Villanueva backs off investigation of Times reporter who revealed cover-up
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Tuesday that his department was targeting a Times journalist in a criminal leak investigation for her reporting on a departmental cover-up, but after a barrage of criticism from politicians, the newspaper and press freedom groups, he backed off his announcement and denied that he considered the reporter a suspect.
The sheriff lashed out at Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian during a morning news conference in which he suggested two longtime foes leaked her a surveillance video showing a deputy kneeling on the head of a handcuffed inmate.
Detailing an ongoing criminal probe of the leak, Villanueva displayed a poster with large photographs of Tchekmedyian, his political rival Eli Vera and sheriff’s Inspector General Max Huntsman with arrows pointing from the two men to the reporter.
“The three individuals that we want to know a lot about,” Villanueva said. “These three people have some important questions to answer.”
Officials were worried about the optics of the kneeling, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force,” a commander who was critical of the coverup wrote in an internal force review.
Villanueva exhibited a list of possible felonies under investigation, including conspiracy, burglary and unauthorized use of a database. When pressed by reporters on whether he was investigating Tchekmedyian specifically, the sheriff replied, “All parties to the act are subjects of the investigation.”
The comments drew immediate condemnation, with Kevin Merida, executive editor of The Times, saying in a statement, “His attempt to criminalize news reporting goes against well-established constitutional law. We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian’s and the Los Angeles Times’ rights in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities.”
Supervisor Hilda Solis, who along with other supervisors has clashed with the sheriff repeatedly, followed hours later with a pledge to ask California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to “investigate his pattern of unconscionable and dangerous actions like the one today.”
“Sadly, Sheriff Villanueva has a habit of attacking, maligning, and threatening those who oversee or report on his misconduct,” Solis said in a statement.
At 6:46 p.m., Villanueva issued a statement reacting to what he called an “incredible frenzy of misinformation being circulated.”
“I must clarify at no time today did I state an L.A. Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation,” he said. “We have no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters.”
The Times published a report last month that described how Sheriff’s Department officials worked to cover up the March 2021 incident because they feared it would paint the department in a “negative light.” The Times report was accompanied by surveillance video from a lockup area of the San Fernando Courthouse that captured the deputy kneeling on the inmate’s head for three minutes after handcuffing him.
An L.A. County sheriff’s commander filed a lawsuit accusing Sheriff Alex Villanueva of obstructing justice and retaliating against those who blew the whistle.
Earlier this week, the newspaper and other outlets reported on a legal claim in which a department commander alleged that Villanueva participated in the cover-up, telling underlings, “We do not need bad media at this time.”
Villanueva has denied being involved in the cover-up, saying he learned of the violent detention eight months after it occurred and immediately launched an investigation into it.
The sheriff had also announced he’d launched a criminal investigation into how The Times obtained the video of the detention, but declined to offer any specifics. Then, on Tuesday, following the news reports about the commander’s claims, Villanueva summoned the media to the Hall of Justice downtown for an update on the ongoing criminal probe.
“This is stolen property that was removed illegally from people who had some intent — criminal intent — and it’ll be subject to investigation,” Villanueva said.
Tchekmedyian was present at the news conference as the sheriff repeatedly gestured to her photo with a pointer. When she attempted to ask a question, he snapped, “We’re not going to take a question from you.”
Vera, a former top-ranking department official who is running to unseat Villanueva, has said publicly that the sheriff was involved in the cover-up and viewed the video at an aide’s desk within days after it occurred.
And Huntsman announced he is investigating the allegations that Villanueva lied about his knowledge of the incident and has issued a subpoena ordering Villanueva to either testify or turn over records.
L.A. County sheriff’s officials attempted to cover up an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of an inmate, according to records reviewed by The Times.
David Loy, legal director at the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, said that Tchekmedyian’s reporting was “a subject of public concern that the press has an absolute right if not a duty to report on.”
The Media Guild of the West said in a statement: “We condemn these outrageous attacks on newsgathering, and we remain committed to supporting journalism that reports on the facts without fear or favor.”
Villanueva termed the video stolen property, but Loy said if the reporter was given a copy of the video and reported on it, that would be “exactly what the 1st Amendment gives the press a right to do.”
“I’m flabbergasted at some level, because what the sheriff is doing reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of basic 1st Amendment law. This has been settled for decades,” Loy said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that journalists generally cannot be held liable for publishing leaked materials that are about matters of public concern, even if the reporter knew or should have known that they were obtained through illegal means.
Several sheriff’s deputies sued The Times in 2013 to stop publication of an article about the department’s hiring of 280 employees with histories of serious misconduct. The deputies argued then that a Times journalist had committed a crime by possessing internal personnel files. An appeals court rejected their suit, and the newspaper published the story.
In a letter to Villanueva, Jeff Glasser, general counsel for The Times, stated that any attempt or threat to prosecute Tchekmedyian “is an abuse of your official position that risks subjecting you and the County to legal liability.”
Glasser said that under the state’s reporter’s shield law, Tchekmedyian could not be compelled to reveal her sources and investigators were barred from obtaining search warrants aimed at Tchekmedyian.
“You are on notice that if the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department attempts to search the property or data of Ms. Tchekmedyian or any other LA Times employee in this matter, the Department will have directly violated [state law] and clearly-established constitutional law, and LA Times will seek every available remedy against you, the Department, and every individual official involved in any such unlawful conduct,” Glasser wrote.
Villanueva has said he respects the work of the media, but has made a habit of going after some of the journalists who cover him. In 2020, KPCC reporter Josie Huang was slammed to the ground by two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and arrested. In the days after the incident, Villanueva told the Associated Press that Huang had “crossed the line from journalism to activism” and defended his deputies’ actions. The case against Huang was later dropped.
The broadsides have increased as he runs for a second term. After Times columnist Gustavo Arellano mocked his decision last fall to let deputies wear cowboy hats, Villanueva called him a “vendido” — a sellout — on his weekly Facebook livestream. This spring, he used the same forum to go after the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, Robert Greene, after a meeting in which Villanueva made a bizarre accusation that Huntsman was a Holocaust denier.
Among Latinos, to call someone a vendido stings even more than the English translation. It’s a person who not only forgets their roots but works actively to quash their former comrades.
Tchekmedyian, who has covered the Sheriff’s Department for most of Villanueva’s tenure, has been a frequent target of his anger.
Villanueva for months has refused to speak with Tchekmedyian, ignoring her frequent interview requests and the questions she submits for his weekly Facebook broadcasts.
She and other Times reporters have doggedly covered the sheriff and the department, including stories about the sheriff’s efforts to rehire former deputies with checkered pasts, Villanueva’s involvement in the effort to cover up the fact that deputies had shared photos from the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash scene, and a secretive unit the sheriff formed that investigates his political foes and critics.
While she was reporting the story about the secret unit, a spokesman for the department told The Times that sheriff’s officials would not discuss the matter with Tchekmedyian, claiming she had a conflict of interest. The spokesman repeatedly refused to provide any details of the alleged conflict to a Times editor. The department suggested it would answer questions from “any other” Times reporter.
The Times declined to assign a new reporter to the story.
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