By Miriam Raftery
November 1, 2017 (El Cajon) – El Cajon Councilman Bessmon "Ben" Kalasho has escalated his war on media outlets that have published factual investigative reports on his business, political, legal and ethical controversies.
After first threatening litigation against the San Diego Union-Tribune and ridiculing its reporters, Kalasho has now threatened to sue East County Magazine (ECM), though he has not disputed the accuracy of any specific points in our reports. He has also made provably false, defamatory and malicious statements about our media outlet and reporters, as we have documented clearly in this article..
Ironically, amid his baseless efforts to smear our reputable nonprofit, his own nonprofit beauty pageant has had its nonprofit status revoked by the State of California following ECM's inquiries to state regulators, the Attorney General confirmed to ECM.
Kalasho threatened to sue the San Diego Union-Tribune after the newspaper began publishing investigative reports on his business and ethical controversies, drawing criticism from First Amendment lawyers for those actions. Kalasho refused to answer questions from that newspaper, belittling its award-winning reporter, Jeff McDonald, as a “troll” and “degenerate liar.” Kalasho claimed that emails between himself and McDonald would reveal a pattern of harassment by the reporter.
ECM, which has also published investigative reports on Kalasho, sent a public records request asking Kalasho for the emails between himself and McDonald, in order to prove or disprove his claim of harassment. The UT reporter was seeking information on Kalasho’s apparent conflict of interest in not recusing himself from a vote on Waste Management liens despite a business group founded by Kalasho receiving $5,000 from Waste Management, and other matters of public interest.
Thus, these emails should be disclosable as public records, according to Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware (Calaware), an organization that protects public and press access to public records and open government. Francke affirmed that recent court cases also mandate that public officials turn over emails and texts sent through personal email addresses and cell phones, if those records include discussion of public interest matters, when requested by a member of the media or public through a public records request.
KALASHO DEFIES STATE LAW BY REFUSING RECORDS REQUEST—AND THREATENS LAWSUIT
Kalasho sent ECM a refusal to turn over the full email and text records of any communications with McDonald, citing attorney client privilege since he threatened to sue to the UT. He sent us emails previously published by the UT, not the ones he claims would show harassment, if any such emails exist. In his email dated September 24, 2017, he also threatened to sue East County Magazine and repeated that in a second threat letter on October 30.
Here’s what Calaware’s general counsel had to say about Kalasho’s refusal of the records request pursuant to the California Public Records Act: “The attorney-client privilege does not protect a non-confidential communication with a third party that is simply cc'd to the sender's attorney. US Postal Service v. Phelps Dodge Refining Corp., 852 F. Supp. 156, 163 - Dist. Court, ED New York 1994.”
Moreover, the attorney, “McDonald might have a basis for suing Kalasho for defamation in the case of "degenerate liar" because the statement is not supported with any stated facts.”
KALASHO SMEARS THE PRESS
Kalasho claimed he only does interviews with “reputable and legitimate media outlets.” While it’s unclear how Kalasho defines reputable and legitimate, ECM has won 105 major journalism awards and ECM’s editor has won several hundred awards. ECM awards include many of the top awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and San Diego Press Club, including awards for public interest journalism, investigative reporting, political reporting, and ethics in journalism.You can view a list of our awards since 2008 here: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/about (Note this has page has not yet been updated to reflect last week’s Press Club awards.) Raftery, a journalist for over 30 years, has also won several hundred individual awards including national journalism prizes.
Interestingly, Kalasho did praise one media outlet on his social media: the East County Californian, which has not reported on any of his controversies, but did report on social functions that Kalasho organized such as a masquerade party that he said would raise funds for charities. (Photo, right: Kalasho in costume at masquerade ball)
Kalasho, apparently seeking to retaliate against ECM for our reporting on issues such as fraud suits,a jury finding of fraud, a trademark violation, and missing nonprofit paperwork on organizations he ran, has requested tax filings and other documents for ECM’s parent nonprofit, Heartland Coalition.
