The top manager of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum refused to answer questions Wednesday after his lawyer objected to the presence of Los Angeles Times reporters at a deposition in an open-government lawsuit against the stadium's overseers.
Interim General Manager John Sandbrook walked out of the deposition in the suit brought by The Times and a 1st Amendment group. The Times would not agree to exclude the two reporters or prohibit them from publishing Sandbrook's sworn answers before they are introduced as evidence in a trial.
The suit accuses the governing commission of the taxpayer-owned Coliseum of illegally withholding records from the public and violating state law by conducting months of secret deliberations on a stadium lease with USC. The commission denies the allegations.
Sandbrook's attorney, Deborah Fox, said she was suspending the videotaped deposition so she could ask Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin to issue an order banning the reporters from the session. She said their presence was "an attempt to intimidate and harass and annoy" as Sandbrook answered an attorney's questions under oath. Under the deposition rules, the reporters were not allowed to pose questions.
"They should not be able to report on issues that unfold here in this deposition," Fox said.
Times attorney Jeff Glasser, who was to question Sandbrook, said the reporters were entitled to attend the proceeding, held at a downtown law office, and the courts have allowed journalists to observe depositions even if they were not involved in the case at hand. He said any effort to prevent The Times' reporters from publishing material from the Sandbrook deposition would be unconstitutional.
"We are absolutely, 100%, not going to agree to gag our reporters," Glasser said. "This case is all about government transparency."
The suit grew out of Times reporting on financial irregularities at the Coliseum and the neighboring Sports Arena, which led to criminal charges against eight people. They included five former managers and employees of the stadium. Sandbrook, a former UCLA manager, took the helm of the Coliseum after the scandal broke.
In responding to Times requests for public records, the Coliseum Commission has withheld numerous emails and other documents, saying they are legally exempt from disclosure. The commission also has argued that closed-door meetings on the USC lease were allowed because of the sensitive nature of the deliberations.
Times attorneys have told the court the commission's actions denied the public access to information about how the panel has managed the stadium complex.
The court-sanctioned deposition was intended to gather evidence for the suit. On Tuesday, an attorney for Californians Aware, the 1st Amendment organization, questioned a USC vice president in a related deposition. An attorney for the private university objected to the reporters' presence at that session but did not stop the questioning. USC is not named in the suit.
Last May, in the wake of the scandal, the commission voted to grant USC a decades-long lease that would give it day-to-day control of the stadium, the Sports Arena and revenue from the properties. USC's football team plays at the Coliseum, the site of two Summer Olympics.