Brenda Hill Skylstad was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1963 to a father working on the railroad and a housewife mother. During her childhood, Skylstad moved around “a lot.” The west coast, California and Washington were formative in Skylstad’s upbringing. At West High School in Torrence, California, Skylstad found a real love for learning. She was a good student, and attended Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. Skylstad married Gary Hill in 1981, and quickly became a mother of three children by 1987. After taking college studies in 1988-89, she felt becoming a paralegal would be a good occupation, but found herself having to shoulder the responsibilities of motherhood and left school.
In 1984, her husband mentioned to his boss that they were interested in purchasing a house. The boss advised his wife worked for a real estate company and could sell a house to Skylstad under a private contract with “very little down.” Skylstad was only twenty years old, and excited that they could purchase a house with only a $2,000 down payment. Interest rates in 1984 were extremely high, and they purchased the house with a balloon payment. Skylstad was not familiar with mortgage terms like escrow, title searches or other legal words and simply signed the papers. There was no lawyer, and the mortgage signing took place at her husband’s boss’s home with the boss’s wife and Jim Tapio present. Tapio worked for Robert John Real Estate (RJRE) in Vancouver, Washington, and Skylstad found out later that the real estate agent was not licensed.
In 1986, interest rates dropped, and Skylstad decided to refinance their mortgage. She contacted a mortgage company with her contract in hand. The company told her to take the contract to the Vancouver Court House, which she found odd, but she went to the Assessor’s Office. The Assessor told her that they could not find her or her husband’s name on any contracts or mortgage documents. RJRE was named as the owner for her address and Skylstad was not even listed as the buyer.
Skylstad talked to Jim Tapio, who advised her that she had signed a document which stated that the contract could be recorded at any time, but the party requesting the recording had to pay the excise and transfer tax. Skylstad was told if she wanted to record the contract, she had to pay the fees. Skylstad went to the Treasurer’s Office and they advised her the fees were supposed to be paid within ninety days by the seller, which in 1984 were around fourteen hundred dollars. Skylstad was also paying her property taxes directly to RJRE because they had instructed her “that was the way things worked.”
Skylstad was told that she needed to send a copy of the mortgage contract to the Department of Revenue (DOR) in Olympia, Washington. After six months, Skylstad received a letter from the DOR requesting she get the names, addresses and telephone numbers of other people who had purchased houses from RJRE. Skylstad discovered, by knocking on doors and reviewing information at the Treasurer’s office, that there were over 300 people who had purchased homes from RJRE. RJRE was owned by Beverly Hills Real Estate (BHRE) on Avenue of the Stars in California. They were selling homes in Washington State without licensed real estate agents or a broker. Skylstad presented the information to the Treasurer’s Office, which forwarded the information to DOR.
Skylstad did not have a driver’s license, and visited neighborhoods by bus, contacting buyers home by home and asking people if they could be victims of RJRE and BHRE. Homeowners sold property by RJRE were upset, and Skylstad talked to an attorney about appearing at a meeting with the homeowners to answer their legal questions. Prior to this, RJRE had approached her and offered to pay her excise taxes if she stopped her campaign notifying home buyers and State of Washington officials about RJRE and BHRE. Skylstad turned them down after finding out the offer was only applicable to her, and she asked, “How could doing that possibly help the other 300 plus buyers?”
She asked DOR to send someone to the meeting set on July 16, 1987, to answer questions. Skylstad thought that her role in the RJRE matter would be over after the meeting and all the work she did finding the homeowners. She wanted to get back to just being a mother of three small children. On July 14, 1987, as Skylstad was getting ready to give her three children a bath at 8:30 in the evening, the doorbell rang and Skylstad was served with a $100,000 defamation suit. Attached was a subpoena to appear at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. Skylstad was 23 years old, had no money, no court clothes to wear, no way to get to the courthouse and was frightened, so she called the same attorney who she had previously asked to appear at the information meeting on July 16.
Right before the court-ordered hearing, Skylstad, who was wearing borrowed clothes and had taken a bus, met with the attorney, who advised her that since she had no money to pay him, he would simply put in an appearance. He also advised her to agree to the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), and “the matter would be done.” The TRO outlined that Skylstad was trying to destroy RJRE and demanded she not make any statements regarding RJRE. Skylstad discovered that her “first amendment rights could be bought and sold” as she was gagged.
The homeowners meeting did take place two days later, which RJRE took control of, advising homeowners that the matter raised by Skylstad was no big deal, and to ignore it. The State of Washington received a threatening phone call from BHRE, and never attended the meeting. A reporter from the local newspaper in Vancouver, The Columbian, published an article painting Skylstad as the villain. The State of Washington advised Skylstad that they could not talk to her any further, and after RJRE sent a 3-page letter to all the homeowners undermining Skylstad, her neighbors turned against her. One neighbor came to Skylstad’s house and said BHRE sent out a letter blaming Skylstad for everything and casting aspersions on her. Her neighbors asked her to “move on.”
