Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo placed newscaster Mirthala Salinas on paid leave Thursday while it carries out an investigation into whether she breached journalistic ethics by having a relationship with someone she covered: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Salinas has been missing from her anchor chair on the 6 p.m. newscast for the last three nights, since news of the relationship broke. Telemundo's national newscast on Thursday evening aired a lengthy story about her removal.
"Given the seriousness of the allegations that have been made, we have decided to conduct an internal review of the decisions and events that led us to where we are today," said Manuel Abud, vice president and general manager of KVEA-TV. "In the meantime, Mirthala Salinas has been placed on a leave of absence from her duties pending this review. We will conduct this investigation with the utmost respect to personal privacy and journalistic standards."
Salinas, 35, defended her actions through a spokeswoman, voicing confidence that the internal probe would clear her of any ethical lapses.
"I welcome Telemundo's decision to conduct a comprehensive review of the matter and respect their desire that I allow the review to be completed before returning to work," she said in a statement. "I will cooperate with the station and appreciate their commitment to undertaking a thorough review of this situation. I am confident that when all the facts are analyzed it will be clear that I conducted myself in an appropriate way."
A source close to Salinas said the newscaster could document that she properly disclosed her relationship with the mayor to station officials.
The source also said the newscaster had asked her bosses multiple times to be excused from reporting that Villaraigosa would be separating from his wife. But station officials told her to deliver the news anyway, that the mayor's 20-year marriage to Corina Villaraigosa had dissolved.
But another source said that when Salinas' bosses confronted her about the Villaraigosa relationship she insisted it was a friendship and nothing more.
Salinas has never changed her position, the source said. The investigation is expected to review what she told her managers and when she told them.
A spokesman for Villaraigosa said the mayor had no comment. Villaraigosa took the rare step of clearing his schedule for the rest of the week. He skipped a Fourth of July parade in Pacific Palisades he had planned to attend, and he also missed the opening of a campaign office for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he endorsed last month and is serving as a national co-chairman for her 2008 campaign.
"He has taken a few vacation days during the holiday week to attend to personal and family matters," said Matt Szabo, a Villaraigosa press secretary who added that the mayor is expected to return to work on Monday.
News executives at KVEA have been under intense pressure to discipline Salinas after she and Villaraigosa acknowledged early this week that they had been involved in a relationship dating back more than a year.
During at least part of their time together, Salinas was assigned to the political beat, in which she covered the mayor on trips to New York and Sacramento. The mayor, who called Salinas a "consummate journalistic professional" during a news conference Tuesday, insisted that Salinas enjoyed no reporting advantage because of their relationship.
A veteran broadcast journalist, while applauding Telemundo for reviewing the situation, said that Salinas should be fired. This expert said that the station's news directors should be held responsible if they allowed her to report on the mayor and knew about the relationship.
"She's history," said Joe Saltzman, a veteran news producer who is director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.
"It's not a difficult case," Saltzman added. "I can't possibly see any excuses she could come up with that would change anybody's opinion of firing her from this news station. I would never hire her."
One source close to Telemundo said the station is investigating whether Salinas violated the Telemundo ethics policy, which the person said was "parallel" to the one at NBC News, its sister operation.
Telemundo is a division of NBC Universal, which is owned largely by General Electric Co. GE policies are typically uniform.
GE's own ethics policy urges employees to "avoid actions or relationships" that might conflict with their job responsibilities, and to watch out for "a romantic or other personal relationship" that may create a conflict of interest.
In the past, Salinas has dated former City Council President and current state Sen. Alex Padilla and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles).
During Villaraigosa's news conference on Tuesday, the mayor said that Salinas decided about a year ago that "our friendship had grown to a point where it was necessary to inform her management that she shouldn't cover me. She did that. And they agreed."
But a source close to Telemundo said that station managers only learned of the relationship in the fall of 2006, when they first became suspicious when Villaraigosa began "advocating for the care" of Salinas' ill mother.
Villaraigosa played a direct role overseeing the cancer treatment of Yolanda Avila Fernandez at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, meeting with doctors and family at the hospital.
When the mother died in January, the mayor traveled to Phoenix to attend her funeral.
On Thursday, Villaraigosa's aides said the mayor paid for his plane fare to and from the funeral.
The aides showed a Times reporter the mayor's itinerary, booked on the Internet, and a personal check to his credit card company for the $324 ticket.
Aides would not say where Villaraigosa stayed in Phoenix or whether Villaraigosa took his Los Angeles Police Department security detail with him. LAPD officials refused to discuss the matter.
News executives were also said to be upset with Salinas this week for using an outside public relations representative and issuing a statement Tuesday about her relationship with the mayor without first informing her bosses.
One producer found out about her statement when it was reported on CNN, another source said.