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Razor Magazine
November, 2002



by Russ Baker

As Oprah Winfrey learned when she riled the Texas beef industry with a program on Mad Cow Disease, even fame, fortune and a national following are no protection when you step on the wrong toes. Powerful forces have been using the courts to suppress criticism since 1802, when a  justice of the peace in Shaftsbury, VT, sued five citizens who spoke out against his reappointment, seeking the then-enormous sum of $5,000 for having been called “a quarreling, fighting, and Sabbath-breaking member of society.” But it wasn’t until the past decade or two that such suits, which strike at the core of the First Amendment’s free speech protections, have become common enough to earn their own acronym--Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation--the SLAPP.

In the vast majority of SLAPP cases – untold thousands are now filed each year – corporations play the bully, going after environmentalists, union organizers, and all manner of advocate, most of whom lack the resources to fight back. Most can only dimly hope to find a trial lawyer like Ed Masry of ”Erin Brockovich” fame to represent them, and with the Bush White House gunning for these typically pro-Democratic attorneys, the situation will likely grow even more precarious. Which means that just now, when doubts about corporate morals are at a high and confidence in the government’s regulatory vigilance is at a low, the role of the lone public activist and whistleblower is under attack as never before.

The real purpose of SLAPPs is not to seek justice but to chill public criticism by intimidating opponents, draining their coffers and crushing their spirits. Two of every five SLAPP cases are still being litigated after three years—and some sieges last a dozen years or more, no big deal for Fortune 500 corporations but devastating to most activists.  As Ron Collins of the Center for Science in the Public Interest puts it, "they cannot afford to stay in the fight."

This was undoubtedly what waste-removal giant Taormina Industries was counting on when it sued the Rev. Steve Anderson, a Pentecostal minister in the small California city of Colton. But if Anderson – who accused Taormina of using bribery and worse to get a municipal trash contract –  was unprepared for  a well-financed assault on his pocketbook and reputation, the powers-that-be behind Taormina clearly underestimated the minister’s tenaciousness.

Underdog whistle-blowers such as Karen Silkwood, Frank Serpico, and, most recently, The Insider’s Dr. Jeffrey Wigand and the real Erin Brockovich, are uniquely American icons, as evidenced by the popular films based on their stories. Their sacrifices of job, family and even life itself to uphold a personal standard of morality may be unfathomable to the average individual. But in reality, none went looking for a cause: the cause found them. Ditto with Anderson, who, confronted by the apparent attempt of a fat-cat corporation to corrupt local government, felt himself summoned to a crusade that demanded he respond with the stubbornness of a modern-day Job and all the reckless courage of David confronting Goliath.


Colton, a dusty, blue-collar redoubt east of Los Angeles near the San Bernardino mountains,  is pocked by strip malls, tract homes, topless clubs and, of course, churches. The one-time Gold Rush town has long been ruled by barroom brawl and backroom deal. The city’s namesake, David Doulty Colton, a Civil War general and county sheriff, made his fortune by allying himself with big business, eventually becoming vice president of Southern Pacific Railroad. Things have not changed much in 125 years. So blatant are the self-enriching machinations of local pols that the city has earned a reputation as “the recall capital of the world.” Of the last three mayors, one was defeated, one was removed and one was forced to resign. As former City Attorney Julie Biggs puts it, “There is a significant absence of angels here.”

The Rev. Anderson may be no angel, but as a young man, he heard the Call. After earning a Ph.D. from a diploma mill founded by his Pentecostal minister father, he helped televangelist Gene Scott save souls for a time.  In 1983, Anderson found a small working-class congregation in need of leadership--the Healing Waters Church, like Colton itself a mix of an aging white population and a rapidly growing Latino one--and he set about preaching salvation through Jesus. Before long, his church was flourishing in a modest way, and he, his wife Debbie and their three children seemed happy to call Colton their home.

