CAPSLO threatens whistleblowers in homeless inquiry

March 29, 2013
CAPSLO Executive Director Elizabeth Steinberg

CAPSLO CEO Elizabeth Steinberg


Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO) is threatening more than a dozen persons who have come forward with information about wrongdoing at the nonprofit which serves the homeless in San Luis Obispo County.

These threats occurred shortly after several law enforcement agencies launched criminal investigations into treatment of the homeless by two non-profits.

CAPSLO has served a number of persons interviewed by CalCoastNews with a letter threatening legal action if they don’t retract the statements they made recently to the news service.

“They are trying to intimidate us so we will back down, but everything we have said is the truth,” said former CAPSLO employee Joette Sunshine. “I stick by what I have said 100 percent.”

A process server hand delivered the threatening letters over the past three days, amid at least two criminal investigations into financial mistreatment of the homeless.

CalCoastNews interviewed more than a dozen former employees of CAPSLO and others for a series of articles entitled “Keeping Them Homeless,” examining allegations of mistreatment of homeless individuals.

Several articles in the series reported on the case of Cliff Anderson, a formerly homeless man. Anderson lost his income when the Social Security Administration canceled his disability benefits because of alleged financial mismanagement by Family Ties and CAPSLO.

Because of this, Anderson has been without money for food or rent for nearly two months.

An investigation by San Luis Obispo County’s Adult Protective Services led the agency to ask San Luis Obispo police to investigate allegations of financial abuse of a senior, said Officer Jim Fellows. The Office of the Inspector General is probing allegations of Social Security fraud.

CAPSLO officials announced at a board meeting last week that they had fully investigated issues of financial wrongdoing against the homeless — as well as allegations that holiday gift cards were pilfered. They claimed no wrongdoing was found. But none of the sources quoted in the CalCoastNews articles were contacted by CAPSLO’s investigators.

The current ultimatum is based on assertions by CAPSLO’S management that CalCoastNews reporters and Atascadero private investigator Mike Brennler encouraged sources to lie. Both CalCoastNews and Brennler deny the allegation.

“When you look at the history of CalCoastNews, you’ll see that the news site has been targeted by people whose wrongdoing we have reported. The list of penalties imposed and prosecutions makes clear who tells the truth in these stories,” said Bill Loving, editor of CalCoastNews.

CAPSLO’s attorneys wrote in the letter that they were attempting to gather information for taking legal action against those making “defamatory” statements against CAPSLO or its employees. The Fresno office of Littler Mendelson, a law firm representing management in labor and business and boasting 57 branches worldwide, authored the letters.

“What happens next is to some extent up to those who are making the defamatory statements,” the letters read. “If the persons making these statements seek to correct their previous erroneous comments, CAPSLO may choose not to seek to enforce its legal rights against them. If this unlawful crusade of defamatory statements and publications continues those involved will be held legally responsible to the full extent of the law.”

Earlier this week, Dee Torres, who heads CAPSLO’s homeless services division, filed a lawsuit alleging that Brennler slandered her during an investigation into Torres’ alleged actions. The lawsuit claims “Brennler and Does 1-100 knowingly and willfully conspired to defame” Torres.

Over the past six months, individuals including San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill, to whom Torres is engaged, have targeted CalCoastNews advertisers with emails and phone calls, encouraging advertisers to cancel contracts.


CAPSLO letter

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Further reading for interested parties.

* Wong v. Jing, 2010 WL 4457330 (Cal. App. Ct. 2010). “Moreover, the posting went beyond parochial issues concerning a private dispute about particular dental appointments. It implicitly dealt with the more general issues of the use of nitrous oxide and silver amalgam, implied that those substances should not be used in treating children, and informed readers that other dentists do not use them. Thus, the review was not just a highly critical opinion of Wong‟s performance on particular occasions; it was also part of a public discussion and dissemination of information on issues of public interest.”

Navarro v. Cruz, 2010 WL 2183227 (Cal. App. Ct. 2010) (unpublished). Blog covered matters of public interest when “the blog addressed issues ranging beyond the specific wrongs and breaches claimed to have been suffered by its writer, on issues such as immigrant exploitation, fraud, and substandard housing. These issues would affect and would be of interest to many present and future immigrant teachers-including not just those who had allegedly been victimized, and not even just those who had actually contracted with UPI, but also those who might be considering becoming immigrant teachers through UPI or other such agencies.

