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Cal Coast News founder loses one lawsuit against Adam Hill and county, files another

San Luis Obispo County District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill has been sued two times since October by online news writer Karen Velie, co-founder of controversial website Cal Coast News.
San Luis Obispo County District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill has been sued two times since October by online news writer Karen Velie, co-founder of controversial website Cal Coast News.

The co-founder of the controversial website Cal Coast News filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Superior Court against San Luis Obispo County and Supervisor Adam Hill, alleging that Hill and county officials are retaliating against her for her coverage.

The lawsuit is the second since October filed by Karen Velie, who had a federal lawsuit making the same allegations dismissed by a judge in Los Angeles last week.

Hill and county counsel Rita Neal said Wednesday they had not been served with Velie’s recent lawsuit and that they cannot discuss ongoing litigation. Neal said the Board of Supervisors will discuss the lawsuit in closed session Tuesday.

Wednesday’s lawsuit comes as Velie and Cal Coast News co-founder Dan Blackburn prepare to defend against a defamation lawsuit scheduled for trial early next month.

Velie declined to comment Wednesday and said her attorney was in depositions and not available.

Since its founding, the website has written about 100 articles about Hill, most of them negative, and has promoted commentaries by his political opponents.

On Oct. 20, Velie filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles against Hill and the County of San Luis Obispo for alleged civil rights violations, infliction of emotional distress and other allegations.

The 20-page complaint lists numerous allegations, including claims that Hill told Velie he would “go after” her if she continued her coverage, and that Hill and Sheriff Ian Parkinson “threatened” local radio host Dave Congalton that they would stop appearing on his show if Congalton promoted Velie.

Velie said she is denied press releases issued to other media, and denied interviews and records from the county. Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said Wednesday that Velie holds a current county-issued media badge and noted that she is on the department’s standard press release email distribution list.

Velie further alleges that Hill and other county officials have threatened Cal Coast News advertisers, causing her to lose clients.

She says the alleged retaliation has caused her to move several times out of fear for her safety, after “her dog was fatally poisoned and left on her front porch.”

“The retaliation described herein has been primarily at the direction of Supervisor Adam Hill,” the lawsuit reads.

In other words, (Velie’s) complaint is that the government failed to assist her news gathering activities.

U.S. District Court Judge Dale Fischer

Several local figures — developer John King, former Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson, Congalton, and Velie’s private investigator, Mike Brennler — filed declarations backing up Velie’s allegations, but U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer on Jan. 23 dismissed the lawsuit without hearing arguments.

Fischer ruled that none of Velie’s allegations proved retaliation, noting that Velie has no right to press releases or interviews with government officials. Velie wasn’t denied access to government proceedings, Fischer wrote.

“In other words, (Velie’s) complaint is that the government failed to assist her newsgathering activities,” Fischer wrote.

The judge ruled that Velie could, however, refile at the state level, leading to the lawsuit she filed Wednesday in Superior Court. A hearing date has not yet been scheduled.

The legal tussle between Velie and Hill comes as Cal Coast News prepares to go to trial next month in a defamation case brought by the subject of a 2012 article.

The article alleged that Charles Tenborg, CEO of hazardous waste management company Eco Solutions, illegally transported hazardous waste for San Luis Obispo County’s Integrated Waste Management Authority.

Tenborg disputed the article, demanded a retraction, and filed a libel lawsuit in 2013.

Cal Coast News has suffered setbacks in the case, including the denial of a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in July 2015. On Monday, the website’s attorney, David Vogel, filed a motion to compel Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera to find that Tenborg was a public figure at the time of the article.

If the judge accepts the motion, Tenborg’s attorneys will have to prove that the writers were malicious in their reporting in order to prove defamation, Vogel said. Jury selection for the trial is scheduled to begin March 6.

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