Vallejo spends thousands exposing online commentators

Vallejo City prosecutors are hoping to identify the authors behind two social media accounts, confidential records obtained by Open Vallejo.

The city of Vallejo’s Attorney’s Office has hired a firm specializing in “Deep Intel” and “Counter Intel” investigations to link two anonymous social media accounts to a group of former employees who are suing the city for alleged retaliation sue, confidential recordings obtained from Open Vallejo Show.

Upstream Intelligence, Inc. was hired in September to “uncover the people who created and operated the accounts,” according to a Sept. 23 copy of a counseling agreement signed by Assistant District Attorney Katelyn Knight, who told the city defended in the lawsuit. The Davis-based company, which holds a California private investigator license, includes open-source investigative experts, “surveillance staff” and analysts, according to the company’s website. It also engages in intelligence gathering using drones, device forensics, and cell site analysis.

Upstream Intelligence declined comment on this article. Knight and a city spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

The investigation targets three former city employees who were working for then-City Manager Greg Nyhoff when they were fired in April 2020. Slater Matzke, Joanna Altman and Will Morat allege in a lawsuit filed last February that they were fired after raising concerns about Nyhoff’s handling of a multi-billion dollar real estate deal and other alleged wrongdoing. According to the lawsuit, they have since faced retaliation. Matzke claims he received anonymous threats and observed a Vallejo police SUV parked in front of his home. All three claim that they have damaged their reputations and careers.

READ :  Selena Gomez is taking a break from social media

Matzke, Altman and Morat declined to comment on this article.

“A city that monitors people who criticize it is deeply troubling,” said Andrea Sorce, who is married to Matzke and serves as deputy chair of the city’s oversight committee. “We pushed for the establishment of the Advisory Council to protect people’s rights in just such situations.”

A screenshot of the Twitter account, "Lord Sock of Puppeton," which can be found at @KAberggast.  The tweet, which is accompanied by screenshots showing Assistant City Attorney Randy Risner, reads: Stories of violence against women uncovered about TWO city officials, Council Member Hakeem Brown and City Attorney Randy Risner, and you promote watching a movie, instead of addressing this? ... Shame on you cowards.  #DomesticViolenceAwarenessMonth #Vallejo

Open the Vallejo screenshot

“Lord Sock of Puppeton” joined Twitter shortly after the killing of Sean Monterrosa by Vallejo police in June 2020. The account has sharply criticized Vallejo officials, including Assistant Attorney General Randy Risner and Vallejo City Council Member Hakeem Brown.

The records obtained by Open Vallejo do not identify the social media accounts the city wants linked to its former employees. Pseudonymous accounts have proliferated on social media platforms since Open Vallejo began publishing investigative reports in 2019. Fueled by a steady stream of public controversy involving the police, city ​​managerCity Attorney and City Council, commentators using pseudonyms have engaged in robust discussions, including sophisticated analyses of police tactics and sharp criticism by officials.

Public servants have also used the anonymity of the Internet for their own purposes. In February, the Vallejo PD Burning Instagram account began posting memes ridiculing then-Police Chief Shawny Williams. The account quickly garnered a following that included some of the city’s most violent cops. Williams, the first black chief in the department’s history, resigned last month after less than three years in office.

A screenshot of a post from the "Vallejo PD Burn" The Instagram account shows former Vallejo City Manager Greg Nyhoff holding a toy doll of Vallejo Police Commissioner Shawny Williams and pulling a string with a speech bubble on Williams' back that reads: "Trust, legitimacy, transparency." A caption reads, "There's a snake in my boot." Williams' head is placed on a doll "woody" from the movie "toy story."

Open the Vallejo screenshot

The pseudonymous Vallejo PD Burning Instagram account posted derogatory memes characterizing Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams as an incompetent, weak and dishonest leader. This post features Williams as a puppet controlled by City Manager Greg Nyhoff.

Vallejo’s contract with Upstream Intelligence authorized 10 hours of initial work totaling $2,000, showing the firm was exhausted five days later, and “further work at $250 an hour for further investigation or related costs.” with testimonies in this case”. The city limited the scope of the investigation to using public and publicly available information. It’s unclear if — or how — the city anticipated that its investigation would prove that Matzke, Altman, and Morat were behind either or both of the anonymous accounts. Open Vallejo has filed a public record request for more information about the investigation.

“An honorable tradition”

The right to anonymous political expression has been repeatedly affirmed by the US Supreme Court, which in 1995 called it “an honorable tradition of advocacy and dissent”. The tradition dates back to the founding of the United States, the court noted, when both sides of the debate over ratifying the Constitution published their arguments under pseudonyms.

However, the city of Vallejo has a complicated history with online commenting, particularly from anonymous speakers. In 2020, Open Vallejo and the Electronic Frontier Foundation threatened to sue the city after an investigation by this newsroom uncovered a pattern of city officials blocking and removing residents’ social media posts, leading to the creation of a municipal social media guideline led. Then, in August, the city dropped a requirement that public records requesters identify themselves as a condition of using its online records-requesting portal after the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition sent out a letter condemning the practice criticized. (FAC Executive Director David Snyder is a member of Open Vallejo’s Advisory Board.)

Vallejo’s city charter also requires commentators to provide their name and address before speaking at council meetings, a requirement that an FAC analysis says likely violates state law.) It’s one of several city policies critics say are affecting the shy away from public participation in local government. That includes a short-lived change in the council’s policy on public speakers in 2021, which the city subsequently abandoned warnings over his legality from the ACLU.

But it was Lord Sock Puppeton, not the ACLU, who fired the first salvo on August 21 of that year.

“Isn’t there a little thing called the First Amendment?” she tweeted.