The host of a cable TV talk show in Washington has sued Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-Pico Rivera), complaining that the lawmaker had him falsely arrested by Capitol Police for stealing an official document after an interview taping session turned sour.
Jan E. Helfeld, host of a weekly public policy program, is seeking $50,000 in damages and the return of a videotape of the abortive interview that he says a Torres aide confiscated and mostly erased.
The lawsuit, filed Sept. 18 in U.S. District Court, also accuses Torres and the aide, Roderic O. Young, of making a false police report, slander and infliction of emotional distress.
Torres’ chief of staff, James Casso, termed the suit frivolous but said that on the advice of counsel, no one in Torres’ office would discuss the merits of the case.
“Given the time of the filing and the individual who filed it, it is nothing more than a politically motivated lawsuit,” Casso said.
A copy of the lawsuit was sent to several newspapers Wednesday by David G. Nunez, a Republican who is challenging Torres in the 34th Congressional District, centered in the east Los Angeles County suburbs, including parts of Norwalk, La Puente, Montebello and Whittier.
Nunez could not be reached for comment. But an aide, Henry Gonzales, said the Nunez campaign had no relationship with Helfeld before he notified them about the filing last month.
“It’s not a partisan show. But I thought he might be interested,” Helfeld said. “I think it’s outrageous what happened and important that it be known.”
The interview session started out calmly enough more than a year ago on Sept. 19, 1995, according to the lawsuit, but then things went downhill. According to the lawsuit, here is how the encounter unfolded:
Helfeld’s regional cable program, “The Bottom Line,” was airing a series on federal budget issues and began asking Torres, a seven-term House veteran who is a member of the Appropriations Committee, about his record on budget issues.
Shortly after the taping began at the Capitol,Young objected to some of Helfeld’s questions about budget deficits and demanded that the cameraman stop taping and turn over the videotape. Young snatched the videotape from the camera and threw a microphone at Helfeld.
Young tried--but failed--to take back a release form that Torres had signed consenting to the interview.
After Helfeld was asked to leave, Young called Capitol Police to report that Helfeld had stolen a document--the release form.
After Torres repeated the stolen document charge, Helfeld was arrested, frisked, handcuffed and escorted to a police van. His bag containing the release form was taken.
Police then determined that the “stolen document” was the release form signed by Torres. It was returned to Helfeld, no charges were filed and Helfeld was released after about 15 minutes in custody, according to a police report of the incident.
“I was really surprised that a congressman would act that way and then pretend that nothing happened,” Helfeld said. “It’s not what you expect from a public official.”