Supervisor campaigns to shut down CalCoastNews
July 16, 2012
By CALCOASTNEWS STAFF
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill has been using his elected position to bully advertisers and supporters of CalCoastNews (CCN) in a campaign to cripple the website.
In several instances, Hill’s own emails, obtained by CCN, have led to cancellations of contracts with businesses advertising on the news website. Hill sent emails to advertisers claiming that CCN reporters have committed crimes. That has been followed by a flurry of emails from Hill to county residents asking that they not support CCN advertisers.
“To claim and solicit donations to a phony site with phony stories is a crime,” Hill said in an email to an advertiser that linked the statement to a veterans site. “Those families and fellow veterans we urge all of you to no longer support any advertisers on the calcoastnews.com site, how many other stories are false, fake and imposters.”
CCN editor Bill Loving, a longtime reporter, editor and professor of journalism, defended CCN and its news staff saying that CCN does not pay sources or perpetrate frauds on the public.
“I teach reporting and media law and ethics. I would not be associated with CalCoastNews if it engaged in those practices,” Loving said. “CalCoastNews works to bring stories to people that otherwise would go unreported. It does good work.”
Sites like CalCoastNews are important for the health of democracy, because journalists tell people what they need to know so they can make informed choices, said Loving.
“It is a trust that we hold and I would not be a party to anything that would undermine CalCoastNews’ credibility or rob people of their confidence in the work of journalists,” he said.
Hill’s campaign against CCN began after he claimed to have heard CCN was planning to report on a proposed homeless service center, which his girlfriend would lead. Hill and a supporter threatened CCN reporters that they would get the Tribune to write negative stories about CCN if the website covered homeless services in any way but a positive manner.
Hill’s threats intensified after CCN reported that Hill cut off the microphone of a person speaking at a supervisor meeting because he did not like what she was saying. CCN also reported when Hill made a call to a Pismo Beach resident who had written a letter to the editor. In the call, Hill pretended to be his political opponent in the last county election.
Hill has “found” postings on the internet and forwarded them to recipients around the county, sometimes within minutes of their creation. The postings contain false claims that CCN has paid sources or deceived the public.
Hill sent an email to Loving referring him to a link with one of the posts. Loving sent a reply thanking Hill and letting him know that he would be in contact with the poster in order to hear his evidence of wrongdoing or get an apology for the statement.
“Requests have been put forward to get the identity of this person whose post Mr. Hill is spreading around,” Loving said. “It’s taking a while to reach him because the author of the post doesn’t seem to exist.”
Hill has threatened persons who are affiliated with the news site, warning them that if they continued to promote or contribute content to the site, they would lose jobs and reputations.
Tribune columnist Bill Morem repeated some of the false assertions being spread by Hill in a front-page column discussing a CCN story about a man caught up in new regulations controlling homeless persons.
The man claimed to have been a decorated veteran. CalCoastNews quoted and paraphrased the man’s claims, attributing the words to him, as all journalistic organizations do.
Morem inaccurately claimed that CCN not investigating the man’s veteran status had led to a federal fraud investigation. His only source to the false allegations was a man who claimed to be a decorated veteran named Steven Williams.
Morem said he did not verify his source was a veteran, was injured in combat, or even that the man’s name was Steven Williams. He also failed to call CCN for a comment or check to verify that CCN had not retracted its story as he had stated in his article.
Among those who have received threatening messages from Hill is Dave Congalton, host of a popular daily talk radio show, Home Town Radio,on 920KVEC.
“You need to take responsibility for promoting someone who has no ethics and gets paid to do hit pieces (yes, we have proof of this),” Hill wrote in a May 30 email to Congalton. Hill strongly suggested that Congalton no longer have CCN reporters as guests on his show.
Hill repeatedly warned that he planned to “go after” CCN after the June election.
Voters in the 3rd District handily returned Hill, a former Cal Poly English teacher, to office in June for a second four-year term. Congalton also received an email from Hill that referred to a file on CalCoastNews being kept by county officials.
“Oh, my, my, after the file I just read about your beloved protege (CCN reporter Karen Velie), I think you will be doing more than ‘distancing’ yourself,” Hill wrote. “Probably you’ll have to hold a press conference to apologize to the entire community. Wow.”
CalCoastNews filed a request under the California Public Records Act to get a copy of the alleged “file.” San Luis Obispo County Council Warren Jensen told reporters that the county does not have a file on CalCoastNews or its reporters.
“He (Hill) did say that he may have referred to such a file in an email, but that any such remarks were not intended to be taken literally,” Jensen said in a July 6 email to CalCoastNews.
Several of Hill’s manufactured claims have been repeated by public officials, many of whom have received email from Hill in which he falsely claims CalCoastNews is paid to write untrue stories and then splits the proceeds with sources who agree to lie.
The claims are not true, Loving said. Loving stepped in as editor after the death of George Ramos, who was the site’s first editor.