Anderson became a regional director of the Traditional Values Coalition, a group fighting against abortion and gay rights, and he helped lead a crusade against the evils of gambling in Colton. Some in Colton saw him as a gadfly, even a bit of a buffoon. A heavyset fellow with a dimpled chin, the Reverend wears a longish gray-flecked pompadour slicked to the sides and a brush mustache. When I first met him, he was wearing a red-and-black striped Nike golf shirt under a navy Nike windbreaker with lime-green-and-white trim, a gold braid chain with a spread eagle, a chunky gold ring and a diver’s watch.  His manner is often brazen and melodramatic; his hoarse but sonorous baritone voice is redolent of the Okie roots common in the so-called Inland Empire, an hour due east of Los Angeles yet a world away from LA’s glitz and glamour.  But hearing his intriguing tale of how a combination of ambition, idealism and naiveté led him into a battle against the forces of iniquity, it became clear that this was a case in which all stereotypes would be busted.


Like many scandals, this one began quietly enough, amid the languid hush and occasional profanity of a golf course. In his original conservative cultural crusade, the minister had found an ally in Mayor George Fulp, a perpetually tanned former Dominos Pizza executive and regional pillar of right-wing Republicanism. Fulp and Anderson would frequently make the rounds at the local golf course, all the while grousing about big government and meddlesome regulators.

On an otherwise unremarkable summer golf outing in 1995, the mayor pointed toward a figure off in the distance. “He’s a political whore,” Anderson remembers Fulp saying. “Do not be seen with him.”  Gil Lara was a real estate developer and powerful lobbyist known for his easy use of money to get contracts– including the questionable practice of placing elected officials in a nearby city on his payroll.

Anderson learned that Lara was the key organizer for forces trying to bring card casinos to Colton, and that a referendum supporting local gaming was slated for shortly before Christmas, when many residents would conveniently be out of town. Lara was claiming that the card clubs meant new jobs.  In his first gambit as an activist/provocateur,  the minister hurriedly designed and mailed a sarcastic flyer proclaiming “Card Clubs Will Bring Jobs To Colton” – with a photograph depicting a couple of hookers.

Although Anderson’s side won the vote, an encounter a few weeks before the referendum worried him. He had arrived for his usual golf game with Fulp, only to find out that their foursome was to be rounded out by Gil Lara. “What’s he doing here?” Anderson hissed to Fulp, who, according to the Reverend, replied: “I like to keep my enemies close.” Fulp explained that Lara was also lobbying for Taormina Industries, a firm bidding on Colton’s soon-to-be-privatized trash contract. Concerned that Lara would use garbage money to soften up the council for another gambling referendum, Anderson dialed up Taormina, whose chairman promptly invited the preacher to visit the $100-million firm at its headquarters and plant in nearby Orange County. There, he met co-owner Bill Taormina, a big, imposing man with a friendly manner and a firm handshake, who assured the Reverend that they shared conservative Christian values: “Tell your little flock not to worry about Gil Lara.”

On the Reverend's return, Mayor Fulp, an afternoon drinker who drove around town in a Mercedes 450 coupe, lit into him for visiting Taormina, warning, “You have no idea what you’re getting into.” Steve Anderson was certainly no expert on sanitation or municipal contracts. He was just doing what he always did – speaking up, reflexively exercising the rights guaranteed any citizen under the constitution, as epitomized by the flag the minister so proudly displayed in his church.  But he didn’t understand the way the American justice system, by its very openness to all comers, can be a scimitar in the hands of powerful interests intent on lopping off the heads of pesky outsiders like him.  By the time Anderson focused his righteous zeal on Gil Lara, Taormina had already invested a great deal of time and money in its lobbyist. Originally hired to lobby in Colton for a rival waste company, Lara, a fast-moving, fidgety man who liked sporty cars and lived on a golf course, had switched loyalties to Taormina after the company offered him a hefty commission on the deal. 

The showdown came at a packed town council meeting, attended by many of Anderson’s parishioners, and as always, televised locally.  Approaching the podium to testify, the minister bounced with the fervor that typically accompanied his dramatic, music-backed Sabbath journey up the aisle to his pulpit. His eyes taking in the room, Anderson called for full disclosure of trash company lobbying to prevent the contracting process from being unfairly controlled by a figure “tied to corruption in the past in different cities.” Taormina chairman Dave Ault, a tall, red haired man who had been so gracious to Anderson at their meeting at the plant, rose to the podium and began to read a prepared statement.  He solemnly declared that when Anderson had visited the company’s headquarters, the Reverend had tried to elicit a bribe.

