Paul Wellman (file)
Thursday, December 1, 2016
FOURTH REICH BLUES: Maybe I’ve gotten spoiled. But if I’m going to get swacked by some right-wing stooge for the oil industry I’ve never met, I expect a little thought and originality. Say what you want about Joe Armendariz, area spear carrier for Santa Barbara’s plundering petro plutocrats, but the guy drips with sarcasm and style.
Always ornate, belligerent, and deliciously condescending, Armendariz puts serious work into his craft. But when Ric Grenell, mercenary mouthpiece for the GOP and born-again Donald Trump wannabe, lobbed an email hate bomb my way, it was disappointingly generic. It was as if Grenell — perhaps best known for omitting the letter “k” from his first name — had visited Kirkland and went on a bulk buying spree for stale rhetoric. First, he denounced my reporting on oil as “incredibly biased.” Then he proclaimed, “In case you haven’t noticed, the tide is sweeping across the country as the public rejects biased reporting.” He signed off with a strategically faux friendly “Have a good day,” right after accusing me of “journalistic malpractice.”
The man allegedly enjoys rock star status as talking-head opinionator on Fox News. Until this weekend, he’d been on Trump’s short list for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. (The nod ultimately went to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, famous for packing that unexpected extra “k” into her first name.) For about 13 seconds in 2012, Grenell — openly gay and a strong supporter of gay marriage — was appointed presidential campaign spokesperson for Mormon Mitt Romney, decidedly not a supporter of gay marriage. Bowing to pressure from the party’s anti-gay bigot brigade, Romney put a muzzle on Grenell almost immediately, and Grenell resigned before uttering a single syllable. An impressive résumé. Couldn’t he muster something better than “journalistic malpractice”? That’s just dead skin. He’d have done better with “fish wrap” and “parakeet cage lining,” the moldy, old chestnuts favored by cranks and crackpots everywhere.
More to the point, why was Grenell replying to an email I’d sent Robert O’Brien, defense attorney for the oil company formerly known as Greka? And why was I contacting O’Brien in the first place?
As usual, all bad things start with reading the Santa Barbara News-Press, one of only a small handful of daily newspapers in the United States to endorse Trump. Specifically, it was last Sunday’s cover story written by Scott Steepleton, breathlessly headlined, “State sanctioned in ‘Targate.’” It was a classic Steepleton: way too long, impossible to follow, and whiplash-inducing for those foolhardy enough to try. More classic yet, it sympathetically portrayed one of the most egregious polluters in county history, describing Greka CEO Randeep Grewal as a visionary business pioneer being unfairly persecuted by federal and state bureaucracies out to get him at any cost.
The article alludes to Greka’s exceptional history of oil spills only in the vaguest and most fleeting of terms. Conspicuously missing was any detail on the 200 documented oil spills that took place at Greka’s Cat Canyon facilities in Santa Maria, in which 500,000 gallons of oil and oily water was released. Or any of the 300 air-quality emission violations. Or the 400 times county hazardous materials crews had to be dispatched to clean up Greka messes over a nine-year period beginning in 1999. No mention was made of the unsuccessful effort by a North County DA to shut down Greka in 2003 or the $1 million fine the company paid the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for injecting toxic contaminants into the ground or the $2.1 million fine Greka ultimately paid the County of Santa Barbara. Greka’s record was so heinous that its owners changed its name to HVI Cat Canyon Inc. That they would regard a set of initials so easily confused with “HIV” as an improvement indicates only how utterly radioactive the Greka brand had become.
In 2011, the EPA and the California Department of Fish and Game sued Greka/HVI for violating the Clean Water Act and wholesale water pollution for umpteen millions of dollars. Greka’s defense has been creative. Since the many creeks they polluted happened to be dry when the spills occurred, no navigable waterways were contaminated, and no oil ever made its way to the ocean — thus no harm, no foul. The other argument is that because a large but undefined number of emails — produced by California Fish and Game employees involved in Greka cleanup actions — were inadvertently destroyed, Greka has been denied access to evidence that may have helped undermine the government’s case against it. In addition, state prosecutors had erroneously informed the judge and Greka that those emails had been placed under a protective order when in fact they’d been destroyed. Because of all these circumstances, Greka attorney Robert O’Brien argued the entire case against Greka should be thrown out and the case dismissed.
The destroyed and missing emails constituted the infamous “Targate” to which the headline alluded. It’s worth noting the federal judges and magistrates hearing the case strongly disagreed. Yes, the state screwed up, they ruled, and seriously so, but no malice or ill intent was involved — just stupidity, incompetence, and inadvertence. The emails were lost, it turns out, when employees retired and their computers were destroyed. Greka had been given copies of many emails well before the old computers were shredded, so the judges doubted much damage was done. Still, there needed to be sanctions, the judge ruled, and on November 20, Steepleton reported, he brought the hammer down by limiting the number of Fish and Game employees who could testify against Greka/HVI and ruling Greka was entitled to attorneys’ fees for legal work surrounding the missing emails. That could be $1 million.
NEWS HOOKS: How had I missed the November 20 order? That would be news. In my scramble to find out, I emailed O’Brien. I’d interviewed him two months ago about his efforts to depose County Supervisor Salud Carbajal on behalf of Greka. He suspected Carbajal had exercised what he termed “improper political influence” in getting the EPA to go after Greka in the first place. That, to me, seemed like a bit of a stretch. In 2005, Carbajal was just a local yokel politician. Today, however, he’s a congressmember-elect. Even if Grenell told me to pound sand, I needed to find out about the November 20 action. News is news, right? Wrong, it would turn out. Sifting through pages of court documents, I would subsequently find out the November 20 court order — the news hook justifying Steepleton’s lengthy cover story — had been issued in 2015, not this year. Somehow, Steepleton — more intent on the histrionics of “Targate” — failed to point this out.
Not everyone cares about news hooks. I get that. But what makes this all the more curious is what else Steepleton left out. For example, on September 30 of this year, 2016, the presiding judge rejected out of hand Greka/HVI’s request that the state and federal water pollution charges be tossed out. Remember Greka’s argument that it couldn’t be guilty of water pollution if the creeks were dry? Remember Greka’s argument that the destroyed emails so tainted the government’s case that charges should be dismissed? Denied. Shot down. And by the same judge who sanctioned the state for inadvertent email destruction. Certainly, an interested reader would want to know this. But squint as you might between Steepleton’s lines, and you won’t find it.
A couple of days after Steepleton’s hagiographic hand job of a corporate polluter was published, Breitbart “news” repackaged Scott’s cover story, enthusiastically trumpeting “Targate” in its headlines. It bears mentioning that Breitbart’s famous chief instigator, Stephen Bannon, has been made Donald Trump’s chief strategic advisor. Given the News-Press’s support for Trump, I would expect to see more journalistic patty-cake taking place between our own daily and the Breitbart noise machine. In this context, I wouldn’t say Steepleton’s article qualifies as genuine fake news. It’s more like pseudo news. And whatever it is, it’s bad news. And they accuse me of “journalistic malpractice.”