Kim v. IAC/InterActive Corp., 2008 WL 3906427 (Cal. App. Ct. 2008): dentist’s defamation lawsuit against a patient and CitySearch over a CitySearch review tossed per California’s anti-SLAPP; defendants awarded attorney’s fees.

Rahbar v. Batoon, case # CGC-09-492145 (San Francisco Superior Ct. filed Sept. 2, 2009): dentist’s defamation lawsuit over a Yelp review tossed per California’s anti-SLAPP; patient awarded $43k in attorney’s fees.

Gilbert v. Sykes, 147 Cal. App. 4th 13 (Cal. App. Ct. 2007). “Gilbert’s Web site contributed toward the public debate about plastic surgery in at least two ways: First, assertions that a prominent and well-respected plastic surgeon produced “nightmare” results that necessitated extensive revision surgery contributes toward public discussion about the benefits and risks of plastic surgery in general, and particularly among persons contemplating plastic surgery as a means of looking younger or improving their appearance….Second, a review of the entire Web site shows that it is not limited to Gilbert’s interactions with Sykes. The Web site contains advice, information and a contact page where readers can share their own experiences.

Penney v. Isbell, 2008 WL 607594 (Cal. Ct. App. 2008) (unpublished). “While we hesitate to oversimplify, these cases teach that statements encouraging and promoting the public discussion of current issues of broad concern that potentially affect significant numbers of people, as well as statements disseminated as part of what could be described as consumer protection information and advice, are generally considered statements involving issues of public interest within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP statute.

Capslo is almost entirely funded by public funds, check.

Website community (CCN) discuses said public monies. a matter of public concern, check.

Website community (CCN) discuses other matters of public concern, check.

“The court sets the context by recognizing the Internet’s broad public reach:

we view the Internet as an electronic bulletin board open to literally billions of people all over the world. The Internet is a classic public forum which permits an exchange of views in public about everything from the great issues of war, peace, and economic development to the relative quality of the chicken pot pies served at competing family restaurants in a single small neighborhood.

The court then notes the public interest in information that helps consumers make decisions about goods and services in our economy:

The statements posted to the “Ripoff Report” Web site about Chaker’s character and business practices plainly fall within in the rubric of consumer information about Chaker’s “Counterforensics” business and were intended to serve as a warning to consumers about his trustworthiness.”

I am shocked that CAPSLO does not address this in a more open, formal, public way instead of suggesting that it is preposterous that an organization that does such great works should have the integrity of its management questioned, especially considering….

I’m just pointing out that ECOSLO is not the same organization as this one, ECOSLO is a non profit that has an environmentally based focus, not to be confused with formally known EOC, a community action agency. I’m not saying you didn’t know but for others, it could easily be confused.

Just know that I do agree 100% with your statement!

I originally was looking up for past incidents with the EOC and the ECOSLO one came up so I figured I’d just post it. Sorry if I confused anyone. Thanks for clarifying that for people karma.

Mr. Gary Bethel’s letter for CAPSLO is a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” letter.

Read it very carefully, especially the last paragraph.

“What happens next is to some extent up to those who are making these defamatory statements. If the persons making these statements seek to correct their previous erroneous statements, CAPSLO may choose not to seek to enforce its legal rights against them.”

The letter doesn’t promise that if a witness corrects a statement that CAPSLO will not sue. It says, “CAPSLO “MAY” choose … .”

Here’s why it is a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” letter.

If somebody who has made statements decides they just can’t afford a lawyer and tries to get out of this situation by just recanting their previous statements (even if their previous statements were true), the recanting will be viewed as an admission that the previous statements were false. By recanting, they may (probably will) indicate their previous statement was false and is withdrawn. That person just proved the defamation case for CAPSLO. CAPSLO will prove up its own case by using that “correction” because it is an admission of an essential element of their case. CAPSLO could well proceed because it is easy to prove the case.