Heartland’s lawyer has responded to Kalasho’s attorney with documents required by law to be provided to anyone requesting them, with the exception of one document lost in a fire that Heartland has requested a duplicate of from the IRS. Heartland, unlike Kalasho, has complied with state and federal reporting mandates. (Kalasho’s demand for “employee compensation records” was denied due to confidential of personnel records; there is no legal requirement for such disclosure.)
Heatland's attorney has reviewed all of our articles, communications with Kalasho and other councilmembers, as well as Kalasho's attacks on ECM. Our attorney affirms that ECM has done nothing wrong, and has sent a cease and desist request to Kalasho through his attorney.
Kalasho then made the following unfounded accusastion in his email: “In a previous Public Request for Records which I made through my Lawyers to the City of El Cajon revealed damning evidence of collusion between your publication, its employees and Councilman Gary Kendrick via emails and texts. Other Council-members are also implicated and will be subpoenaed for deposition and possibly named as defendants along with East County Magazine Employees.”
ECM obtained all of the emails in question through our own public records request asking the city for every email turned out to Kalasho and/or his attorney. You can read emails between ECM and Kendrick here, to see that there is no collusion involving anyone at ECM, merely the occasional routine journalistic request for information and in one case, a request for the city to postpone a hearing on redistricting because our media outlet received inadequate notice. Kalasho suggests it is somehow collusion to send an email to one member of Council and not all. This is a common practice by journalists to avoid potential Brown Act violations should a member hit “reply all.” ECM has at times sent individual emails to Kalasho on various issues, as we have to other Council members.
ACTIONS SMACK OF SLAPP SUIT THREAT
Kalasho’s threat to sue yet another journalism organization appears to be an abuse of power and the public trust.
Moreover, the Calaware attorney and expert on state laws involving media matters told us that “any lawsuit Kalasho would bring against the U-T, the East County Magazine or any other news medium based on its reporting of his behavior in or fitness for public office would almost certainly be countered at the threshhold by an anti-SLAPP motion by the defendant and a consequent dismissal by the court without further ado.”
SLAPP stands for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation ,designed to protect journalists and citizens in California who speak out from being hit with costly lawsuits by those in power. In 1994, the Legislature passed the anti-SLAPP law, adding Code of Civil Procedure §425.16. Francke explains, “The anti-SLAPP motion is a procedural defense of free speech and press rights against harassing or otherwise ill- conceived litigation that is unlikely to succeed but may be devastatingly expensive to the defendant if allowed to proceed unchecked.”
Usually a journalist or media outlet sued can convince a court that an anti-SLAPP motion is justified and that a plaintiff’s case is likely to fail on First Amendment or other grounds; a court then dismisses the case and orders the plaintiff to pay all legal fees incurred by the defendant in litigating the anti-SLAPP motion. “Public officials in particular must prove that the offending statements were made with either knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard for whether they were true or not,” Francke states.
ECM’s articles on Kalasho were true, well researched and fully documented. He was provided opportunities to refute any information.
KALASHO ESCALATES UNSUBSTANTIATED ATTACKS
Unable to refute the accuracy of our reports, Kalasho has escalated his attacks. In response to requests by our reporter, Paul Kruze, for comments on a citizen who called for Kalasho’s resignation during public comments at the last Council meeting, Kalasho again refused to answer the questions.
His “response” assailed the reputation of ECM with a laundry list of false and defamatory statements. Since Kalasho sent this through the city of El Cajon’s official email, he made his accusations a public record and thus, ECM is responding to scurrilous remarks we would ordinarily not dignify with a response.
In his October 30, 2017 statement refusing comment on Kruze’s article, Kalasho wrote, “My response is that I no longer do interviews with East County Magazine, nor with imposter so called reporters who use fake names and aliases and who create Youtube channels also under fake names and aliases.”
These are more false statements. We obviously are not “imposter” reporters. Our reporters have won many awards and have official press passes issued by San Diego Police.
