California’s top attorney announced a jury verdict in favor of the state against an equestrian and her family for scam charities. It comes after they fraudulently solicited charitable donations under the guise of helping rescue horses and veterans through therapeutic riding services.
After a seven-week trial, the jury awarded almost $8.8 million to California against the Gregory defendants. They include Matthew G. Gregory, wife, Danella, and his business, Gregory Motorsports. Additionally, their adult children, Matthew J. Gregory, as well as lawyer Gina D. Gregory, were defendants.
“These unscrupulous con artists exploited the generosity of Americans by falsely claiming to help our country’s wounded warriors and their families. Instead, they used our charitable donations for personal gain,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
The jury found the Gregory defendants acted illegally 3,430 times, according to the attorney general’s press release.
Central Coast Equine Rescue and Retirement (CCERR)
The Gregory family operated Central Coast Equine Rescue and Retirement (CCERR). The non-profit’s purported mission was to rescue abused and unwanted horses while educating the public about horse neglect. In fact, CCERR “never rescued one abused or unwanted horse,” Attorney General Becerra emphasized during a press conference. Instead, he said the charity used donor funds to board and care for the Gregory family’s personal horses.
Equestrian Gina Gregory competes in show jumping.
Additionally, the attorney general said the defendants made untrue claims about providing therapeutic riding programs for veterans.
Wounded Warriors Support Group
Wounded Warriors Support Group purportedly supported military veterans and their families. The jury found that the defendants breached their fiduciary duty by failing to use donated funds for charitable purposes.
The jurors also found the defendants conducted deceptive fundraising by running illegal charity raffles; breached their fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the charities by filing false reports with the Attorney General’s Office; engaged in self-dealing transactions; gave improper loans to directors, and other breaches.
The damages against each defendant are:
– Matthew G. Gregory: $1.35 million for breach of fiduciary duty; $1.35 million for deceptive and misleading solicitations; $641,528 for self-dealing transactions; and $500,000 for unjust enrichment.
– Danella J. Gregory: $500,000 for unjust enrichment.
– Matthew J. Gregory: $1.35 million for breach of fiduciary duty; $1.35 million for deceptive and misleading solicitations; and $562,782 for unjust enrichment.
– Gina D. Gregory: $251,129 for aiding and abetting a breach of duty; $2,700 for deceptive and misleading solicitation; and $751,129 for unjust enrichment.
– Gregory Motorsports: $146,000 for aiding and abetting a breach of duty.
The court issued a judgment for the involuntary dissolution of the charities. A court order permanently prohibits the defendants from operating or serving on the board of any California charity. They are also prohibited from soliciting any type of donation.
The Attorney General’s Office has a warning for other sham charities in California. If you prey on donors, you will be held accountable!
Anti-SLAPP: News media prevail in court
Matthew G. Gregory filed libel suits in Fresno Superior Court against multiple news outlets in early 2018, including Horse Authority. The SLAPP lawsuits stem from each media outlet’s news reporting after the attorney general announced his investigation into the Gregory family.
In April, Gregory filed a defamation claim alleging $60 million in damages against Horse Authority dba Rate My Horse PRO, LLC. The company didn’t learn about the lawsuit until mid-August.
Digital media law attorney Roger R. Myers, a partner with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, in San Francisco, represented Horse Authority. The company never filed a responsive pleading. Instead, Myers told the court on September 6, 2018, that he intended to file a special motion to strike the Plaintiff’s action under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which protects free speech.
Gregory dismissed the case against Horse Authority less than a week later.
A SLAPP suit, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation, is a civil claim filed to “silence and harass” by forcing a defendant to spend money and time defending a baseless suit, according to The Public Participation Project.
KSBW-TV, a Hearst Television station, Monterey County Weekly, and The Carmel Pine Cone were each successful in getting their individual lawsuits thrown out of court under California’s anti-SLAPP Statute.
Favorable Anti-SLAPP rulings
The following excerpts are taken from the judge’s favorable anti-SLAPP ruling for The Carmel Pine Cone:
“The publishing of a news story is an act “in furtherance of… the right of petition of free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue.” [courts have recognized that reporting the news qualifies as “exercise of free speech[,]” therefore protected by First Amendment] …
… No cause of action will lie for “publication of matters in the public interest, which rests on the right of the public to know and the freedom of the press to tell it.”
The court adds that prior consent isn’t necessary when using a person’s “name, photograph, likeness,” when reporting news.
Plaintiff owes legal fees for SLAPP suits
The Gregory patriarch must pay the news outlets’ lawyer fees and costs after bringing the SLAPP suits. The court ordered Matthew G. Gregory to pay just over $31,000 to KSBW-TV and more than $12,600 to The Carmel Pine Cone owned by Carmel Communications, Inc.
Additionally, the Monterey County Weekly is seeking more than $80,000 in legal fees and costs. The judge could rule by the end of the month.