If somebody who has made statements decides to just remain silent from now on, the statements are still out there. It just makes it more difficult for CAPSLO to prove their defamation case. There would have to be a trial of the facts.

If somebody stands by their previous statements, it is the same as just remaining silent. The statements are still out there and CAPSLO will have to prove their defamation case, including proving that the statements were false. Truth is a defense to a defamation case. There would have to be a trial of the facts.

So, any way you cut it, this letter is trying to get people who have spoken out to say things that make CAPSLO’s burden of proving their case easier.

Ms. Niesen has a lawyer, Ms. Torres has a lawyer. CAPSLO has a lawyer. Mr. Anderson has a lawyer. No doubt, Mr. Brennler has or will have a lawyer soon. Cal Coast News has access to a lawyer and maybe even insurance. The County and City have lawyers on staff. The only ones without lawyers are the witnesses and right now they are the ones being targeted.

The other side has already begun strategizing a month ago or more. The witnesses need professional legal assistance.

I just found this and it is very interesting. Connect the dots?

Jeff Hamm, Lisa Niesen and others are giving a report to the COUNTY Health Commission in August 2011.

“Ms. Niesen also talked about their Payee Program, that serves individuals who have difficulty managing their financial affairs, but don’t need the restrictions placed on them that a conservatorship would do. These individuals are managed by case managers in a non-profit or governmental agency and Public Guardian serves only as the receiver and disperser of their governmental funds which they are entitled to receive through Social Security.”

From this entry in the minutes, it sounds like “Family Ties, Inc.” is being done as a County program!

Mr. Warren is one of the Commissioners.

“Commissioner Warren asked how they assure persons in the Payee Program have adequate case management. (Ms. Niesen stated that it is a requirement of the program that they are case managed and that their office has constant contact with the case manager.)”

In this little island we call San Luis Obispo county, it never fails to amaze me when I witness the lack of managerial, administrative and strategic success that some organizations and individuals have when faced with problems that they have never faced before. Administrators are only as good as the tough problems they have faced successfully.

In my humble opinion, Cal Poly always approached all of their public relations nightmares with the proverbial ‘stick.’ No problem too big couldn’t be solved if you used a stick to beat it with… a big problem required a big stick… and a humongous problem required an even bigger stick. However, the days of easily controlled local media are gone and something that might not look like a problem locally when shown to the outside world… looks gigantic. Cal Poly’s continuing problem is that the only person who knew public relations apparently was disgusted and left for a job somewhere else… a lateral.

What our beautiful folks at CAPSLO and elsewhere don’t realize is that their letters and emails are evidentiary should things lead to court or law enforcement down the road. They need to understand that standing behind a public entity or a private non profit does not make you immune to being counter sued after you place a slap suit on you and the case gets thrown out.

Oh… and for those who think that if they get a judgement against them and they THINK they will not pay… there is this little thing called ‘garnishment of wages’… it worked for me.

So… my advice? Do the right thing for those involved… I know its a new concept that you really don’t understand… but get try your arms around it… admit your error, make changes and it will pull you out of the whole you are in.

It seems that I agree with Roger for once. And I have to add that I think it’s a bit ironic when people defend the high salaries of CAPSLO management by saying they need to be able to recruit talent to run the organization. Well then how does a guy who’s tenure as CEO of the oldest independent department store chain in the country ended in its demise command such a high salary!? THAT is what they call talent?

I still smile when I recall how you stuck it to Mohammed Noori.

The people who are receiving these letters need to “lawyer-up” now.

It takes time to choose an attorney/law firm. Don’t wait.

If you know who you want, fine. Make sure they have a good reputation for litigation and are experienced in whistleblower cases. They will know about anti-SLAPP motions.

If it were me, I would start with going to:

This is a directory of lawyers that also conducts peer reviews where other lawyers rate the lawyers listed (although not all lawyers are rated or listed).

I would look for someone who is “AV rated” or peer review rated about 4.5 or better out of 5.0.

In the red tab at the top, select “people.” Then type in the words Whistleblower and California. The search results will be alphabetical so there’s some reading to do. Go to the firm website and read about the lawyers.