The next evening, at a second council meeting, the minister was blindsided again,  this time by his old buddy Mayor Fulp, who gravely intoned, “Pray for this individual [Anderson] because he certainly needs God’s help. I pray myself for that man’s soul.” Outraged, Anderson jumped from his chair. “I’ve cast out devils before, so you don’t scare me!” he cried.  But the smear campaign had only just begun.

That Sunday there were several conspicuously empty rows at the Healing Waters Church.  Before long, even some fellow clergy were accusing Anderson of being driven by a taste for self-promotion. “I do not suppose there’s a minister in town who has any respect for him,” says Rev. Robert Johnson, the head of the Ministerial Association of Colton, a precise, elderly man “He’s unique, one of a kind—thankfully.” 

As Anderson puts it, the company’s strategy was to force him “to put all my energy to defend my good name,” he says, “instead of putting the magnifying glass on their bad deeds.”  But they did not know the depth of the Reverend’s dedication nor the fury of his righteousness.  “I never chose this battle,” he insists.  “But they lied to the people.  Nothing could make a shepherd more angry.”

Anderson filed to run for the town council against a pro-Taormina member, and simultaneously launched an effort to remove Mayor Fulp from office. Soon, voters began receiving letters from the previously unknown Citizens for a Safer Colton (CSC), accusing the minister of accepting $1,000 from a casino in a nearby community that didn’t want competing gaming in Colton (Anderson had actually stamped the check VOID and sent it back). “Run Steve Anderson Out of Town” T-shirts appeared, and leaflets criticizing the minister were placed on his parishioners' windshields. Church members were told that Anderson’s degrees were phony and that the IRS was coming after him. Just before the election, voters received another CSC mailing, claiming that the Reverend had been convicted of assaulting an officer, been placed under a restraining order related to domestic violence, and ordered by a judge to “be sober at least 24 hours before visiting his wife and children.”

Anderson raged that it was all lies. Indeed, Steve and Debbie are, by all indications, an extremely devoted couple whose brief courtship began when the twenty-two-year-old Steve attended a gospel concert in 1980 where he was dazzled by Debbie’s angelic voice.  But with Anderson now portrayed as a menace to society, church attendance and income plummeted, and even Anderson’s children were ostracized by classmates. 

The battle seesawed. After successfully removing Fulp from office but losing his own race, Anderson began digging through public documents and old news clippings for an explanation of how Taormina had won the contract on a 6-1 city council vote even though independent consultants and city administrators had recommended another firm. At the local Colton City News, an earnest investigative reporter named Mark Gutglueck was reviewing Anderson’s (and his own) finds, and reported allegations that Councilmember Don Sanders had received $45,000 under the table from Taormina. Sanders denied it, but conceded that Taormina had provided half of his total campaign contributions. 

But winning the contract was just the beginning of Taormina’s machinations. Anderson found evidence that when the company failed to meet a key contractual deadline, it had simply gotten the contract retroactively modified. Anderson grabbed the material, and practically ran to the offices of Colton City Attorney Julie Biggs, a cheerful, rotund, woman who was at first skeptical of Anderson’s motives and veracity. Yet she soon confirmed that the city manager had tossed out unfavorable late penalties and relaxed Taormina’s performance requirements. At Biggs' urging, the council suspended (and later fired) the city manager -- and reluctantly approved the hiring of Mark McDonald, a former Deputy District Attorney from neighboring Riverside County, to investigate.

At first, McDonald thought the Reverend was a bit of a nut,  “like the guy who accuses the government of planting chips in your head,” McDonald recalls. “He had so many outlandish stories, and I found him to be a nuisance. But  … everything he told me panned out.” When McDonald interviewed Taormina’s chairman, he was surprised to find how contemptuous he was of the city and its inhabitants.  “It was like he was boasting, ‘look at these idiots’,” McDonald says. His report concluded,  “Taormina, with the help of [lobbyist] Gil Lara and others, successfully exerted influence upon certain willing Colton City officials, such that Taormina had a lock on the contract before the bid process ever began.” Although the council unanimously accepted his report, Taormina threatened to sue for breach of contract — and the legislators quickly did an about-face.


