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What comes around 

You’ve got to appreciate the rich irony of the way a man who inherited his billions from a harvest fertilized by press freedoms had seemingly no qualms about trying to stomp press and public access when the public interest at stake regards his own affairs.

A team of lawyers for George Hearst, Jr., with their pinstriped loafers, ascots, and top hats (OK, I wasn’t there, but that’s how I imagine them dressing) arrived at the courtroom of Judge Teresa Estrada-Mullaney in San Luis Obispo Superior Court the other day to argue that the public and press have no right to view documents related to his attempt to wrest control of his twin sister’s estate.

That’s the George Hearst, Jr. who is chairman of Hearst Corp., that conglomeration of newspapers, magazines, television and radio holdings. Need I point out that they would not exist were it not for the press’s First Amendment-imbued rights to public information?

He alleges that sister Phoebe Hearst Cooke has grown paranoid and delusional and is incapable of making sound decisions about her own inherited massive fortune. Hearst’s attorneys say she’s paranoid that people are conspiring to take her money, even as she allegedly squanders her fortune on boob jobs for strangers and expensive horse stuff for the expensive horse folks.

They’ve offered some good examples of questionable decisions and San Luis Obispo County has already stepped in and appointed a temporary conservator for her estate who has made sure, for example, that her pricey horses get shots and veterinary care.

But might I just point out that, regardless of her mental state, it isn’t paranoia when someone really is trying to take control of your money? Paranoia is an unreasonable fear. This is a legitimate fear. Her brother really is trying to take control of her finances.

And they almost got away with this effort to quash public access, without the public even knowing anything was at stake. The motion itself never reached public view before it came up for a decision. As of this writing it has yet to appear in the public copy of the case available at the courthouse. Only the lawyers involved ever saw it.

New Times was the only media present at the hearing, and by the time the paper got a lawyer involved—an hour later—the issue had already been settled. Thankfully, it was settled in the interest of the press and the public. Thank you, Judge Estrada-Mullaney.

Anyway, in the interest of supporting rights to public information some would rather you didn’t see, here’s this from the motion: “Because of Mrs. Cooke’s family affiliation with the renowned Hearst dynasty, this private family tragedy has been exposed for the prurient consumption by the general public by local and national media, including the Los Angeles Times.”

Most objectionable, according to the motion, was the fact that The Tribune, in an article on the matter, pointed readers to court documents the paper had posted online.

Imagine that, a Hearst objecting to information consumed for prurient interest. Rich, rich irony from the scion of yellow journalism’s fortune.

And this: “If left unchecked, the Proposed Conservatee, Ms. Cooke, will have to suffer the details of her illness and predicament and the consequent stigma, embarrassment, and ridicule, spread over county-wide, state-wide, and world-wide media.”

Perhaps, but you’ll notice it’s George Hearst, not his sister or her attorneys, who 
is doing the objecting.

Temporary victory in Huasna

If ranching and organic farming don’t pan out in Huasna Valley, I think the folks involved in the Huasna Valley Association have a good chance of getting hired by Matlock.

When an upstart oil company appeared and applied for a permit to re-open abandoned oil wells, the folks didn’t get hysterical about the prospect; they got intensely interested.

They did research and asked questions. They dug through documents and pointed out anomalies between what Excelaron officials were telling investors and what they were telling the county.
Then, aided with a little help from New Times, they began to meticulously shoot holes in Excelaron’s arguments as if they were ducks at a carnival midway.
Ping! Excelaron has way more land under its control than it’s telling the county.

Ping! Excelaron told investors they could drill 15 or more wells when they told the county they were interested in four.

Ping! One of the big investors behind Excelaron turns out to be the same group that abandoned the wells two decades ago.

Probably this is only the beginning. Excelaron has voluntarily submitted the project to a more intensive review process, which will have the effect of delaying the project during one of the most significant oil-price slumps in history. It’ll buy them time until prices go up again.

So the fight may continue, but other citizen action groups could take a few lessons from these folks. They don’t get mad; they get digging.

Denneen and his dogs

Primate and protect-the-Oceano Dunes activist Bill Denneen got yet another ticket from park rangers in the Dunes the other day. He had his dogs off leash. Again.

Bad dog, Bill. No more kibbles and plover for you.


Let’s do another one of these. Such fun. How about a contest to come up with a contest, since I can’t seem to come up with any lately. As for the prize, it’s infamy itself; I’ll name the contest after the winner of the come-up-with-a-contest contest.

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