Some law firms specialize in representing management — they would represent CAPSLO.

The people who got the letters should pick a lawyer who represents the employees or whistleblowers.

As long as they are in the State of California, it doesn’t matter where in the state they are located. They will tell you if they provide state-wide services or if they limit their practice to a local area.

I would personally look to see if the firm concentrates on employment law as opposed to doing all kinds of law. If they have whistleblower listed — even better. It doesn’t matter if you are an employee, ex-employee (disgruntled or not) or just a witness having never worked for CAPSLO.

As to going together as a group, I understand that at least 12 people have come forward with facts. That’s a lot of cats to herd. While I might listen to suggestions about representing a group, I would not favor group participation or pleasing someone else (trying to be a team player) over choosing the best legal representation I could get for myself. Even if every single person has a different lawyer, the lawyers will know when it is best to work together.

Talk to several lawyers/law firms. Talk to them about the money too. Lawyers who represent employees and whistleblowers do understand these things. Don’t be shy. Tell them everything they want to know.

Most importantly though, get going. Do it now. Lawyers have to use written agreements to start the representation. It takes time to get a lawyer working for you so don’t wait.

You have to be kidding me. Stop scaring people. We are talking about people who maybe earn $15.00 an hour. There is absolutely no reason for them to individually “lawyer up” now. This letter is nothing but a scare tactic and.If they actually get sued, there will be plenty of time to strategize. Likewise one lawsuit will be the way to go and since in most cases they can’t afford an attorney, an attorney will probably recommend that they sign on to a collective response.

You’re suggestion which is costly is exactly what CAPSLO is counting on. Rather than go out an hire an attorney, many will just shut-up regardless of what they know.

I understand that their wages are not going to pay for this, Cindy and so do the lawyers who do whistleblower cases. This is very often the scenario in such cases.

CAPSLO is the deep pocket here.

While you may think this letter is a “scare tactic” and thus just hot air, in my opinion, it is a serious matter. CAPSLO is trying to protect and maintain their $60,000,000 annual stream of income.

I also understand it takes courage for witnesses to stand up to situations like this. Now is not the time to get cold feet.

I disagree that there is plenty of time to strategize after they get served with a lawsuit. First, they have to discover and gather about 12 people or more and get a meeting together at somebody’s house. That takes a week or two. Then they have to decide which law firm. That takes another week or two. But, the complaint they are served with only gives them 30 days to respond. A lawyer has to get up to speed, become familiar with the whole history here and file a response, probably in a county court where their office is not located. That takes time.

I’m not trying to scare anyone or to stop their posting or discussion on this forum. I admire people who have the courage to come forward and tell the truth. I’m trying to support them, but I’m also being very real about it.

While doing all of this, the people who came forward could be working flushing out the details of their declarations. Time to start remembering dates, details and other things surrounding what they saw and heard. It takes work to be a witness, but the homeless are very vulnerable and depending on them.

I agree that it wouldn’t hurt for them to start getting together now so that they know who each other is. They can also begin to inquire with attorneys so that they will know who they plan to go to if it becomes necessary but to tell them to “lawyer up” now is premature.

Anyone one of them can plan a meeting and post an e-mail address for each of them to respond to and learn where they’ll be meeting. That is what we did when a group of us went down to help out Cliff Anderson. Actually we posted Karen Velie’s phone number with her permission and she told us where to meet. Poor woman, the things she does and time she commits towards helping people ;)

Actually, their lawyer(s) will not want their clients talking to the other witnesses. If the CAPSLO attorney can show these witnesses have gotten together to discuss and plan strategy it gives further fodder to discredit them.

Witnesses who state the same kinds of observations over and over who have not talked to each other are far more credible even if there are some differences than those who have compared expected testimony.

They have to know who each other is so that they can agree on a legal representative. That is what I was referring to when I said “strategize”. There is no reason for each of them to retain their own attorney. What’s with you? Don’t you understand that most of them can’t afford to do that? Just the filing cost of an individual suit will cost at least $600.00 each Geeezzzz

You’re playing right into CAPSLO’s hand. This threat is a joke and it will cost CAPSLO dearly should they attempt to follow through with it. One attorney can handle the whole thing on behalf of the defendants and how are they supposed to accomplish that if they don’t get together to discuss it?