Taormina presents itself as a Clean Gene in an otherwise dirty field. “The [waste-removal] business is run by the mob and racketeers,” Ault had told investigator McDonald. “We’re trying to change the unhealthy image of waste companies and run a first-rate organization.” Indeed, waiting in the lobby of his company's headquarters, I spotted a framed thank-you note to Bill Taormina from former President George Bush (with regards from Barbara) and plaques honoring the businessman's assistance to the Little League and Boys and Girls Clubs. But an article in the well-respected Orange County Register, headlined “Brothers Tough at Trash Game,” revealed hardball tactics, the huge sums that the Taorminas had personally donated to key elected officials, and criticism of the way contract extensions were force-fed to city councils.

Though Taormina’s Colton gambit seemed extreme by any measure, a lot was at stake. After the 1984 death of company founder Cosmo Taormina, his sons Bill and Vince had quickly gobbled up competing firms, often in leveraged buyouts. In 1997, in the midst of its dispute with Anderson, Taormina was itself swallowed by Republic Industries, which has assembled a coast-to-coast trash empire by taking over hundreds of small, family-run carting operations. At the time of its lucrative pending deal with Republic (a diversified company whose founder had also owned the Florida Marlins and Blockbuster Video), Colton promised to be a key outpost in a new region that was one of America’s fastest-growing. Taormina CEO Tom Vogt wanted to make the proposed high-tech plant the crown jewel in the empire, fulfilling a company ambition to be “the Nordstrom’s of the trash business.”

Anderson, meanwhile, was discovering a new weapon for his muckraking arsenal: the Internet. In typical style, he went after a reporter for a large regional paper who he felt was whitewashing the growing scandal.  On his web site,, he referred to the reporter, Monica Whitaker, as a “bikini beach bimbo  … [who] made it obvious that she was hired to shelter Taormina and the goofballs on the City Council.”  Anderson says his description of Whitaker was poetic license inspired by her appearance at a firefighter breakfast in a transparent dress with a brightly colored bikini visible underneath. His brand of humor notwithstanding, this time Anderson’s exercise of free speech came at an extremely high price.

Not long after his posting, Whitaker called to tell Anderson that he had been axed from his regional directorship with the Traditional Values Coalition. Anderson was incredulous. All along, he had been sharing details of his investigation with TVC’s head, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, a leading critic of the gay-friendly children’s books Heather has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate. But perhaps his termination was not so surprising. Some weeks earlier, at a pre-dawn pro-Life march, a friend had stunned Anderson with the revelation that TVC’s board of directors included none other than Bill Taormina. 

The next Monica Whitaker bombshell call came as Debbie Anderson was putting dinner on the table. Taormina Industries, the reporter said, had filed in Superior Court against Rev. Anderson for slander, libel, and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage. The trash company said it had been defamed, and alleged that Anderson had made three false and malicious assertions: that the company had bribed a public official; that it paid a reporter to publish favorable articles; and that it was under grand jury investigation. Anderson sat down at the dinner table, told his family what Whitaker had relayed, and declared glumly, “We’re finished in Colton.”

The law suit was a classic SLAPP, a well-aimed knockout blow. The slander charges grew out of a phone call Anderson had made to Rev. Lou Sheldon’s home after learning that Bill Taormina was on the TVC board. During the call, Anderson declared that Bill Taormina had handed an envelope of money to Colton City Council member Floyd Hansen, a local dentist, Fulp ally, and Taormina supporter. The libel accusation concerned statements Anderson had made on his web site, wondering whether Taormina had paid off Whitaker, and perhaps prematurely trumpeting criminal probes.

