David Mendez

Eyes on Redondo: Anonymous Facebook attacks enter the electoral fray in Redondo Beach

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Candidates and citizens alike are facing a “trial by Facebook” as anonymous social media attacks enter the electoral fray in Redondo Beach. Illustration by Tim Teebken

by David Mendez

Martha Barbee was in shock. Her eyes were wide, her hands clenched, and her voice was shaking. Her worst fears, those she believed to be long buried, were resurfacing.

The past months of campaign season in Redondo Beach had been trying for the sitting councilwoman and candidate who prizes civility and respect. Rumors and allegations had begun flying in the comments sections of online forums, tying Barbee to a series of civil lawsuits, tax liens, and a bankruptcy, in an attempt to cast doubt on her fitness for City Council.

The reason, she explained, was something she held close to the vest, so as to not exploit it for political gain. Further, though she had moved on with her life, she just didn’t want to relive it — for herself, or for her children.

But she didn’t have a choice. A series of Facebook postings and a Google search led Barbee’s ex-husband to email her media contacts in an attempt to reach back into her world. Her ex-husband, Steve Barbee, had been charged with four counts of felony domestic violence, been served with a series of restraining orders, and had zero out-of-courtroom contact with his children or his ex-wife for years, in the wake of a plea bargain.

Barbee gave an interview on the topic in January, after a Facebook page called “Eye on Redondo – Truth Be Told” posted links to extensive court documents detailing her legal history. For a few long minutes, Barbee’s barriers had collapsed. She then looked up with a start, drying her eyes.

“I will not allow my family to be re-victimized,” Barbee said, summoning resolve to see her way through a private painful chapter being made public.

Barbee’s case is not unusual this election cycle, nor is it the first to be publicized in the Beach Cities.

Redondo Beach candidates Barbee and Mayor Steve Aspel have both had public documents from their past posted online. Both have also had their information disseminated through Facebook pages, “OneView InRedondo” and “Eye on Redondo – Truth Be Told.”

Both anonymously-written pages consider themselves to be hubs for conversation and “truthful reporting” on Redondo Beach.

Both also demonstrate clear favor toward sitting Council members Steve Sammarco, who will be leaving office following the March election, and Bill Brand, who is running for Mayor as the “slow growth candidate.” Brand is vocally opposed to current plans to develop the Redondo Beach waterfront, including CenterCal’s Waterfront: Redondo Beach plan. He supports Measure C, which purports to stop the CenterCal project, and has endorsed City Council candidates who agree with his vision.

“OneView” and “Eye on Redondo” champion Brand while insulting Aspel and Barbee, as well Council members Christian Horvath and Laura Emdee.

“I call ‘em as I see ‘em as things are happening and relate to real actions and comments and verifiable documents that I provide,” “OneView” wrote in a Facebook message, during which they insisted on remaining anonymous. “My OneView is based on real things, not made up things…I ain’t pulling’ stuff out of thin air.”

On Jan. 4, “Eye on Redondo” published a list of records regarding Barbee, listing state and federal liens, as well as a series of civil lawsuits she has been involved in. The post contends that a series of assumed names were used as aliases likely “in avoidance of financial obligations to others.” It also cites a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, filed in 2004.

“With this background who in their right mind would trust this woman to deal with complicated financial matters for the City of Redondo Beach?” they wrote.

However, five of those cases were unable to be verified by Easy Reader. Case reference numbers found no matches in an L.A. Superior Court database.

Barbee attempted to explain the rest.

While one lien was tied to an earlier marriage, most of those cases, she said, are tied to her marriage and joint assets between Martha and her ex-husband.

The two married in 1997. In 2002, Steve Barbee was arrested and charged with four counts of domestic violence. The two separated shortly after, and their divorce was finalized in 2009.

“When a person is ordered to pay taxes, car payments and bills, and they refuse to, liens get filed against both people,” Martha Barbee said. “It’s part of the cycle of abuse.”

Though she admits that two of those assumed names — Fuss and Lawrence — were the product of failed and annulled marriages, Barbee contends that aliases helped her stay in hiding and off of Steve Barbee’s radar during their separation.