Geeez you contradicted yourself with in less than an hour of your post!

at 10:32 am

” First, they have to discover and gather about 12 people or more and get a meeting together at somebody’s house.”


As if this scenario hasn’t happened with the players of CAPSLO and Family Ties. Duh. Conversely, the grouping of lawyers for the whistle blowers could also show this situation against CAPSLO as well.

What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander!

Cindy, we love the work you do and your interest here. But, you are not a lawyer.

It is time for the people who got these letters, served by a process server no less, to go retain professional legal help.

They need a lawyer now.

“Cindy, we love the work you do and your interest here.”

Who is”we” JQ? It certainly isn’t CCN, I’ve been around since day one which was sometime in mid 2007, you have been around for a couple of months so please don’t condescend me.

No I’m not an attorney but I have been sued before and I have sued (government) before and I won every time. In fact Roy Ogden was one of my attorneys as was Babak Naficy and several others, I learned plenty.

LoL “I’ve been around since day one…you have been around a couple of months.” Sounds like something locals need to start telling people from out of town who move here and suddenly think they’re a SLOcal and should tell everyone else here how to run our lives.

I would never “condescend” to you, Cindy. I respect you very much. I know you don’t like what I’m saying right now, but please don’t kill the messenger.

You are advising these witnesses to immediately lawyer up, yet you are telling them what they should be doing. If you really think getting an attorney immediately is their best course of action, then shouldn’t their attorneys be telling them what to do?

I’m not saying starting to work on what they remember about what they witnessed isn’t a good idea….but if you think they should be getting attorneys, they probably should be listening to their attorney first and someone on a message board last.

I’m not trying to scare anyone or to stop their posting or discussion on this forum.

Actually, it sounds to me that “trying to scare someone” is EXACTLY what you are trying to do.

Just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

I’m Not Really getting what your saying, no one who came forth with the truth is gonna back down, are you kidding, justice is now being served after all these years. There is so much more going on behind close doors then meets the eye..

Stay strong, sunshyne! Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. These are snakes looking to strike; cornered and rabid animals too scared of being honest and upfront. It will not be pretty, and may take YEARS to get the justice that is deserved. I think it will happen; the truth will burn them like fire.

Good to hear! Stay strong there are lots of people supporting you! A many more counting on all of you!

Good for you. Keep your fists up in front of your face (metaphorically speaking, of course) and don’t flinch.

Predators (i.e., bullies) will instinctively go for the one who flinches. Once they take down the weakest link, it is easier to take down the whole bunch.

It would seem prudent for those who received the threatening letter to join together as a group and contact a public-service-minded SLAPP suit attorney such as those who work for the First Amendment Project – and to do so immediately. Given the nature of the allegations made against CAPSLO, such attorneys might be willing to take the case for a minimal fee, and by joining together, the witnesses could minimize any individual up-front costs.

This case might very well end up being very high profile, potentially attracting statewide or even national attention now that CAPSLO has decided to take an aggressive stance. That in itself could influence attorneys to take the case for less than might ordinarily be charged.

This whole fiasco could be a blessing in disguise. If the attention drawn by this case could also be focused on some of the other problems we have in this county, perhaps it would be easier to get outside authorities to take a look at those problems. Many have been trying for years to get State and Federal authorities to come in here and clean house.

One more thought: It would be advisable to choose an attorney from outside the County.

I fully agree with getting someone from outside the County. Nothing, like all of the other cases, will go any where in this county. Even though there are some good people in our local government they are diminished by opportunists who seem to succeed in their sometimes illegal activities and self rewards and apparently keep getting away with it. The people of this county need to know what is going on with their tax dollars and only then will they support the corrective actions that need to take place.

It seems to me that people should wait and see if these threats are actually carried out. Once people are actually sued rather than just threatened, then they’re forced to hire an attorney. Once they’re forced then they can recover their attorneys fees when the court dismisses the SLAPP suit. This is what happened to Roger Freberg when Noori sued him and Roger recovered all his fees and associated expenses incurred as a result of the suit.

