CalCoastNews’ top stories of 2012
January 1, 2013
By CALCOASTNEWS STAFF
“Law enforcement officers have names for the girls offering them sex on the beat: Badge Bunny. Holster Sniffer. Uniform Jumper. Handcuff Hugger. In Paso Robles, brethren in blue have one more: The Chief.”
And with those words commenced the longest-running, most bizarre, totally jaw-dropping story of 2012 in San Luis Obispo County. Yet former Paso Robles top cop Lisa Solomon-Chitty’s is only one of many entertaining, disturbing, informative, interesting stories in a year crammed with colorful, conniving, often contemptible, characters dominating both the public and private sectors.
But the most important single story of the past 12 months is how local government agencies and media not only allowed, but facilitated and sometimes encouraged, shabby individual behavior — usually costing taxpayers in one way or another.
1. A chief’s indiscretions
Solomon-Chitty was accused by some of her own troops of sexual improprieties and unlawful management practices early in the year. And while for months CalCoastNews reported on the allegations, other local media — with the notable exception of KSBY — either ignored the emerging story completely, or published laudatory articles about Solomon-Chitty.
She eventually departed city service, blaming “a local website” for “spreading rumors” about her, making her job “impossible.” She took with her a $250,000 gift of city funds, the council and mayor either defending her, or remaining mute, and city taxpayers are still left to wonder why they got hooked for the tab.
2. Golden boy Kelly Gearhart charged
Onetime Atascadero “Person of the Year” and prominent North County land developer Kelly Gearhart was indicted by a federal grand jury and faces today 16 charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. State and federal investigators call it a “multi-million-dollar case.”
Gearhart’s questionable financial dealings were brought to light in a lengthy, ongoing series of articles by CalCoastNews starting in 2008. Again, local media ignored the story, and Atascadero officials continued to heap public praise on him. He now stands accused of “bilking of investors who put money into Central Coast real estate projects – money that was siphoned off for other purposes, including maintaining a lavish lifestyle,” investigators said.
He has not yet been arrested, but if convicted, Gearhart could spend as much as 300 years in federal prison. He awaits court appearances in Los Angeles.
The developer threatened to sue the news website following the publishing of articles outlining his questionable investment activities in one particular project, the Vista del Hombre golf and business park located on the outskirts of Paso Robles. That lawsuit never materialized.
3. Fraud helpmate busted
An Atascadero man who was Gearhart’s key financial ally is awaiting sentencing on federal fraud charges. James Hurst Miller, the former president of Hurst Financial Inc., agreed to plead guilty to charges of swindling as many as 1,200 investors out of more than $100 million in a fraudulent investment scheme.
A 2008 CalCoastNews investigation revealed James Hurst Miller and former North County developer Kelly Gearhart allegedly bilked more than 1,200 people, primarily senior investors, out of much of their life’s savings.
If the court convicts Miller on all four counts — mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and making a false statement to a bank — he would spend a maximum sentence of 80 years in federal prison.
Under an alleged plea agreement discussion discovered by CalCoastNews in April, Miller had agreed to testify against other persons being investigated by the FBI. In return, Miller was requesting prosecutors reduce the four counts to one and allow him to serve a reduced prison sentence in the minimum-security federal correction facility located in Lompoc Calif.
4. San Luis Obispo fouls the environment
San Luis Obispo city employees are looking at possible civil and administrative fines as well as arrests following the dumping of toxic chemicals in a city facility. City Attorney Christine Dietrick told council members and managers about the possibility after hearing from state investigators..
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), and other regulatory agencies, started to investigate the deliberate dumping of the chemicals following an exclusive CalCoastNews story on the incident. The state agencies have been interviewing city workers in the wake of the story.
CalCoastNews reported Dec. 16 that Bud Nance, a manager with the city’s utilities department, told several subordinates to empty out cans of acetones, varnish, epoxy, paints and creosotes onto the yard’s asphalt parking lot near a wetlands area.
5. Dunes dust remains contentious
The local chapter of the Sierra Club lost its appeal to force off-road vehicles from a portion of the Oceano Dunes that the state rents from San Luis Obispo County.
In 2008, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit claiming vehicles should be banned from the state’s vehicular recreation area’s 584-acre La Grande Tract. The club argued that the County’s Coastal Plan Map lists it as a buffer zone which means vehicles are banned. Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall ruled that it was too late for the Sierra Club to mount a challenge
“Despite two pleading attempts, Sierra Club has failed to allege that State Parks has a clear and present ministerial duty to ban off-highway-vehicle activities on the La Grande Tract,” an appellate court decision read. “Sierra Club is barred from collaterally attacking the 1982 Coastal Development Permit by suing for mandamus, declaratory, or equitable relief.”