“You’ll find nothing filed against me after the time frame of approximately 2007, 2008,” Barbee said. “I live an honest, wonderful life, but because this person did not fulfill their legal, financial obligations, anything filed while we were married shows up under my name.”

“It’s shameful that some would choose to bring up past, unfortunate circumstances to try and engage in unfounded, vicious attacks when looking for something more in these whisper-smear campaigns, using the protection of anonymity of social media,” Barbee said. “My children and I will not be revictimized — we have risen from the ashes of horrific situations to become the people we are today.”

On Jan. 30, Eye on Redondo also published tax lien documents against Aspel, covering tax periods ending in 2011 and 2012. Documents were also published showing liens against a Torrance address associated with Aspel.

That, he said, was a conflict with the IRS.

“I sold my business back to Farmer’s Insurance when I got cancer and decided to retire,” Aspel said, referring to his 2009 diagnosis with colorectal cancer. Aspel has since been given a clean, cancer-free bill of health. “The IRS wanted to consider it regular income, not capital gains…we argued for a number of years, and in my desk, I have a $48,000 refund check.”

The other liens, he said were based on his business’s office in Torrance, and have long since been paid off.

“I paid the liens for the business property — I couldn’t register my boat last year, so I went ahead and took care of it…just pay it and argue about it later,” Aspel said.

For his part, Aspel refuses to take part in Facebook mudslinging.

“As far as I’m concerned, people have a lot of courage when they’re anonymous — they use Facebook as a tool of terrorism,” Aspel said. “I’ve heard they’ve taken shots at my wife and kids, which is unacceptable, and taken shots at the firefighters, which is unacceptable. But I can’t stop them; it’s a free world.”

Redondo Beach City Councilwoman Martha Barbee, who is currently running to retain her District 1 seat. Barbee’s legal and tax history, which she says are tied to a past husband’s misdeeds, were posted on Facebook by political opponents. Photo by David Mendez

 

The acknowledgement of free speech is a cold comfort to Redondo Beach Firefighters Association President Brad Sweatt.

At the Jan. 31 City Council meeting, Brand asked CenterCal CEO Fred Bruning why his company donated $30,000 to the RBF Political Action Committee, which was then used for independent expenditures toward candidates endorsed by the PAC, rather than a PAC favored by Brand.

Four days later, Brand took to his personal Facebook page, accusing the RBFPAC of “laundering campaign donations from [CenterCal].”

On Feb. 9, a press release was issued by RBFA, in which Sweatt called for Brand to retract his accusations and make a public apology, saying “we are very disappointed he has resorted to baseless claims about our organization and has attacked the character of the brave men and women who risk their lives to protect our citizens.”

On Feb. 10, Sweatt’s personal tax lien information for the years 2006 through 2008, offering no relation to money laundering, were posted by “Eye on Redondo.”

“What’s up with a guy who gets compensated $260,433.53 by a City he doesn’t even live in, and he doesn’t seem to be able to manage his financial affairs?“ “Eye on Redondo” wrote.

The days since the posting have been incredibly stressful for Sweatt.

“What they’ve done is brutal at best, and it’s very personal, and it has the ability to cause a lot of personal damage and even professional damage if they go too far with it,” Sweatt said. “…When people decide to go dirty like they have, they don’t care what they step on to get their agenda through.”

Sweatt contends that what RBFPAC did was completely legal.

“They’re making accusations of money laundering — that’s not what that is; they’re telling us we took illegal money and washed it,” Sweatt said. “It’s a harmful accusation that’s slanderous. I’ve never seen this much dirtiness in an election.”

As a result of the attacks, Sweatt plans to step out of the limelight. However, he said RBFPAC will continue its advocacy.

Brand said he can see why people would say it’s not fair for Sweatt’s documents to be posted on a public forum.

“But this guy is the chair of a PAC, demanding an apology from an elected official in a campaign,” Brand said. “People pointed out how the money was flowing through his PAC to Mayor Aspel…people need to know that. I don’t know where the other stuff comes from.

