“If Dee was a good person she would never have stopped [redacted] and I from having a relationship. It is a two way street Adam. Dee could make this right she does not want too so it on her for her actions are now being called into question and should be,” wrote Almirol on March 26.

Court records and transcripts obtained by Razor Online revealed that Torres has had a restraining order against Almirol since 2005. The restraining order remains active. Records show that the restraining order was renewed three times. For each renewal, there were e-mails sent to her personal and work e-mail addresses. Text messages sent to Torres’ phone contained threats against her, according to court transcripts and written declarations by Torres. The restraining orders specifically prohibited communication with Torres. Torres re-filed the restraining order in 2012 after Almirol repeatedly showed up at her workplace. The evidence shows that Almirol repeatedly and brazenly violated the restraining orders.

Velie did not provide this information to readers.

There’s more to this story.

On March 20, Almirol shared CCN’s article about Torres on his Facebook — which featured his statements — and wrote, “Wow! My Ex The one who did not want to work with me and let me go to China!” More than a month earlier, Almirol stated that he wished to be in a relationship with his daughter — who he is prohibited from seeing as a result of the restraining orders — “that does not involve [her] mother.”

Earlier this year, Almirol was offered a job opportunity in China. Because he currently owes $3,000 in child support, Almirol has been denied a passport. According to statements Almirol has made to friends and family, he tried in good faith to get Torres to temporarily waive his support fees in court so he could get his passport and take advantage of this new job opportunity, but Torres declined. Almirol stated that the new job would help him pay his child support back payments and provide for his family. Between the time he claimed Torres used donated gift cards to receiving this job opportunity — which he never clearly explained to the sources we spoke to — Almirol never submitted a criminal complaint. Only when he sought the job opportunity in China did he came forward with criminal allegations against his ex-girlfriend.

“[Velie] knew about this,” said a friend of Almirol’s on August 17. “It’s karma for what [Torres] did to him.”

Coincidentally, Almirol sent a message to Hill the same day. Almirol, who appeared more passive and conciliatory, reiterated the circumstances in more detail in hopes that Hill would help him.

“I would like to work something out with her so I may leave the country,” he pleaded. “I am asking you to be our mediator and I just want to leave the country, I think it would benefit everyone… don’t you think?”

In the March 26 conversation with Hill, it appeared that Almirol’s motives were more altruistic in nature. “I am doing the honorable thing and willing to take what punishment I deserve for my part in letting my children and myself benefit from the charity of others for those that were less fortunate then us,” he wrote.

Without providing any details of Almirol’s back story, Velie was able to convince her readers that Hill was provoking Almirol. There’s reason to believe that the conversations posted were truncated to show coercion by Hill as it pertained to Torres’ continued lawsuit against Brennler. However, the chat logs we’ve seen at Razor Online only referred to statements Almirol made to CalCoastNews, not declarations filed in court. We didn’t see evidence of witness tampering. Given Almirol was formally introduced to the lawsuit on August 15 in the form of a declaration, it’s difficult to make the case that Hill was attempting to change Almirol’s statements with respect to Torres’ lawsuit. We’ve determined that Velie was manipulative by not offering additional clarity. It’s what we call “strategic omission.”

The Ruling, Served on Ice

On August 19, just a few days after Velie posted snippets of conversation between Hill and Almirol, CCN cub reporter Josh Friedman stated that Torres was “untruthful” in her court declarations. According to Friedman, Torres stated that she was a “private person,” which he accurately stated was an attribute that lowered the standard of proof of defamation. Brennler argued that she was a public figure for several reasons. From Judge LaBarbara’s August 22 tentative ruling:

Addressing the homeless in San Luis Obispo can be classified as a public controversy which is debated publicly. Plaintiff has admittedly undertaken to address in the problem in her role as Homeless Services Coordinator for CAPSLO and has voluntarily assisted the City and the County in developing plans to end homelessness. This includes applying for her position on the Homeless Services Oversight Council. Finally, the alleged defamation is germane to Plaintiff’s participation in the controversy. It appears Plaintiff is a limited public purpose figure.

Because she is a limited purpose public figure, LaBarbara ruled that Torres would need to show “actual malice” by Brennler when he spoke to Torres’ ex-husband about the theft allegations. According to LaBarbara, “[Torres] fails to meet her burden of establishing a probability of prevailing on her defamation claim because she, as a public figure, fails to meet her burden to show clear and convincing evidence of actual malice.”

In anticipation of LaBarbara ruling that Torres is a public figure, Torres’ attorney Roy Ogden filed a motion to have an informal discovery conference and at an ex parte hearing, which would allow him to depose Brennler on the issue of malice. Theoretically, the deposition would help Torres find out whether or not Brennler was harboring actual malice. LaBarbara struck down the motion, writing that granting the plaintiff’s motion would “not likely […] aid Plaintiff in meeting her burden of proof.”

However, the ruling itself is not based on the merit of the allegations.