“George was a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and a well-respected member of the community. Does anyone think that he would condone that sort of behavior,” Loving said. “Does anyone think I would sully his reputation and memory by allowing anything like that to be done on the CalCoastNews site? I do not.
“Mr. Hill is opening a door to a lawsuit from anyone who has been a CalCoastNews source. Saying that someone takes money to lie is a statement that is defamatory. As Mr. Hill appears to be operating through his county position, this could have the county sitting at the defense table at any number of lawsuits,” Loving said.
Loving has taught media law for more than 20 years, was an adjunct at the University of Oklahoma School of Law and is coauthor of a widely used media law textbook that is in its 13th edition.
Oceano Community Services District Board President Matt Guerrero repeated some of Hill’s claims during a board meeting. He publicly retracted his statement two weeks later, but his comment had been repeated dozens of times on public access television as the meeting was rebroadcast.
CalCoastNews’ Karen Velie has asked Hill several times to correct all untrue statements and to stop sending out the libelous emails.
Hill responded with an email: “LOL.”
In February, CCN first started covering the issue of more aggressive ticketing of the homeless.
In April, attorneys Saro Rizzo and Stew Jenkins filed a lawsuit claiming the city’s aggressive homeless ticketing program is unconstitutional. A few weeks ago, a San Luis Obispo County Superior Court judge granted a preliminary injunction barring police from ticketing homeless people who sleep in their vehicles because it appears to be an unconstitutional way of dealing with the homeless. Both Hill, Torres and the city of San Luis Obispo have promoted the aggressive ticketing as an important aspect of the safe parking program.
Torres requires the handful of homeless permitted to utilize the parking program in which they are allowed to live in their cars, to sign over 70 percent of their income to her department, something Torres also requires of most of those who stay for more than a few weeks in the homeless shelter she runs. In addition, homeless services then charges the client $12.50 monthly in administrative fees.
Torres contends her safe parking program is modeled on Santa Barbara’s homeless parking plan, which also requires participants to enroll in case management and that the monies are used to get people into housing.
And while Santa Barbara’s program includes case management, it does not include the requirement to sign over income and subsidy checks, said Nancy Kapp, Santa Barbara’s Homeless Outreach coordinator and case manager.
“These people are living on $1,000 a month and you don’t take money from these people,” Kapp said. “It is highway robbery and wrong. You don’t give something and ask for something, you give it unconditionally.”
In some areas of the state, homeless services require as much as 50 percent of a shelter resident’s income be placed into an account to be used to get into housing, something that generally takes no more than 100 days. Several programs CCN contacted said monies are generally returned within a day of dropping out of the program.
At a San Luis Obispo City Council meeting earlier this year, Torres said it generally takes one to two years for her staff to get someone doling out 70 percent of their income into low-cost housing. Local homeless people contend very few ever get into housing and it can take almost a year to get monies returned.
Several local attorneys contend several of Torres’ programs result in unconstitutional treatment and criminalization of homelessness.
As of June 1, San Luis Obispo homeless services started enforcing a variety of rules for the homeless to follow including agreeing to searches of their persons and vehicles upon demand and not being seen within an eighth of a mile of the Prado Day Center between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. If a homeless person fails to follow Torres’ rules, she bars them from services such as meals and a place to shower often for months at a time, according to the program’s rules and dozens of citations CCN staff have viewed.
“To deprive someone of public benefits when they are doing something perfectly legal is a violation of due process and cruel and unusual punishment,” San Luis Obispo based attorney Stew Jenkins said.
In an article about the prohibition of services, CCN accurately reported a homeless man had been deprived of services after his bike was spotted on Prado Road, but the man exaggerated his status by claiming he was a decorated veteran with several medals.
CCN issued an update correcting the story after the man admitted he was not a decorated veteran.
After that correction, Hill and the Tribune began making untrue claims that CalCoastNews was under investigation from federal officials for fraud. The Tribune went on to repeat Hill’s false claims that CCN received public donations to pay the man for making his false claim of being a veteran.
Hill has also threatened radio personalities who have hosted CCN’s reporters on their shows with a denial of access to public officials. Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Tony Cippola said Sheriff Ian Parkinson has a policy of not allowing CCN the same access as other local media.
“The sheriff has a policy that says I cannot do phone interviews with CalCoastNews reporters,” Cippola said.
Two years ago, CCN Senior Correspondent Daniel Blackburn was warned by then Public Information Officer Rob Bryn that if Blackburn covered a story reflecting negatively on Ian Parkinson, CCN’s access to information would be limited. At the time, then-CCN editor Ramos told Bryn that he had vetted CCN’s stories and he stood behind them.
Several county agencies, including the San Luis Obispo District Attorney’s office, have refused to provide CCN press releases or interviews following investigative reporting by the news site of questionable acts and omissions within those departments.
California case law has consistently supported the rights of all media to have the same access to government, to prevent public officials from manipulating the media with threats of cutting off information.