I think, all these people can probably collectively find an attorney that will combine everything into one suit and take their cases pro-bono and then recover his fees when he wins. After all this is a travesty and most attorneys do pro-bono work occasionally, especially for something like this.

I could we wrong but I think it’s worth asking Stew Jenkins and Rizzo for advise before anyone does anything. In the mean time stand your ground, that is unless you’re lying.

Unfortunately, Cindy, they cannot wait. The threatening letter is step one. When the whistleblowers refuse to retract their statements, the SLAPP suit is step 2.

Once again, I recommend trying the First Amendment Project lawyers referred to in an earlier post. That is a non-profit organization which specializes in dealing with this kind of nonsense.

Cindy, I seriously doubt anyone has lied, I do think that this intimidation tactic might scare some into not changing their story, but into not Sharing anymore. I hope I’m worng! This part isn’t directed at Cindy, but ..

I can’t help but wonder why CAPSLO has never listened to anyone from day one! So many have said they went to someone telling their concerns, yet no one would listen. How could CAPSLO not have ever looked into anything that was told? Things may not have come to this! Why is Ms Torres untouchable as far as CAPSLO is concerned? Why do they refuse to believe there could be a hint of truth to what has been said( although so many state the same). I’m still blown away at this letter sent to people who have spoken out! This comes from an agency that is supposed to help others! It’s scary!

Remember CAPSLO, one rotten apple can spoil the whole buch! I really hope there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that no wrong doing has occurred! Hopefully your letter will intimidate her “Ex” because he has the most info, and if he talks, he’s going to blow Ms Torres away!

“I really hope there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that no wrong doing has occurred!”

Actually, if you’re suggesting there mght be crimiinal charges, there needs to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt the some wrongdoing has occurred. But your statement certainly reflects the mindset on this site.

Homer he said “proof beyond reasonable doubt” But now you want to doubt at him about “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”?

Your statement certainly reflects your mindset.

How about you re-read my post to see if you can comprehend it.

Oh Homer…., word play, I’m damned if I do; or damned if I don’t! Just open your mind and eyes; let the evidence play out! In my opinion a person would have to be very naive to look at this assertive letter sent by CAPSLO and think it screams out innocence!

Word play? The difference between a defendant having to prove their innocence beyond a reasonable doubt and the state having to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt goes a bit beyond word play. Again, however, I know you’re confused because just about everyone who comments here is similarly confused.

Sorry to bust your fart bubble Homer, but the burden of proof falls solely upon the prosecuting attorney. All the defense has to do is enter a plea and nothing more until jury the selection process and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty by plea or jury verdict. If I missed anything, please correct me and explain to us all in detail, how you arrived to the conclusion that “just about everyone who comments here is similarly confused” and you are not. Please indulge us with your insight before I reasonably doubt your intelligence.

Wow. You have absolutely no reading comprehension skills, do you?

Let me spell it out: “proof beyond a reasonable doubt that no wrongdoing has occurred,” as karma posted, is saying that Capslo/Dee need to prove their innoncence. The state needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that something criminal occurred. Is that clear enough?

Actually Homer, what I stated was that I hope for CAPSLO there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that no wrong doing has occurred! MEANING- CAPSLO is a community action agency and for their sake I hope they can prove everything is on the up & up, because if not, they they are going to lose the trust of the community! They are already walking a thin line by not coming out with evidence that could have put this whole mess to rest! So quit thinking you’re the only one that “gets it,” you were way off !

Karma, think, then write. Who provides “proof beyond reasonable doubt that no wrong doing has occurred!” as you wrote? The only ones in that position would be the accused wrongdoers. In other words, guilty until proven innocent. As I’ve stated before, Dee Torres may be guilty of something. But the commenting on this site is definitely of the witch hunt variety.

Sorry Homer, couldn’t you detect my humor? Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Something even more simple: When you say something, make sure it’s accurate.

One more thought: It would be advisable to choose an attorney from outside the County.


Is the management of CAPSLO brain-dead? They telegraphed their guilt to the world by having that moronic letter served to several people. CAPSLO’s board needs to give their organization a thorough enema..