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Defamation trial kicks off with spat between lawyers 

“How about if I punch him?”

Local attorney Jim Duenow spoke those words as he walked out of a San Luis Obispo courtroom March 6. The remark appeared to be aimed at San Fancisco-based attorney James Wagstaffe, whom Duneow had admitted to earlier calling an “effing disgrace to the bar.”

The contentious hearing occurred before a jury was even selected in the defamation trial brought by local waste management business owner Charles Tenborg against the CalCoastNews website and its founders, Dan Blackburn and Karen Velie.

Tenborg filed a lawsuit against the website in 2012 after it published an article claiming his Arroyo Grande-based company, which acted as a contractor for San Luis Obispo County’s Integrated Waste Management Authority, illegally transported waste material and encouraged public agencies to ignore state law.

Wagstaffe, who is representing Tenborg, said the accusations in the article have no basis in fact and were highly damaging to his client’s reputation. In the four years following its publication, the article remains on the CalCoastNews website, despite Tenborg’s calls for a retraction. Speaking to New Times, Tenborg said that the article is one of the first things people see when they search for his name online.

“Anybody who posts my name, this case comes up,” Tenborg said. “And that’s the problem.”

But Blackburn and Velie have stood behind the story, raising more than $12,000 via online crowdfunding to help their fight against the lawsuit.

The back-and-forth between Duenow and Wagstaffe occurred prior to jury selection during a day of arguing pretrial motions before SLO County Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera. During the proceedings, Duenow, one of several attorneys on CalCoastNews’ legal defense team, claimed that one of the witnesses in the case had been threatened over the phone with a lawsuit by an attorney from Wagstaffe’s firm.

Wagstaffe accused Duenow of cursing at him outside the courtroom, and took issue with comments he saw online that characterized him as an “out-of-town lawyer” who was “defending polluters.”

During a recess in the proceedings, Duenow walked up behind Wagstaffe and poked him in the back. After being told not to touch Wagstaffe, Duneow left the courtroom, but not before making the comment referencing punching.

Wagstaffe raised concerns that Duenow’s behavior could be detrimental to the trial.

“That’s what can happen; for this trial to turn into a circus,” Wagstaffe told the judge.

After the lawsuit was filed, CalCoastNews claimed that its critics, specifically SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill, were funding Tenborg’s lawsuit in an attempt the shut the website down. Hill, a frequent subject of the website’s reporting, has repeatedly denied giving any money to help the suit, and it remains unclear whether CalCoastNews will include the claims about Hill in its defense.

“It’s our position that [Hill] has been working people against this case,” David Vogel, another attorney representing CalCoastNews, said at the March 6 hearing.

CalCoastNews attorneys initially subpoenaed Hill to appear as a witness at the trial, but later withdrew the request.

Tenborg’s attorneys told LaBarbera that a conspiracy to silence CalCoastNews “simply didn’t exist.”

Opening statements started the afternoon of March 8, and the trial is expected to last until the end of week, and possibly continue into the following week. If the jury finds that the article was defamatory, Tenborg could be entitled to monetary damages and have the story taken down from the CalCoastNews website.

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