East County Magazine’s Youtube channel can be viewed here, where you can clearly see our name and logo displayed: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPFDNB3EwJ6Oe_gfnFpiFcw?view_as=subscriber. We have no accounts under fake names. We have occasionally linked to videos posted by contracted photojournalists on their sites, such as Paul Kruze, whose site is posted under the professional name he has used in his broadcast career; Kruze’s videos include the ECM logo and our name. There has been no subterfuge; this is fully transparent.
Kalasho’s statement further falsely asserts that ECM “is under investigation for not paying their employees and failing to disclose and file financial information according to the laws bound by the State of California.”
ECM is not under investigation for failing to pay employees, has no case pending, and has had no judgment against our news organization on wage issues. In fact there has never been any finding of wrongdoing against ECM of any sort, by any entity against our organization --unlike Kalasho's businesses and nonprofits, which have had findings of wrongdoing by governmental entities and the court justice system.
KALASHO’S BEAUTY PAGEANT LOSES NONPROFIT STATUS
In an email sent to ECM this week, the California Attorney General’s office confirmed that its investigation into the beauty pageant run by Kalasho has resulted in enforcement action:
“We have sent Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant USA the attached disallowance letter. The organization failed to fully comply with our previous notices to register, and as a result, we are now having the Franchise Tax Board revoke its tax-exempt status.“ View the Attorney General's disallowance letter.
Interestingly, one of the lawsuits filed against Kalasho by a former beauty pageant winner claims that the pageant was fraudulent, an argument that may be bolstered by the state’s revocation of the pageant’s nonprofit status.
MORE THREATS, INTIMIDATION EFFORTS AND INACCURATE STATEMENTS
In a later email to ECM's editor, Kalasho made further defamatory statements, taunts, and unfounded accusations:
“You're corruption and collusion with the Neighborhood Market Association and the fact that you accept contributions from them makes you a suspicious Character. Your behavior has even caused local political clubs to amend their bylaws just to revoke your membership as your presence and unethical behavior proved harmful to the reputation of many legitimate journalists. You and Ivars, Paul or whatever name he decides to go by this year have in fact colluded with Gary Kendrick and Nathan Cornette (the speaker at city council) Do you actually think that I will let you get away with muzzling my first Amendments Rights? Do you actually think that you won't be in court as a defendant? You should know me better than that, and if you claim that I am making threats, defaming or slandering you than, sue me. Stop making empty promises, sue me. You aren't a journalist and your publication has no viewership, it's all a facade. I was able to pull traffic counts from your site and will be releasing it to your "paid advertisers".
At ECM, we respect everyone's First Amendment rights. Kalasho is entitled to his opinions about our coverage, but he does not have a right to engage in slander, libel, defamation of character, or malicious attempts to cause financial harm. Nor does he have a right to sue media with intent to intimidate reporters, editors, or suppress truthful reporting.
ECM has never taken a single donation from the Neighborhood Market Association, though it we had, that would be legal. In our nine years of existence, we received $100 monthly donations for several months from Mark Arabo, who at the time was head of the NMA but also head of the Minority Humanities Foundation helping refugees. He was among several readers who answered our request for monthly pledges to help us afford studio rental space for our radio show, and this was acknowledged in a framed plaque listing all studio donors on our studio wall. There was no bias. Kalasho was interviewed on our show more than once, including a radio interview in that studio, on issues impacting Chaldeans.
As for Kalasho’s other unfounded claims: ECM and its editor hold no membership in any political clubs, and have not had any memberships revoked. ECM’s editor has long been included on some clubs’ email blasts as a courtesy, on both sides of the political aisle. One group, the East County Democratic Club to which Kalasho belongs, recently changed leadership and has opted to exclude all non-members from its email blasts, according to past president Bonnie Price.
There has been no “collusion” with Councilman Kendrick as our release of emails between Kendrick and ECM clearly show, only questions on legitimate city issues such as seeking clarification on redistricting rules.
