A year before he was elected to the Fresno Unified school board, Brooke Ashjian paid $300,000 to settle a defamation lawsuit after derogatory comments about a prominent Fresno family and others were traced to his computer.
The case was cast into the public eye this month when Ashjian sparked outrage for making controversial comments about LGBT-inclusive sex education.
During a deposition for the defamation case, which was settled in 2013, Ashjian is grilled by attorneys for Fresno real estate developer DeWayne Zinkin and his son Harold about many things – including abusive comments about a Fresno gay rights group and businesses Ashjian had dealings with.
Parts of the lawsuit were made public at the Aug. 9 school board meeting when community members railed at Ashjian, school board president of the state’s fourth-largest district, about his stance on LGBT-inclusive sex education.
Ashjian issued a news release Aug. 10 casting doubt on the case and said he “strongly denies” the allegations: “Despite my best efforts to jog my memory, I still have no specific knowledge of the information posted online nearly six years ago allegedly attributed to me.”
But according to the full deposition and other legal documents obtained by The Bee, Ashjian admitted under oath to posting to the website Ripoff Report about Gay Fresno – however, he said he couldn’t remember what his post said. Ashjian denied other comments allegedly made from his computer on the website, including those about the Zinkins, often responding to attorneys with “I don’t recall” or “I don’t know” during the testimony.
Ashjian referred questions from The Bee to his attorney, Barbara Rueger, who said liability was never proven in the case.
“This was an open wifi at the home. Anybody can log on. It’s not password-protected,” Rueger said Thursday. “The postings that were alleged to be made were never tied to a specific user or person.”
Deposition digs into ‘Don Corleone’
The documents from the libel lawsuit reveal a case involving an online commenter named “Don Corleone” (an apparent nod to the leading character in “The Godfather” movies) and a laptop and computer tower reported stolen from Ashjian’s office just as the Zinkins’ attorneys were closing in for more information.
The Bee has obtained and reviewed 316 pages of the deposition of Ashjian taken in Fresno on Dec. 19, 2011 and June 20, 2013, as well as other legal documents.
The Zinkins sued Brooke Ashjian and his younger brother Brittan Ashjian in 2012 for libel and “infliction of emotional distress” for comments on Ripoff Report that include allegations that Dewayne Zinkin doesn’t rightly pay contractors for work, and that he is in the Mafia.
“HE IS LOWER THAN WHALE SH*T!!!!” says a comment posted in May 2011 by “Don Corleone.” Another calls DeWayne Zinkin a “thief, fraud, liar, con” and criminal.
The website, billed as “for consumers by consumers” and a place to vent anonymously about businesses, has been criticized for refusing to remove comments. The comments made by “Don Corleone” are still on Ripoffreport.com.
As part of the Ashjians’ settlement, they agreed to post this statement on the posts made by “Don Corleone” about the Zinkins: “We agree all of the statements posted were completely false and no one should ever read them and believe the statements were true in any way.” The Ashjians both signed the settlement agreement.
We agree all of the statements posted were completely false and no one should ever read them and believe the statements were true in any way.
Statement from Brooke and Brittan Ashjian from 2013 defamation settlement
The Zinkins were stunned when the Ripoff Report investigation led to Brooke Ashjian’s computer, saying their families are longtime friends.
When Brooke Ashjian needed heart surgery, Dewayne Zinkin arranged for a world-renowned surgeon to take him as a patient.
“At that time, Brooke indicated that he was thankful for DeWayne’s assistance in making the personal phone call that allowed him to get in to see and arrange to have Dr. (Vincent) Gaudiani perform a successful surgery for him,” Tim Thompson, the Zinkins’ attorney, wrote in a mediation brief dated Jan. 4, 2013. “The next contact DeWayne had with Brooke and Brittan are the false statements they published about him on the internet described below.”
The Zinkins’ attorneys went after the anonymous commenter with “ the power of subpoena”, demanding that Arizona-based Ripoff Report reveal the IP address – a unique label assigned to computers – and the information associated with the “Don Corleone” account.
The postings that were alleged to be made were never tied to a specific user or person.