Taormina provided me with a thick binder full of other accusations against Anderson — things the minister “allegedly” or “may have” done. Anderson “trespassed” in 1996, snapping a picture of the company conference room without permission. Anderson was “litigious,” having filed several suits against such defendants as the developer who had built his defective house, and against the entire Pentecostal Church. Taormina also noted that Anderson had previously declared bankruptcy.  But the reality was more complicated. The Reverend had been victorious in both of his lawsuits, and he’d eventually withdrawn his bankruptcy action, which was connected to a lawsuit against Mayor Fulp he ultimately also won. Nonetheless, the bad press had its desired effect on public opinion. Anderson was SLAPPed on a Friday, and on Sunday, most pews in his church were so empty you could have spun a bowling ball down row after row without hitting a shoe.

Between March 1996 and the end of 1997, the Healing Waters Church lost more than a hundred members. “It was like we all got sued,” says Debbie Anderson. "Everything was turned upside down.” With his congregation evaporating, offerings dropped by nearly two-thirds, and with it, Anderson’s primary income source. The minister again filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy to protect  his home, and the family relied on donated groceries.

With Anderson bloodied, Taormina moved in for the kill, dispatching a team of four lawyers to intervene in the bankruptcy hearing and for added ammunition flying in Fulp from out of state.  “They challenged every jot and tittle of the papers we filed,” Anderson recalls. “They tried to use the bankruptcy proceedings to litigate the Taormina SLAPP matter through the back door.” The Reverend withdrew the bankruptcy filing, and paid off his $12,000 mortgage balance with the help of a loan from the scrappy lawyer Ed Masry, since made famous as Erin Brockovich’s grumpy but lovable boss.

Before long, another unlikely “liberal” sympathizer came to Anderson’s aid.  Mark Goldowitz, an Oakland public-interest attorney and pioneer of the budding anti-SLAPP movement, joined with him, and they began working under California’s unusually strong anti-SLAPP laws to prove that the lawsuit was mere harassment and should be dismissed. Together, they worked virtually every waking hour, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve, nailing down facts and preparing deposition questions. Says Anderson, “He taught me to turn Taormina’s lemons into a lemon pound cake.”

On February 3, 1998, Anderson and his wife had lunch with his parents, and spent much of it explaining SLAPP minutiae. That night, exhausted and depressed by their prospects, they had just crawled into bed when the phone rang. It was a paralegal from Goldowitz’s office, shouting, “WE WON, WE WON, WE WON!” In an eighteen-page opinion, a Superior Court judge labeled Taormina’s suit a punitive SLAPP. She declared that Anderson, “a self-styled ‘effective public critic’ of local politics,” is “likely to prevail on his defenses of truth and common interest privilege.” The lawsuit was thereby tossed. 

But the celebrations proved premature. Taormina appealed and in January, 2000, I got the following email from Anderson: “I'm really devastated, shocked and disappointed to tell you this, but the Court of Appeal just reversed their opinion in full on my special motion to strike.” Such reversals are exceedingly rare, according to sociologist Penelope Canan, a co-coiner of the SLAPP acronym. The court majority wrote that because both sides had submitted so much paperwork, it felt obliged to permit a full exploration of the charges. This, of course, was exactly what any well-funded corporate litigant would hope for – a chance to keep on going. 

As he now prepared to mount an expensive full-blown defense, another bomb dropped. His insurance company wanted to pay off Taormina and be done with the matter. Infuriated, he read a bullying letter from the company on his local radio show; this was followed by the sound of a piece of paper being ripped up, and then the roar of a flushing toilet.

To Anderson’s great frustration, the settlement went through, and Taormina was paid $175,000 to cease litigation against Anderson and his parish. The Reverend thus had no chance to clear his name in a courtroom. One piece of evidence he’d hoped to use in court was a startlingly cavalier admission Taormina chairman Ault made to special investigator McDonald— that Taormina never intended to play by the rules of the original contract to which it had agreed. “Well, we had to be able to get to the table,” the executive said.

Meanwhile, a private investigator hired by Anderson confirmed through a court record search that all of the serious charges that Citizens for a Safer Colton had detailed in its attacks on Anderson—the restraining orders, the alcoholism, the wife beating—were complete fabrications. And in a deposition, Bill Taormina had admitted that he was, for all intents and purposes, the Citizens for a Safer Colton. “I founded it and I, through my lawyer … disseminated information under it and through it.” As for his former friend, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, Anderson learned that Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition had criticized gambling ventures in five cities without revealing that his own son was being paid $156,000 by competing gaming interests. Sheldon himself received a $10,000 consulting fee from a coalition funded largely by Nevada casinos.