As for Nathan Cornett, the citizen who called for Kalasho’s resignation in the Council hearing, our editor has had no contact with him and our reporter knows of Cornett solely through public meetings where Cornette spoke. Our reporter simply reacted with journalistic integrity to remarks Cornette made in a public hearing, by sending Kalasho a courtesy opportunity to respond to the criticisms raised by Cornette.
KALASHO SEEKS TO SABOTAGE SPONSORSHIPS OF ECM
Kalasho’s threat to attempt to persuade sponsors to pull support from ECM by falsely claiming we mislead sponsors on our traffic is particularly appalling, as he is clearly attempting to intimidate us or retaliate against us for doing our jobs as media in reporting the news.
Councilman Kalasho stooped so low as to post false statements about our site traffic on his Twitter account:
For the record, we have relied on AW stats in our statements regarding our website views and visits, and our webmaster stands by those records as accurate. Here is a pdf document you can view as proof, with two sets of stats documenting our website traffic, for both the https (SSL) and http (non-SLL) version of the site for January through October of this year. One site points to the newer, more secure site, the other to the older version, To tally total traffic add numbers from both sets of stats. For our most recent month, October, here are the numbers (rounded to the nearest thousand), which are actually far higher than the 5 to 6 million hits and 200,000 to 250,000 visits a month we have claimed in promotional materials.
We did, in fact, attract 7.2 million hits and month and 359,000 visits a month in October – and those numbers don’t count robots or spiders that crawl websites:
SSL site non SSL site Total
Hits 3.0/million/mo. 4.2 million/mo. 7.2 million hits per month
Visits 83,000/ mo. 276,000/mo. 359,000 visits per month
KALASHO’S PAST APPROVAL OF ECM
Mr. Kalasho never asserted any illegitimacy of our news organization when our editor co-moderated a candidate forum in 2016, along with the Union-Tribune and two other media outlets. He in fact urged us to co-moderate the forum and voiced appreciation for our participation. Read transcript of the forum. He had no complaints when we interviewed him as a candidate on our radio studio, or as a spokesman in the Chaldean community on issues involving Iraqi Chaldeans including a rally/press conference he convened, or as a newly elected Councilmember, such as when we attended a town hall he held with residents.
Kalasho’s objections arose only when we, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune and the San Diego Reader, published investigative reports on serious matters of public interest involving the integrity of an elected official. (The Reader has declined to comment on whether it has been targeted by Kalasho with threats or not.)
SUMMARY OF KALASHO CONTROVERSIES
Our reports included lawsuits filed by contestants in the Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant USA alleging fraud and in one case, sexual misconduct including offering to trade sex for the crown (Kalasho has denied those claims and filed a countersuit), a prior case involving a business dispute which Kalasho was found by a jury to have committed fraud and ordered to pay $10,000, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office ordering him to cease using the name San Diego Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce after he lost a lawsuit on appeal, his age-based bashing of Councilman Bob McClellan, an investigation by the California Attorney General into lack of required filings for nonprofit status involving the Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant, suspension of his Chamber’s nonprofit status (Kalasho ran it as a sole proprietorship subsequently until ordered to cease using the name over the trademark dispute) his threat to file a discrimination complaint against the city over its ban on electronic devices by members during Council sessions, his threat to sue the city over its redistricting maps, the City announcing it will hold a revote on trash liens approved because Kalasho failed to recuse himself from voting despite his Chamber having received $5,000 from Waste Management, the city’s tax hauler, and Waste Management withdrawing its support from the Chamber Kalasho founded. (Kalasho has since formed a new Middle East Chamber of Commerce.)
Many of these issues were raised by the citizen who called publicly for Kalasho’s resignation. These issues deserve the thoughtfulness of serious responses from Kalasho, instead of attacks on media for asking legitimate questions.
Meanwhile Kalasho has continued his defamation on Twitter targeting not only ECM and its reporters, but also the Union-Tribune and its reporting team, even posting a Tweet smearing one Union-Tribune reporter’s wife.