The lawsuit itself was not dismissed. On August 22, Judge LaBarbara granted the plaintiff a continuance after Ogden told the court that he had not seen the declarations filed by Brennler and Almirol. Brennler’s attorney Stew Jenkins contested Ogden’s claim, stating that Almirol’s declaration was served to Torres’ attorney on August 15.

On August 23, The Tribune and CalCoastNews published dueling accounts about the court hearing. The most prominent similarity between the two articles is the focus on the classification of “public figure” versus “private person.”

The debate has more nuances than the claim that Torres was being “untruthful.”

Tribune writer Patrick S. Pemberton reported, “Ogden argued that Torres was only a public figure because CalCoastNews made her one, and that she didn’t intentionally thrust herself into a public controversy with the intention of affecting the outcome of the controversy, one of the requirements for being considered a public figure.”

LaBarbara disagreed with Ogden, though Torres’ attorney brought up an interesting point.

CalCoastNews published several articles about Torres, accusing her of misappropriation of donations (i.e. gift cards), mistreatment of homeless services recipients, and treating employees poorly. In our investigation into CalCoastNews, we found that the website relies heavily on unnamed sources, ex-employees (with questionable employment records) that did not pursue administrative remedies at the time they “witnessed” Torres supposedly acting inappropriately, and homeless service recipients that aren’t available for contact. CCN has published accusations in an attempt to substantiate additional allegations, and has repeatedly failed to furnish physical evidence to substantiate their claims and claims made by their oft-repeated “numerous” sources.

There’s no dispute from the parties involved that Torres works for an organization that operates in the public interest and addresses the controversy surrounding homelessness. It’s true that Torres has issued statements to the media regarding news on CAPSLO. Recently, she was quoted in articles about the recent bed-bug infestation at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter.

However, LaBarbara’s ruling could set a chilling precedent that puts any public sector employee serving in the public interest at a legal disadvantage. As it stands, the ruling appears to indicate that any media outlet that produces a series of unverified accusations and covers them under the presumption of truth can transform an accused public employee into a limited purpose public figure. The ruling gives the media free reign to frame a “public debate” under false and/or negligent pretenses and force public employees accused of wrongdoing to prove “actual malice” pursuant to public figure defamation prerequisites. If the public debate was on homelessness in general, then Torres would have a harder time trying to excuse herself from it as a “private persons.” Since the issue is about Torres herself and the CalCoastNews-exclusive controversy that personally accuses her of theft, there is room for debate.

A Drunken Conspiracy

On August 13, Velie was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. According to Velie, who revealed her arrest more than one week later on CCN in an article, claimed that she was originally pulled over for an unsafe lane change. The officer, who pulled her over, asked if she had been drinking. She claimed that she had “a few glasses of wine” a few hours earlier. Nevertheless, the officer subjected her to a breathalyzer test and subsequently booked her for DUI.

According to Velie, immediately prior to being arrested, she was teaching a bridge class at Gennaro’s Grill & Garden in San Luis Obispo. 24 people attended the class, the majority of whom stated that she didn’t appear intoxicated. Velie claimed that several people attended the bridge class, including former State Senator Sam Blakeslee and individuals who coincidentally were directly connected to CalCoastNews’ coverage on CAPSLO and Torres, including Brennler’s attorney, Stew Jenkins, and Josh Friedman. On his show Congalton referred to those attending as “pillars of the community.”

On August 21, Congalton invited Velie and Friedman onto the show to discuss the DUI. She repeated what was written in the CCN article, stating that the arrest directly correlates to her reporting on homeless services. Velie claimed that her DUI mugshot was anonymously sent to CCN advertisers and members of the community by Supervisor Hill and his “affiliates.” She did not furnish any e-mails or text messages that directly link Hill or his “affiliates” to messages supposedly being dispatched to officials and advertisers. Her claim about Hill’s “prolonged attacks on CalCoastNews” was meant to lend credence to the notion that her arrest was tied to her reporting on the supervisor, Torres and CAPSLO, including the slander suit by Torres against Brennler.

“I know that Adam Hill has been texting for several days […] telling advertisers that I had a DUI,” Velie told Congalton. She offered no evidence.

In the CCN article, it reads, “Hill sent text messages to CalCoastNews advertisers Tuesday morning informing them of Velie’s arrest.”

Congalton reminded Velie that Hill attends Board of Supervisors meetings on Tuesday mornings.

“Actually, it wasn’t ‘morning,'” Velie stuttered. “It was throughout the day, but mostly before and after [the meeting]. I do not think he was doing it during the board meeting, but I will say there are numerous, numerous threats to people that affiliate with CalCoastNews that are done, during working hours, from Adam Hill […] He’s doing this while being paid by taxpayers to be a supervisor in this county.”

No correction or clarification was made to the article to reflect Velie’s revised statements on Congalton’s show.

Congalton pressed Velie and Friedman on the link between the DUI and their reporting. “Where do you make the link? How do you link your reporting to Karen being arrested?” asked Congalton.