In 2011, the local APCD passed a dust rule that requires state parks to reduce particulate matter blowing from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, or face fines of $1,000 per day.
However, in 2012, several groups and people including Friends of the Dunes, Kevin Rice and the State Attorney General filed lawsuits charging the APCD of conducting a flawed study in order to make money for the agency and of failing to follow California laws when it passed a rule.
6. John Wallace facing big liabilities
South County sanitation district administrator John Wallace’s failure to maintain errors and omissions insurance during a 2010 sewage spill could leave him financially responsible for a more than $1 million fine and damages to homes in Oceano inundate with sewage during a 2010 spill.
In 2012, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board found Wallace’s mismanagement responsible for the 2010 sewage spill that led to raw sewage poring into more than 40 homes in Oceano.
In December, six Oceano homeowners filed a lawsuit that claims Wallace’s financial motivations led him to intentionally mismanage the sanitation plant.
7. SLO homeless make easy target
The homeless took a beating during 2012, with a low point occurring when police initiated a crackdown on people sleeping overnight in their vehicles.
As of Jan. 26, 2011, there were an estimated 3,774 homeless living in vehicles, tents and on the streets of SLO. Of those, reports show as many as 40 percent work at least 20 hours per week.
In April, attorneys Saro Rizzo and Stew Jenkins filed a lawsuit accusing the city of San Luis Obispo and its chief of police of discrimination, harassment and the criminalization of homeless people. Following a decision by a superior court judge that the city’s treatment of the homeless was unconstitutional, the San Luis Obispo City Council agreed to dismiss all tickets given this year to homeless residents for sleeping in their vehicles.
8. Debbie Arnold tips supervisor’s balance
Voters in the county’s Fifth Supervisor District turned their backs on incumbent Jim Patterson, giving the nod to Debbie Arnold and creating a conservative majority on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.
Arnold, a rancher in Pozo, was strongly backed by conservative and Republican interests and responded by collecting 55.66 percent of the vote to Patterson’s 44.16. She outspent her opponent considerably.
The current board chairman conceded shortly after seeing his vote support fall sharply.
9. Dystiny Myer’s accused hearings started
One of the men awaiting trial for the brutal murder of 15-year-old Dystiny Myers said another defendant raped him with a baseball bat before the murder, according to an exclusive report by CalCoastNews.
In Sept. 2010 firefighters found Myer’s badly burned body of in a shallow grave near Santa Margarita. She was discovered hogtied with her legs bound behind her, a glove stuffed in her mouth, sweat pants tied around her throat and her hands duck taped across her chest.
Following the torture murder of Myers, Cody Miller, 20, of Fresno was digging a grave to place the body when his former cohorts turned on him and began beating him in the face with a shovel. Miller escaped and was taken to a local hospital where he received facial surgery, had his jaw wired shut and was treated for his burns.
Prior to the murder, Hill allegedly sodomized Miller, something frowned upon even in the drug culture.
10. Supervisors’ sex scandals
Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill both admitted to extramarital affairs. Gibson confessed to his ongoing tryst with his administrative assistant, Cherie Aispuro, who now has been transferred to the County Clerk-Recorder’s office at her old salary of $68,870.
Hill, angered by CalCoastNews’ reporting on his illicit relationship, and his behind-the-scenes manipulation of the homeless situation, tried to use his elected position to bully advertisers and supporters of CalCoastNews in a campaign to cripple the website.
In several instances, Hill’s own emails, obtained by CCN, led to short-lived cancellations of contracts with businesses advertising on the news website.
11. OIG claims Atascadero cheated FEMA
Prompted by a 2008 investigative report by CalCoastNews detailing how Atascadero city officials conspired to bilk taxpayers out of millions of dollars in disaster aid, a FEMA initiated investigation determined the city received $8 million illicitly.
Nearly eight years after the San Simeon Earthquake damaged the Printery Building and Atascadero city hall, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is recommending that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ask the city to return $8 million in relief funds because of issues with conflict of interest, unsupported requests for monies, and expenditures for a building the city fraudulently called an active youth center.
The local agency of FEMA, the one responsible for approving the questionable funds, responded by asserting the money was legitimately sought and spent. A final ruling that will determine if the city will be required to return monies has not yet been made
12. Mayoral candidate charged
On election night, Paso Robles mayoral candidate Jeff Rougeot spent the night in jail after a San Luis Obispo County superior court judge ordered him reprimanded because of a string of crimes he allegedly committed during a two month spree. His bail is set at $1,135,000.
Rougeot, 45, faced two felony and six misdemeanor charges that include two for driving under the influence, four for violating a restraining order and one for threatening to shoot and kill a neighbor with a 9mm handgun.
Following an exclusive CalCoastNews article detailing the arrests, several members of Rougeot’s family blamed his ex-wife and a recent divorce for Rougeot’s actions.