Chuck Gust files slander suit against Tom Piccolotti

Water district revelations prompt civil suit

By Elaine Larsen and Chris Hunter
Tribune Staff Writers

A civil lawsuit has been filed against North Coast County Water District Director Tom Piccolotti alleging he illegally trespassed on private property and invaded personal privacy in connection with his involvement in the criminal case against NCCWD General Manager Dave Stevens.

The lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 19 in San Mateo County Superior Court by attorney Joseph Morehead representing Chuck Gust, also alleges that Piccolotti slandered Gust by accusing him of criminal conduct in both his personal and business dealings with the local water district.

The trespass, invasion of privacy, and tort case seeks undetermined compensatory and punitive damages.

Morehead said last week that the purpose of the lawsuit is to "prevent further slander," and to make Piccolotti accountable for what he is alleged to have said and done.

"The inference one would get is that Mr. Piccolotti has told many people that the Gusts were involved in criminal activity and that is considered slander," said Morehead. "They're asking for damages according to proof to make certain the architect (of the slander) doesn't repeat it. It puts everybody on notice. The goal is not money, it's to stop the slander."

In the first complaint, the suit alleges that "on or about Feb. 20, 1996, Thomas Piccolotti tresspassed upon private property belonging to Charles Gust at 3000 Stage Road, Pescadero, without permission, consent or legal authority. While unlawfully on the premises, the defendant illegally photographed plaintiff's property."

Although many people, including former NCCWD board member Bob Vetter, were interviewed by the DA's office in regard to last year's investigation, only Piccolotti is being sued by Gust. "We believe the main architect is Mr. Piccolotti," said Morehead, admitting that he has "stayed away" from the ongoing criminal case against Stevens.

The Gust lawsuit goes on to allege that "at some time subsequent to Feb. 20, 1996, the defendant wrongfully distributed photographs taken without permission on plaintiff's property to agents of the San Mateo County District Attorney's office."

The lawsuit alleges that "the conduct by the defendant was done with malice and oppression and thus an award of exemplary and punitive damages is justified."

In the third complaint, the lawsuit argued Piccolotti "accused the plaintiff of criminal conduct (in that he allegedly) wrongfully obtained property from the NCCWD without proper authorization or compensation (in that he allegedly) had a water system wrongfully installed by agents or employees of the NCCWD without authorization or compensation and (in that he allegedly) wrongfully obtained favorable treatment for his business by obtaining an authorized reduction of fines and penalties imposed by the NCCWD.

"These words were heard by a number of persons including but not limited to Ronnie Ash, Bill Velez, Tom Paulin, Cindy Garabedian, agents for the San Mateo County D.A.'s office, Assistant D.A. Peter Lynch and several newspaper reporters from the Pacifica Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers."

The lawsuit alleges that "these words were slanderous per se because they accused the plaintiff of participating in the crime of embezzlement of public property and/or theft. These words carried a defamatory meaning because all those who heard and understood these words would understand them to mean the plaintiff, a well-respected businessman and member of the Pacifica community, was engaged in criminal conduct. These words were false and spoken by the defendant with malice and oppressions."

The Gust lawsuit comes on the heels of nearly a year of upheaval at the North Coast County Water District and an intensive San Mateo County District Attorney's office investigation. The investigation resulted in 11 felony charges against Stevens and one misdemeanor shoplifting charge. "The suit pretty much says it," said Chuck Gust on Tuesday. "I think there have been a lot of irresponsible statements made. I think a lot of us need to be responsible for accusations that were made."

Although Piccolotti initiated the investigation of the water district as a member of the NCCWD board of directors, Gust refutes his claim that it was done "in the name of the public."

"We are all governed by law," said Gust. "To suggest that what he did was in the name of the public is wrong. I guess Richard Nixon could say the same thing. I don't care who you're working for, you need to be responsible and accountable."

Gust said he was concerned about the ongoing controversy the two parallel trials could create for Pacifica, but said he felt he had no choice in defending his family's name.

"I can't strap on a gun and meet Piccolotti in the street," said Gust. "The only thing left is in the courts. If you want to prove yourself, you pay a lot of money and stand up in court."

Gust said he still smarts from a public vote in Pacifica that prevented him from building a private home in Vallemar. "I got beat up on Measure B," said Gust. "Yet people trespassed on my property and used an open space report against me. Even though I was told I had a case, I dropped it. I think property owners have rights. There were a lot of things said in Measure B that were lies."

Aware that two impending public trials could reveal bitter feelings between two prominent Pacifica families, Gust said that "a lot of this could have been prevented when Tom Piccolotti and I spoke over a year ago. He chose to take a different direction."

Piccolotti was surprised at the lawsuit against him, especially in light of the ongoing DA's case against Stevens.

"Since I have been elected to the board I have not said or done anything detrimental to the board or public I serve," said Piccolotti, who as of last week had not yet been formally served with notice of the civil action against him.

"I hear I'm being sued, but I haven't been served," he said. "I find it a bit peculiar that I haven't received papers because I'm one of the easiest people to find in this town."

Attorney Morehead said that he would be serving Piccolotti sometime in the next two weeks.

And in the Stevens case, a hearing in Redwood City scheduled yesterday was postponed until March 25 at 9 a.m. because Stevens' attorney, Joseph O'Sullivan, could not attend due to illness.

According to Peter Lynch, the assistant DA prosecuting the case against Stevens, the request from O'Sullivan to drop several charges against Stevens because of statute of limitations has been dropped and the new request is simply for the DA to be more specific about the various charges. Asked why Chuck Gust was not, in fact, ever charged along with Stevens, Lynch said that Stevens is being accused of "misappropriation of public property," not theft, and therefore, Gust is not subject to a criminal charge.

In a related matter, the North Coast County Water District board of directors will meet tonight in closed session to once again discuss the employment status of Stevens. Two previous meetings have resulted in no change to his status.