Friedman hedged. “I don’t know for sure what was going through the mind of the officer, but what’s clear is that the arrest has come amid a flurry of attacks on Karen and on CalCoastNews. And since the arrest, [the DUI] has been used, in particular by the supervisor, to continue to go after the advertisers; to continue to go after the business that is CalCoastNews.”

The same person, who co-wrote the article and posted a photo of arresting officer Josh Walsh in an attempt to lump him into the conspiracy, told Congalton that he “didn’t know for sure” what the officer’s intentions were.

No correction or clarification was made to the article to reflect Friedman’s revised statements on Congalton’s show.

Unimpressed with Friedman’s explanation, Congalton asked again about the link — this time, to Velie.

“The link is that we’re reporting about the city of SLO,” Velie told Congalton. “We’re reporting about the homeless issue. Chief [Steve] Gesell has said publicly that he believes that I’m out to get him. I don’t know Chief Gesell. I’m absolutely not out to get Chief Gesell. We are writing about the homeless issue, which has not a whole lot to do with Chief Gesell. And then I talked to others. I’ve had officers tell me they’ve never heard of someone being pulled over like this.”

“There are a number of issues here,” said Velie.

If Gesell doesn’t have much to do with the homeless issue, how can a link be established?

“So do you believe that you were targeted by the SLO police department?” asked Congalton.

“[Josh Walsh] might have pulled me over, but I believe I was arrested because of who I am,” she replied.

Sources who work with the city police department and with knowledge of the arrest could not provide the actual police report since there is currently an active investigation into Velie’s DUI. However, we can independently confirm certain details about the arrest.

Sources tell us that on August 13, after she was pulled over, the officer smelled alcohol on her breath. When she was pulled over, Velie asked, “Do you know who I am?” The officer didn’t know.

“They don’t arrest people for a .06 [BAC],” Velie told Congalton.

We learned that she wasn’t arrested for a .06. She blew a .079 and subsequently failed the field sobriety test. She also denied the request for a blood test.

This fact contradicts CCN’s reporting on the DUI. Blackburn, Friedman and Velie repeatedly wrote and claimed that their reporter had the BAC of .06.

Velie distanced herself from the conversation about the link between CCN’s reporting and her arrest to educate Congalton on the the arresting officer. Walsh, says Velie, won several awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) for his record on DUI arrests. On their Facebook, the SLO Police Department mentioned that Walsh received a 2012 Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) award for apprehending 34 DUI drivers last year. Officer Walsh also received a second award for arresting more DUI drivers then any other officer working for a municipality.

Velie was implying that Walsh was simply enhancing his growing tally of DUI arrests, adding another notch in his belt, but she ventured away from statements made in CCN’s article about her arrest.

When she was asked about why she waited a week to publish the story, she quickly rattled off reasons; one of them being that a lawyer advised her to wait until the DUI case was closed. As of press time, the case is ongoing. The other reason is that Hill, according to her, was sending messages to CCN’s advertisers and she wanted to clear the record. The timing of the article is suspect because of the issuance of the tentative ruling in Torres v. Brennler and that the case was being heard in court the next day.

CCN Co-founder Dan Blackburn phoned into the Congalton show and weighed in on the DUI controversy, stating that the local media should be aware of the persecution taking place against the media, that is, CCN, by government officials. He spoke about how open and obvious the evidence was that backed CalCoastNews’ reporting.

“It’s about the First Amendment,” said Blackburn. He concluded later by saying, “It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.”

Former Congresswoman Andrea Seastrand (R-Ca.) called into the show to support Congalton, Blackburn, Velie and Friedman. She stated that there was “tyranny” afoot in San Luis Obispo County.

The Final Cocktail

CCN’s expansion into global conspiracy to avoid responsibility and promote its agenda is deeply disturbing on many, many levels. When a news outlet or anyone pretending to be a news outlet is participating in an cantankerous cover-up — as a means of advancing the narrative that the press is being suppressed by those in power — that is a disservice to journalism. Taking all these factual inaccuracies and inconsistencies into account, taking the insecurity and the lying (yes, lying) into account, it’s disturbing that a news outlet would go this far to socially engineer a conflict and present it as a First Amendment issue that is otherwise a legitimate, life-changing concern to many journalists around the world. Many journalists that fight for free speech under governments that violently oppress it don’t have the luxury of turning a DUI arrest into rallying cry for First Amendment rights.

There is plenty to be said about the off-brand of “journalism” that Dan Blackburn, Dave Congalton, Josh Friedman and Karen Velie present. There is plenty to be said about the people who are adversely impacted by their reporting. There’s plenty to be said about a website that glorifies a domestic violence suspect-opportunist as a means of attacking a supervisor and his family. We can talk about the amorality of falsifying details about the arrest of CalCoastNews’ publisher and recklessly shaming the police department for a fact-deficient conspiracy that somehow relates to their cut-throat reporting on homeless services.

Clearly, as Velie always says, there are numerous, numerous issues. But we’ll let the facts speak for themselves. At this point, we’re free speechless.

— Aaron Ochs