The attorney told Skylstad to “drop it and let sleeping dogs lie.” Under intense pressure, Skylstad called The Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer. They originally thought she was a “crackpot” because the story was so “out there.” After meeting with a reporter, who initially told her that his editor instructed him that “there was nothing to the story, and just to meet with her so she would leave him alone”, Skylstad presented paperwork covering everything she had alleged and the reporter was happy to do the story. “God took a housewife who knew nothing…and had newspapers, radio and media covering me,” said Skylstad.
The State of Washington did not want Skylstad to contact them, and did not send a representative to the meeting that was held for the homeowners. Skylstad felt abandoned, and the reporter had advised her that BHRE had threatened the newspaper with legal action. The reporter also mentioned that the owner of BHRE, Warren Ashman, hated her and vowed to use his last dollar to “get” Skylstad. Ashman was a multi-millionaire real estate attorney in Los Angeles who had overwhelming assets to use against her.
Skylstad had never felt so hopeless in her life: she had no money, she was being sued and she was being painted as “insane and a crackpot.” The State of Washington, even though they collected half a million dollars from BHRE and was handed the largest investigation in their history, would not help Skylstad. They told her there was no authority to pressure BHRE to “leave me (Skylstad) alone.” Skylstad’s next step was to petition the Governor to meet with her. She had no driver’s license and had to take buses to meet the homeowners, the Governor and the media. “With no money, no help, scratching, crawling, no assistance” from the State of Washington, and “the local (Vancouver) newspaper reporter, Julie Anderson at The Columbian” questioning her motives and abilities, Skylstad pressed on.
She could not believe that someone could take away your first amendment right by serving paperwork on her at night, demanding she show up in court first thing in the morning, and getting bullied into signing a document with no expiration date which took away her ability to discuss the case. She met with Governor Booth Gardner and felt that he treated her poorly. She asked for a permit to protest, was granted it, and took her three small children to protest at the Governor’s office.
She was invited to testify in front of the Legislature, which resulted in the first anti-SLAPP bill in the nation. It was not easy to advocate for the anti-SLAPP legislation. Initially, Governor Gardner and Attorney General Ken Eikenberry declared they lacked legal authority to come to her aid. On May 5, 1989, Washington State passed a law to protect Skylstad and other whistleblowers from retaliatory lawsuits. The measure applied retroactively to Skylstad, and the measure she fought so hard for became a reality.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and this right to petition covers any peaceful, legal attempt at any level. All means of expressing views to the government are protected, including: filing complaints, reporting violations of law, testifying, writing letters, lobbying, circulating petitions, protesting and boycotting.
Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) are initiated against people who speak out about a matter of public concern. Usually, the party who initiates a SLAPP claims damages for defamation or interference with a business relationship, resulting from a communication made by a person or group to the government. SLAPPs are used against whistleblowers, and can be used to entangle them in court proceedings, putting them at an incredible disadvantage as copious amounts of money are used to silence and tie them up.
Skylstad initially felt uncomfortable with the title of “whistleblower” as she “just wanted things to be simple, for her to be seen as simple.” Even though the legislature said they would make the bill retroactive for Skylstad, it did not happen. She was placed under a gag order, and it had no expiration date. All she wanted was “to get her life back” and she can remember being “drained and lost.” She suffered mental and emotional pain during this time, as BHRE filed a $1.2 million slander suit against her for exposing their failure to pay real estate excise taxes on unrecorded sales. BHRE had been struggling since making payment to Washington State of $477,000 for their failures, but kept its corporate status for almost six years in order to pursue its’ case against Skylstad. BHRE had also taken Skylstad’s house when she was late on a payment.
In March 1993, Skylstad remembers having to borrow clothes from a neighbor to appear at trial, and only being able to afford a peanut butter sandwich and drinking a can of coke on the steps of the courthouse while the trial against her took place. After five days, the jury deliberated 2 ½ hours before reaching an unanimous verdict that Skylstad was innocent of slander. The attorney for BHRE knew that the case was a long shot, but he advised it was important “for the company to tell its side of the story and to see how far a person can go in a situation where they’re trying to mobilize the community.” Warren Ashman, the company principal and a Beverly Hills attorney who had vowed to spend his last nickel in order to retaliate against Skylstad, was not present on the last day of the weeklong trial.
Eighteen months ago, Skylstad found out that the attorney who represented her on the slander case had agreed, without her knowledge, to an additional nondisclosure order.
In July of 2022, it will be thirty-five years that Skylstad has lived under a gag order with no expiration date. Currently she is taking care of her elderly parents in a southern state. Because she no longer resides in Washington State, they have informed her that they can not help her remove the nondisclosure order. Her activism in the area of NDAs has revealed that there are other whistleblowers who are under nondisclosure orders with no expiration dates. Currently, Skylsad is still fighting for herself and other whistleblowers. She is without monies but possesses a burning desire to right wrongs and free those whistleblowers who have lost their first amendment rights under a ruthless system that gags whistleblowers.
Skylstad does not go to bed at night until she posts something on whistleblower matters into the ether. She has a network consisting of close to 100,000 followers. The simple housewife has turned into a complex hero.
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