His posts targeting ECM include these, which improperly also included the City of El Cajon seal for what is clearly not official city business:
As stated previously, ECM is not under any investigation other than Kalasho’s witch hunt. The 20 days has come and gone, of course, with nothing negative from the records he sought.
Calling Paul Kruze a “weirdo wannabe reporter” is demeaning and false; Kruze is an award-winning journalist with a history in TV broadcasting. Claiming ECM is a “fraud media outlet” is false,defamatory and ironic coming from an individual who has been found by a jury to have committed fraud in one case and currently stands accused of fraud in another lawsuit.
Claiming his records request would provide fodder for negative material to share, which did not occur because our records had nothing negative to fuel Kalasho’s vendetta, is also defamatory. Claiming “false advertising” for using the term news magazine is ridiculous; magazines are not limited to print and many are now launched exclusively online. Has Kalasho never heard of e-zines?
When we originally launched in 2008, we envisioned a monthly news magazine with occasionally more timely posts during fires and other emergencies, but due to demand from readers for more news, we became a daily news site by the end of our first month. There is nothing wrong with a news site having its popularity outpace its original founding vision.
POLITICIANS’ ASSAULTS ON THE PRESS HARM THE PUBLIC INTEREST
Kalasho’s obsession with attacking and defaming reporters and media outlets who report truthful news about his actions, business, political and ethical controversies instead of responding to the serious questions asked is reminiscent of similar actions by President Donald Trump.
Kalasho is a Democrat. Trump is a Republican. Such attacks are wrong, regardless of the political persuasion of the person abusing their power and seeking to intimidate media from doing their job.
His attacks on the media and other negative actions have cost him support of San Diego CityBeat, which earlier today posted, "We initially liked El Cajon City Councilmember Ben Kalasho, the only Democrat and first-ever Chaldean on the council, but now he’s just turned into a troll. From the sexual harassment allegations and defiantly using his phone during council meetings, to his frequent attacks on the media, one commenter on Twitter recently called him “a real-life Parks and Rec caricature.” Can’t say we disagree."
Similarly, a San Diego Union-Tribune editorial condemning Kalasho's attacks on its media outlet and reporters urged the Councilman to "dial it back."
David Snyder, executive director for the First Amendment Coalition, has called Kalasho's behavior toward the press "irresponsible" and his threats to sue the media "disturbing" after Kalasho's threats against the Union-Tribune were made public.
There is a reason why our nation’s founding fathers enshrined journalism as the only profession protected in the U.S. constitution – precisely to protect us from scurrilous attacks by those in power seeking to restrict the public’s right to know what’s happening in their government and what public officials are doing.
The real losers in Kalasho’s attacks on the press are not members of the media (though he clearly intends to cause us harm). Such intimidation tactics aiming to muzzle the media are most damaging to the public-- who deserve answers to important questions posed to Kalasho over serious issues of clear public interest.
Councilman Kalasho should apologize to the press and public, and now that we have set the record straight with facts proving his statements are false, we call on Councilman Kalasho to retract his erroneous and defamatory statements, which are unbecoming of any public official.
As professionals, we will not back down on covering news involving Kalasho, and will strongly refute any future attempts at defaming us or anyone else.
We will, however,continue to be fair and accurate--which includes not only covering controversies, but also covering any positive actions he may take on the El Cajon City Council to benefit the constitutents he was elected to represent. We have previously covered positive actions by Kalasho, it should be noted, such as his townhalls with constitutents who can't attend Council meetings, and his past proposals to help the homeless and seniors in El Cajon. We hope he will put his attention and efforts toward accomplishing good things to benefit El Cajon residents, instead of attacking media for simlpy doing our jobs.
If you are constitutents of Councilman Kalasho and wish to share your views, we welcome your comments and letters which may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for our readers, we thank you for your continuing support—and we are gratified to see that Councilman Kalasho’s efforts to undermine our nonprofit media outlet have backfired, since our readership continues to grow.