After raising money from supporters online, the embattled CalCoastNews website started depositions in preparation of defending itself against libel charges in an upcoming trial.
But at least two of the individuals called in to be deposed insist they have nothing to do with the case and are accusing CalCoast and its lawyers of using the legal system to harass them.
The libel lawsuit was filed in 2012 after the website ran a story involving local businessman Charles Tenborg and his Arroyo Grande-based company, which acted as a contractor for San Luis Obispo County’s Integrated Waste Management Authority. The article accused Tenborg of illegally transporting waste material and encouraging public agencies to ignore state law. Tenborg and his lawyers asserted that the article was false and highly damaging and filed the lawsuit.
Two people with a long history of vocally criticizing the website and its publishers confirmed to New Times that they received subpoenas from CalCoast’s attorneys to participate in sworn depositions in the case and claimed to have only tenuous connections, if any, to the article and the case itself.
One of those is SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill. Hill has been the subject of hundreds of articles and editorials on the site, the majority of which are highly critical of the sitting supervisor. Hill received a subpoena Sept. 20. In a Sept. 23 interview with New Times Hill indicated he had little-to-nothing to do with the case and said he believed the deposition was simply a move by CalCoastNews to further harass him.
“I think they are reprehensible in all their actions,” Hill said. “I think they’re just fishing.”
Hill plans to fight to subpoena. Court documents obtained by New Times showed Hill’s lawyers filed a request to quash the subpoena on the basis that Hill had no knowledge of the alleged defamatory statements in the article, is not a party to the lawsuit, and was not involved in the article’s publication.
“He simply has no information relevant to the disposition of this case,” the request, filed by a Riverside-based law firm representing Hill, stated. “Nor has the defendant identified any relevant information in Supervisor Hill’s possession.”
CalCoast is trying to tie Hill to the Tenborg lawsuit. On the website for its online fundraising campaign against the lawsuit, which netted more than $10,700 of its $25,000 goal, CalCoastNews states that it believes Hill is helping to fund Tenborg’s lawsuit.
In his Sept. 23 interview with New Times, Hill categorically denied the accusation.
“I haven’t given them any money,” Hill said. “Charles, as far as I can tell, has pursued this to great expense because he has been wronged.”
CalCoastNews dosen’t appear to have any plans to drop the subpoena against Hill. In a written response to questions from New Times, CalCoastNews publisher and reporter Karen Velie said that several claims in the lawsuit involved the county’s Integrated Waste Management Authority, of which Hill, as a supervisor, is a board member.
“CalCoastNews plans to vigorously pursue Hill’s important testimony,” Velie wrote.
Hill isn’t the only CalCoastNews critic questioning the website’s use of it subpoenas in the case. Aaron Ochs, who’s long feuded with the website over its coverage and published that criticism via online blogs and social media, was also called in for deposition in the case. Unlike Hill, Ochs did participate in the deposition, stating he did so because he “had nothing to hide” and because of the cost of fighting the subpoena. During his deposition, Ochs said he was asked questions about his criticism of CalCoastNews and that several of those questions had “nothing to do” with the claims in Tenborg’s lawsuit.
“They made a lot of spurious claims that they didn’t have any evidence about,” Ochs told New Times.
While it’s not clear just how CalCoastNews and its lawyers will use Ochs’ testimony when the case goes to trial, some of what he reportedly said in the deposition appeared in a recent article on the website. Ochs disputed the claims in the article, stating the site “liberally paraphrased” from his testimony without quoting him.
In her written statement, Velie disputed both Hill and Ochs’ characterization of the website’s use of subpoenas.
“I am surprised that Aaron Ochs and Adam Hill view having to tell the truth under oath as ‘harassment,’” Velie wrote. “Deposing these two is about discovery for our case, not retaliation.”
As of Oct. 5, the court had not decided whether Hill would have to submit to the deposition. The lawsuit is slated to go to trial in early November.