Barbara Rueger, representing Brooke Ashjian
Ripoff Report officials complied with a court order in the defamation case, according to documents, identifying the IP address as belonging to a computer at Brooke Ashjian’s home address in Fresno. But the Ripoff Report account was registered to Brittan Ashjian’s email address.
Exhibits from the deposition show that when first emailed by Ripoff Report about the subpoena, Brittan Ashjian forwarded the email to Brooke Ashjian, and told Ripoff Report he had been hacked.
“We do not have ANY knowledge about these people and have NEVER done business with their companies,” Brittan Ashjian, who owns an ATM business in Fresno, says in an email to Ripoff Report dated Aug. 10, 2011.
Earlier this month, a lawsuit filed by Brittan Ashjian was dismissed by a federal judge. Ashjian had alleged that Fresno police officers stole thousands of dollars when they confiscated cash from his business as part of a gambling investigation in 2013. A judge ruled police officers had a valid search warrant, and court records say police did find illegal gaming machines.
According to his deposition in the Zinkin lawsuit, Brittan Ashjian admitted to creating the “Don Corleone” account, but said he had only used it to post about a man “that had ripped me off” in Las Vegas while he was trying to buy a home. Brittan Ashjian denied ever allowing anyone to use his account and had no explanation for how the posts were made from his account.
In a statement to The Bee, the Zinkins confirmed the details of the case and said, “We were pleased that the matter was quickly resolved as a result of Mr. (Brooke) Ashjian taking responsibility for his actions and admitting the falsity of the statements posted.”
Rueger, Brooke Ashjian’s attorney, said her client never admitted liability and wanted to continue the lawsuit to “vindicate himself,” but his insurance company advised him to settle.
Brittan Ashjian did not respond to requests for comment.
Online attacks on Gay Fresno
According to the deposition, “Don Corleone” had more to say about a Fresno gay rights group and about businesses Brooke Ashjian has interacted with as the owner of Seal Rite Paving. Thompson, of the Fresno firm McCormick Barstow, explores those comments in questions to Brooke Ashjian during depositions.
The comments made from Brooke Ashjian’s computer in May 2011 about Gay Fresno – now LGBT Fresno – say the organization “put me into prostitution.”
“I WENT TO A MEETING AND THEY TRIED TO PIMP ME OUT” one comment says. “THEY ARE LIARS THEIVES AND A FRAUD … YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”
The comments were posted after the organization added Ashjian’s businesses to a list of companies that should be boycotted for supporting Proposition 8, the 2008 California initiative that aimed to ban same-sex marriage. In the deposition, Ashjian confirms his businesses donated $2,000 to Prop. 8 supporters, and that he was aware he had been placed on a boycott list.
“I can tell you that if I would have known they would have put me on that list, I would have doubled my donation,” Ashjian says in the deposition.
Attorneys for the Zinkins asked Ashjian several questions about his feelings about the LGBT community, including, “Do you believe that gay people should have equal rights to non-gay people?” and “Do you believe that gay people are immoral?” but Ashjian’s attorney objects, and he answers none of those questions.
I can tell you that if I would have known they would have put me on that list, I would have doubled my donation.
Brooke Ashjian in a deposition about Gay Fresno and his contributions to Prop. 8
Jason Scott, president of LGBT Fresno, said he was contacted by the Zinkins’ attorneys at the time, and was aware of the case but the organization could not financially afford to pursue it. He said the Ripoff Report posts contributed to the organization’s decision to change its name.
“It’s just another example of why (Ashjian) is unfit to be in charge of a school district,” Scott told The Bee. “He’s setting a very poor example for students.”
In his deposition, Ashjian responds to the question whether he had ever posted anything on Ripoff Report: “I think I put Gay Fresno on there” and “maybe a couple other ones on there, too, that we’ve done business with.” But when confronted with the posts made from his computer, he says he can’t recall posting them.
One of the comments targets Fresno architect Ron Mazzeo, whom Ashjian admits to having a turbulent past with, in the deposition. When asked about his affiliation with Mazzeo, Ashjian says, “I would like to beat Mr. Mazzeo’s ass.”
Mazzeo was business partners with a friend of Ashjian’s, who died. The conflict happened after his friend’s death, Ashjian says in the deposition.
