I have to admit it’s rather peculiar to see a story written by CalCoastNews of Black Lives Matter-inspired protesters allegedly demanding money from San Luis Obispo businesses, especially considering one of SLO’s mayoral candidates is a victim of CalCoastNews doing the same thing to them.
Since mid-July, CalCoastNews has ramped up coverage of recent protests taking place throughout SLO. As they often do, the website generated controversy for reporting claims that could not be independently verified — from claiming protesters “detained” a pregnant woman in labor to organizing a protest in front of a District Attorney’s home to attempted extortion of an unnamed “handful” of business owners. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed “reporter” Josh Friedman has covered a number of these protests, offering his spin. And CalCoastNews co-founder has continued her strange fixation on SLO mayor Heidi Harmon and campaign manager Quinn Brady, both of whom Velie has dragged on several anonymous accounts.
One of the things I’ve talked about with protesters is how CalCoastNews will take a kernel of truth and exaggerate it into a believable lie. They can never report the truth as is because, to them, the truth isn’t sensational enough. They’re so insecure about themselves, CalCoastNews feels compelled to needlessly fortify their stories with allegations. Readers will congratulate them on their “reporting” and disseminate the allegations as statements of fact. And by the time the lies go viral and make their way around social media, the targets of their sensationalism will respond. By then, it’s too late. The die is cast. The lies have taken root into the discussion and have become so deeply rooted, at that point, that a denial is perceived as an external manifestation of conscience of guilt. By then, the speculative and conspiratorial narrative is shared on conservative-leaning social media and websites.
As protesters, organizers and protest supporters are experiencing that rinse cycle, my path and theirs began to converge when CalCoastNews wrote about protesters demanding and collecting money from local businesses. When I saw the byline on their article, I was immediately taken back to 2014.
I’ve written about this a number of times in the past, but it bears repeating because of the unique parallels between then and now.
In 2014, I was a writer and graphic designer for Information Press, a progressive monthly magazine published by Sandra Marshall-Eminger. At the time, Marshall-Eminger was in the midst of her congressional campaign, challenging then-incumbent Lois Capps. Now she’s running for mayor.
For the most part, Marshall-Eminger and I had a good working relationship. This was far from a “disgruntled employee” kind of situation. The issues and creative differences she and I had were ultimately worked out. You’re always going to have that sort of friction in a newsroom or a work environment that manages a print publication.
But Information Press was, by design, not a hard news publication. The focus was primarily on education, awareness and progressive empowerment. When I wrote articles for Information Press, they were either short news snippets culled from other news sites (as part of our content aggregation website model) or I wrote commentary based on national news and trends.
Marshall-Eminger had an agreement with me that I could publish investigative reporting during my free time as long as I wasn’t working on that content on company time. Once in a while, Marshall-Eminger would check out the work I did and would give me permission to incorporate some — but not all — of that content into the Information Press framework. As someone who also maintained social media for the publication, I published on Facebook that I was investigating their “reporting” and their voluminous allegations.
Naturally, Velie didn’t like that. In May 2014, Velie contacted Marshall-Eminger, falsely claiming I was “defam[ing] CCN and attempt to ruin the business and shift [their] revenues.” In lieu of specifically explaining instances of defamation or why Marshall-Eminger should be personally held responsible for content I’ve published outside the scope of Information Press, Velie threatened Marshall-Eminger. The gist of the threat was: If Marshall-Eminger wasn’t going to take “appropriate action” and fire me, Velie was going to write something about her in an attempt to torpedo her congressional campaign. She had also communicated personal threats against Marshall-Eminger’s family and mine. Concerned for our personal safety, both of us had decided to draw out Velie’s correspondence and develop a paper trail of criminality.
Friedman, who Velie described as her “tech person,” was an accomplice. Friedman and Velie put together screenshots and instances where they took exceptions to my comment. They objected to me writing that I was investigating their claims; that I categorized their allegations as “unsubstantiated”; that Information Press published an article I wrote about Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg filing a libel lawsuit against them. But Velie was particularly incensed that I wrote about her mental health. It wasn’t like I was shouting from the mountaintops that she was mentally unstable, but it was a topic of conversation that kept coming up on my personal site and elsewhere. At the time, I was hoping to pivot to discussing the content of their work as opposed to her personal issues. But once I heard Velie screaming, “Aaron Ochs is hurting me!” over and over again on the phone to Marshall-Eminger, I immediately knew something was wrong.
Where it went off the rails and into blackmail/extortion territory was when Velie brought in local attorney James Duenow into the conversation. Velie claimed that she could “prove” I produced content that was critical of CalCoastNews on company time, therefore Marshall-Eminger was on the hook for reparations and damages as part of a “class-action defamation lawsuit.” According to Marshall-Eminger, Velie encouraged Marshall-Eminger to contact Duenow for further explanation on how the legal case against me was possible.
During that conversation, Velie told Marshall-Eminger that she was impoverished and moved from place to place because of various, nefarious forces trying to go after her. Velie indicated my father — who she falsely accused of physical assault — and I were part of that cabal of evil that allegedly vandalized her home, poisoned her family dog, left mutilated cats on her doorstep and taped a commercial alarm under her porch. CalCoastNews co-founder Dan Blackburn would later reiterate these wildly unfounded allegations in a 2016 op-ed.
Everything Velie alleged about me was not only demonstrably false but downright disturbing and creepy. In light of everything, I would’ve imagined that Marshall-Eminger would ultimately dismiss Velie and not exacerbate the situation. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
On May 15, 2014, Marshall-Eminger wrote to Velie in an email that an unspecified “offensive” post I wrote on the Information Press was removed and that any future postings from me about CalCoastNews would result in my termination. Despite her saying she made that clear to me, Marshall-Eminger and I did not have that conversation.
Marshall-Eminger then asked Velie to monitor my activity outside of work. “I cannot watch him during his time off,” Marshall-Eminger wrote. “I am curious to learn about what you are finding.”
This would mark the beginning of Velie stalking and harassing me for six years. By enabling a clearly unstable person to monitor me, Marshall-Eminger created a monster. Though years have passed between 2014 and now, the consequences of Marshall-Eminger’s capitulation were undoubtedly long-lasting. As hard as I tried to do so, I can’t forgive her or take her progressive “standing up for the underdog” credentials seriously.
If Sandra Marshall-Eminger bows to unhinged claims and an extortion attempt by one lunatic, what makes you think she’s qualified to lead an entire city in turmoil?
This has come full circle. At least at this point in my life, I’m removed enough from the immediate chaos to revel in the irony.
Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews.