Muckraker under the microscope
Valley Mirror Publisher denies allegation he profits from lawsuits over public records
Glenn County newspaper publisher Tim Crews is a tireless crusader for truth, honesty and openness in the daily operations of our government agencies.
Tim Crews is a swaggering, self-centered pain in the ass whose only mission is to keep his opinionated rag alive by making outrageous public-records requests, filing frivolous lawsuits against the public entities that fail to fully respond, and then collecting the court costs when he prevails.
The burly, bearded, white-haired Crews has published the Sacramento Valley Mirror for the past 20 years. Lately he’s made headlines of his own in other papers. Just two weeks ago he was in a front-page, top-of-the-fold, photo-accompanied story in the Chico Enterprise-Record.
A lawsuit he’d filed against the Willows Unified School District based on its failure to respond in a full and timely manner to a public-records request was ruled “frivolous” in September by Glenn County Superior Court Judge Peter Twede. Crews and his attorney, Paul Boylan, appealed the decision to a higher court. But the judge there agreed with Twede, and as the losing party Crews was ordered to pay more than $100,000 in court fees. He says he’ll fight it to the state Supreme Court.
A story in the Willows Journal soon after the court’s ruling quoted Willows City Manager Steve Holsinger as suggesting the 67-year-old Crews is more interested in making money than ferreting out the truth: “I believe the majority of the lawsuits filed by the Sacramento Valley Mirror are facilitated by a need for revenue not generated by that newspaper’s circulation,” he told Journal reporter Rob Parsons.
On Friday, Jan. 7, Chico E-R Editor David Little sent out some public-record requests of his own concerning the Valley Mirror’s frequent pursuits of public information and any litigation that may be connected.
Crews said he thinks an E-R story reflecting Holsinger’s view of the Mirror’s mission is in the making.
“The Willows city manager and a couple of school superintendents can’t figure out how we do the impossible and produce a newspaper twice a week for 20 years with almost no revenue,” Crews said. “We do it because I do half the delivery twice a week and my copy editor does the other half. We have volunteers and we’re very frugal. We have no heat in our office. … We don’t live what you’d call a fancy sort of lifestyle. I mean, I live OK. I rent a nice house.”
Over the years the Willows-based Valley Mirror, by Crews’ own reckoning, has made public-records requests to nearly 40 government agencies. If they comply, all is fine. If they don’t, Crews sues.
In fact, he’s written a note of caution to Little that closes with these words: “Any writing, statement or implication that Tim Crews or The Mirror has profited from these cases will result in litigation. You are on notice, sir.”
For his part, Little says there is not necessarily a story in the making based on his request for the public records.
“This doesn’t mean to imply that we are working on a story,” he said. “All we did was ask for public records. If we find something, we’ll think about it. I don’t want to imply one way or another.”
On Saturday, Jan. 15, Crews and Boylan spoke about the California Public Records Act at a symposium put on by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Butte County Bar Association.
The message to the audience, while delivered with a streak of humor, was serious. Boylan said the freedom to be informed is more important than the freedom of speech, because without the information the speech can be meaningless. And the need to be informed calls for the right to scrutinize government. “You need public records to help you find out what the government is doing,” Boylan said. “The right to information is at the very heart of our democracy.”
As was inevitable, the E-R story about Crews’ order to pay court fees in the Willows school district case was brought up by a member of the audience.
Crews pointed out that the Glenn County judge who had ruled against him was married to a recently retired elementary-school principal who worked in the school district. He suggested there was perhaps some conflict of interest here.
“I think,” Crews said, “and I’m speculating here, that either they think, ‘Oh, he’s always going after these poor, poor school districts and poor cities,’ or ‘The man has so much hubris’—and I won’t argue with that—‘he’s intolerable.’ ”
Crews pointed out that he’s not allowed to split fees with Boylan to make money from the court cases in which he prevails. “It’s illegal for me to accept it. It is also a disbarrable offense for an attorney,” he said. “And I don’t like being accused of a crime, so I write about it. Fight with me [and] you’ll get a fight to the end.”
Boylan explained how the case in question was settled and why some may conclude that Crews is making money off the court decisions.
“Four years ago, when Tim went against the Glenn County Office of Education and they handed over the documents to him, he became the prevailing party and was owed court fees. They settled for $100,000 and insisted the check be done in two parts—each at $50,000—and that both Tim’s name and my name be on them.
“That’s fine. It happens a lot with two-party checks written to the attorney and the client. Tim signed, and I took it, deposited it and spent it. Tim didn’t get a penny. Those are my expenses. But that’s what they are looking at.”
Ironically, in connection to that settlement, in 2008 Boylan sued the E-R for defamation and negligence based on comments posted on the Topix message board on the paper’s website in response to a letter written about the case.
In return, the E-R filed a so-called SLAPP motion, which is based on a state law to protect free speech. In response, Boylan dismissed his complaint. But Judge Barbara Roberts awarded the newspaper $65,000 in court fees.
“We’re glad this is behind us,” Little was quoted in an E-R story. “It was a long and unnecessary fight. The anti-SLAPP statute was designed just for this purpose, so that free speech isn’t chilled by meritless legal threats. And thank goodness there is a provision to repay newspapers that have to pay to fight needless lawsuits.”
And there are two final twists of irony: A few years before the Glenn County Office of Education case, the Mirror was awarded $200,000 in court costs while represented by an attorney named Mary Duffy Carolan. She now represents MediaNews Corp., the conglomerate that owns the Chico E-R. Boylan, meanwhile, has been hired as the interim general counsel for the Glenn County Office of Education.
As Boylan himself said: “It’s a crazy world.”