“I know people who would refuse to open a PAC because they know that anything [from their past] could be found and posted on Facebook,” Brand continued. “It’s all public information, and with the new social media channels out there, everyone knows there’s no privacy anymore.”

“It is unfortunate that a candidate would endorse these kinds of ugly personal, character attacks on public safety personnel,” Sweatt said. “I’m a proud 28 year employee of the City of Redondo Beach who has represented labor for six years; they’re trying to paint me as an individual when I’m the voice of a multitude of people. You have to wonder what is behind it. I think it is time we all hit pause and remember what we are all about in Redondo Beach.”

Brand contends that politics is a contact sport, and warns that anyone who is willing to enter into the public sphere should be ready to bear the consequences.

“If you want to insert yourself into the public process, that’s fine. Get ready though, because there are lawyers on both sides who know how to access that information,” Brand said. “If there are skeletons in your closet and you’re looking to get involved in politics, think twice.”

Attorney and former Redondo Councilman Steve Colin is familiar with that sentiment. In 2015, Colin raised questions about the ethical fitness of then-candidate Christian Horvath, due to a donation Horvath took from a questionable source. Colin has since supported candidates aligned with Brand, and has been accused of running the “OneView” page, an assertion he denies. He does, however, get into the weeds of Facebook comments.

In September, Easy Reader reported on Brand’s decision to recuse himself from a vote regarding the CenterCal project. In the comments of that story, Colin became embroiled in a debate regarding the ethics of the recusal. Colin implied that the commenter he disagreed with owned an illegal business, following a search at the Secretary of State’s database.

Colin also reposted Sweatt’s tax lien information in the days following its initial posting. “If there are individual firefighters who don’t agree with [Sweatt] or the positions of the [RBFPAC], then they should speak up and have a backbone,” Colin wrote. “Otherwise, to sit silent and take our tax money as salary subjects them to criticism too.”

“This is a guy, a Torrance resident, who is taking that money and he is directing it to [politicians],” Colin said in an interview. “He’s an important player in this election, because he gets to take money and decide the fate of things that happen in Redondo Beach.”

That, Colin said, is why he believes Sweatt’s personal tax information is a matter of public interest.

“People want to know what it is that might be influencing your decision,” Colin said. “If you’re a private citizen and you’re sitting there and voting privately, no one should touch you. But the minute you immerse yourself in such a controversial public issue…you’re subject to scrutiny beyond the plain ordinary citizen voting in his or her home.”

That fear of scrutiny, or of reprisal, is what keeps anonymous authors such as “OneView” from revealing their identity.

“[It’s] on account of too many other folks who’ve been harassed by some of these hooligans, and personally threatened,” the OneView InRedondo writer said in January. “I got a family to protect and so do other folks who’ve been bullied, intimidated [and] harassed by these hooligans hellbent on maintaining a corrupt crony power hold in Redondo. They need to be outed once and for all without the little guy fearing reprisal.”

Redondo City Attorney Michael Webb, who is running unopposed for his position, finds the evolution of social media attacks unfortunate.

“The anonymity allows people to attack candidates they don’t support in a way that they would never have the courage to put their name behind…if you put out a piece attacking someone, you have to put the name of the entity [behind it]; Jones for Congress, for instance,” Webb said.

“Social media is a giant loophole to responsibility for attacks on candidates,” Webb continued. “In the case of someone who has been the victim of a crime, it is really unfortunate because it allows someone to anonymously revictimize them for political purposes.”

In Barbee’s case, however, she seems to be carrying on.

“Walking my precincts, knocking on doors, reminds me of exactly why I’m doing this, in spite of the futile attempts made to destroy people and smear them,” Barbee said. “I haven’t been charged with anything, or arrested…come fight me on the issues, stand up and tell me why anything I’ve voted on is a bad thing; that’s healthy dialogue.

“They don’t like what I stand for, so they want to destroy my personal life,” Barbee said. “They want to silence a voice, to threaten and intimidate someone whose voice is different than theirs. Well, they haven’t silenced me — if anything, they’ve made me louder.”

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