Denied his day in court, Anderson instead published his evidence on his website,, which celebrated freedom of speech and individuality, at one point accompanied by renditions of the theme from Rocky and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Anderson portrayed Bill Taormina as “Willy Freeze,” a muscular arch villain who chills free speech with the use of a SLAPP -generating freeze gun. There, too, was a photograph of the steely-eyed Bill Taormina at his deposition, accompanied by the words “Godfather of the Malicious SLAPP” and the theme music from The Godfather. And an appeal: “If you have any info on these…SLAPP stooges, click here.”

As the year 2001 began, Anderson upped the ante, raising enough from his congregation to run a small ad in Waste News, a trash industry publication: It reads “Republic’s Taormina Industries Trash Co. sued a small town church pastor, Rev. Steve Anderson, for speaking out about their smelly wrongdoing in Colton, California… But, the Rev. won’t be gagged! Share your information and follow the case Online.” One of the guests on Anderson’s weekly radio show was the real Erin Brockovich.

Finally, in the summer of 2001, all of Anderson’s whistle-blowing tactics began paying off.  His claims had caught the attention of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office, whose investigation would lead to the indictment of eight Colton public officials and local businessmen on charges of paying and accepting bribes and money-laundering.  Since then, two councilmembers, including  Donald Sanders, and two former mayors, have pleaded guilty to charges of bribery in schemes to influence three areas of business in Colton since 1992: billboard construction, mobile home siting – and the Taormina trash contract. Sanders specifically admitted receiving $5,000 from a former mayor and another “consultant” on behalf of Taormina Industries.

As is so common, the pawns folded first. To date, despite the revelations about the way the trash company got and retained its contract, Taormina has paid no fines and appears in no danger of losing its Colton business. This notwithstanding its backtracking from the original promise to hire “up to 500” townspeople – since the firm never built the planned recycling facility.  

The U.S. Attorney’s official spokesman, Thom Mrozek, says that Taormina has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but that a federal investigation continues, and Anderson has heard repeatedly from government agents. There’s keen interest in the dealings of Gil Lara. And in an effort to regain the public trust, the city of Colton and the Colton Redevelopment Agency is now suing its own former public officials in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.  Fulp’s committee, POWER, and its treasurer, were found guilty of election violations, and ordered to pay fines of $46,000 -- half of which went to the general fund of the state of California and the other half to Anderson, who used the money to get his house out of foreclosure proceedings.

As for Healing Waters Church, financial difficulties and still-minimal attendance forced Anderson to accept an offer from a larger Los Angeles congregation to buy his church property.  “It seems our little church will be a Casualty of Democracy,” he e-mailed me.  “After eighteen years of ministering, who do I see about getting our church back?”  He’s outraged that he’s out of business while Taormina’s executives continue to earn their handsome salaries and to operate as if the doings in Colton never happened. 

Yet Anderson persists because he believes that his story needs to be told. He may have lost his original platform, but continues to use the Internet as a pulpit and to forge alliances with a wider band of anti-SLAPP activists. In a sense, Anderson is a true American classic, in the tradition of celebrated muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, but also of the indomitable pornographer Larry Flynt. Except that Anderson’s story reads like an inversion of The People vs. Larry Flynt; in that story, the trashy publisher teaches the right wing minister, Jerry Falwell, a lesson when Falwell sues him over a parody. Here, the right wing minister teaches the trash dealer -- and his friends in high places -- a lesson.  On his Healing Waters website, which celebrates the meaning of the flag and lectures on constitutional rights, values, faith and freedom, Reverend Anderson gives the last word to Isaiah:  “Do not allow evil to be called good or good to be called evil.”   In case you’re wondering, Anderson still gathers with his congregation – albeit as part of another church 20 miles away, and he expects to have his own sanctuary again once this is all over.

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