In an interview with The Bee, Mazzeo said he was unsurprised to learn of the details revealed in the Zinkins’ case that show posts made from Ashjian’s computer alleging Mazzeo “steals money” and is “the worst architect ever.”
Brooke Ashjian is the most dishonest person I’ve ever met in my life.
Fresno architect Ron Mazzeo
“Brooke Ashjian is the most dishonest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Mazzeo said. “His lies have cost me business over the years, and that’s just not right.”
Also from the deposition, “Don Corleone” targets Davis Moreno Construction, a firm Ashjian admits to having a business dispute with. Stephen Davis, of Davis Moreno Construction, sued Fresno Unified over a no-bid contract issue that sparked the a federal investigation of the district’s construction deals.
Ashjian is under investigation by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for alleged conflicts of interest.
The Zinkins’ attorney sums up during the deposition: “Mr Ashjian, speaking somewhat plainly, we’ve got reports emanating out of your home involving Mr. Mazzeo, whose ass you want to beat; Gay Fresno who you’ve admitted you filed Ripoffreports.com with; with a competing contractor; and also tying your address to the specific postings regarding the Zinkin Family. Do you have any explanation at all as to how those reports were all generated out of computers maintained at your home address?”
Ashjian says he doesn’t.
“I know you’ve asked me 50 times the same question 50 different ways but the truth of the matter is I don’t recall what I said,” he replies near the deposition’s end.
“Can’t remember a single word you used?” the attorney asks about Ripoff Report.
“No,” Ashjian replies.
Burglar steals computer, leaves cash
In his Dec. 19, 2011 deposition, Brooke Ashjian agrees to allow forensic experts to take his home computer for evidence.
On Jan. 24, 2012, someone broke into Ashjian’s Clovis-based business, Seal Rite Paving, and stole the computers in question.
Thompson alleges in a letter addressed to Judge Howard Broadman, who mediated the case, that Ashjian took steps to destroy evidence and “hinder the discovery process” in the case.
“At the time of their deposition, Brooke agreed to have his computers examined to determine whether or not the defamatory statements had been made from his computers. Following that testimony and prior to the filing of the present lawsuit, Brooke then made the claim that his computers had been stolen during a burglary at his business office,” Thompson wrote.
Ashjian’s attorney, Steve McGee of the Fresno firm Dowling, Aaron & Keeler, informed the Zinkins’ attorneys of the burglary in a letter dated Feb. 2, 2012. According to the letter, someone broke into the business at 11:15 p.m. and stole the laptop and a computer tower that would have been seized for the investigation.
According to the Clovis Police Department, there are a number of suspicious factors which indicate this was a purposeful and direct crime, rather than a simple ‘smash and grab’ for cash or other sellable times.
Attorney Steve McGee, representing Brooke Ashjian
The laptop and tower had been moved by Ashjian from his home to his business, according to the deposition. Surveillance video showed that the intruder was in and out of Seal Rite Paving for more than three hours, according to McGee. Checks, a check-writing machine and $2,500 cash was left untouched.
“According to the Clovis Police Department, there are a number of suspicious factors which indicate this was a purposeful and direct crime, rather than a simple ‘smash and grab’ for cash or other sellable times,” McGee writes. “We find it extremely curious that after spending more than three hours in Mr. Ashjian’s office, the burglar was only interested in an old laptop and a computer tower. Perhaps someday we will know more about this crime and who it was intended to benefit.”
An employee of Ashjian’s found the scene and called the police, according to the deposition.
In his final deposition on June 20, 2013, Ashjian confirmed that other computers were in his office at the time, and were not stolen. But he seems reluctant to answer those questions.
When an attorney asks Ashjian how many other computers are in his office, he says “ I think you’re getting into my business practices aren’t you?”
Ashjian never made an insurance claim for the stolen computers, according to the deposition.
Rueger, of the Fresno-based Hoppe Law Group, said Ashjian wanted to relay a message: “Really, what does all of this have to do with education? It just seems really off the mark and retaliatory.”
When asked who would be retaliating, Rueger said she was unsure.
“I’m not sure why all of this is being dredged up now,” she said. “ It was resolved long ago, and now someone is supplying this information to the media and trying to make an issue out of it.”