Editorial: Villanueva’s attempt to intimidate a Times reporter is a gaslighting assault on the press

Alex Villanueva points to photos on a TV screen at a press conference
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva indicated during a Tuesday news conference that a Los Angeles Times reporter was under criminal investigation. He later denied saying it.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Sheriff Alex Villanueva outdid even himself at a Tuesday news conference when he said he had launched a criminal investigation targeting Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian, who has steadfastly reported on the sheriff’s volatile and erratic leadership of the L.A. County law enforcement agency. After being roundly criticized by 1st Amendment advocates, the sheriff hours later denied that he had said any such thing, despite his recorded and widely reported earlier statements to the contrary.

The ostensible reason for the criminal probe is the alleged leak of footage showing a sheriff’s deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head for three minutes inside a lockup facility at the San Fernando Courthouse on March 10, 2021. The Times has reported allegations that Villanueva knew about the incident but covered it up to avoid bad publicity.

At the news conference, Villanueva displayed the reporter’s photo alongside pictures of retired Cmdr. Eli Vera, who is running against him in the June 7 election, and Inspector General Max Huntsman, with arrows leading to Tchekmedyian. The sheriff implied that they may have had a role in leaking the video to Tchekmedyian, who wrote the story, but did not produce any evidence supporting those assertions.


Criminally investigating a journalist for doing her job is a shocking assault on constitutionally protected press freedoms and aligns Villanueva with any number of tin-pot dictators and power-hungry functionaries who abuse their power to retaliate against reporters for critical coverage. Claiming there is such an investigation and then later denying it is the act of a coward who seeks to intimidate his critics without having to stand behind his words. It’s a demagogue’s standard operating procedure, as with Villanueva’s ridiculous statement earlier this month that he has two sources to support his groundless claim that Huntsman is a Holocaust denier. The sheriff, naturally, won’t reveal those sources.

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva may act deranged but most likely he’s merely dishonest. His irresponsible statements offer a window into his character.

April 1, 2022

At the news conference, Villanueva held forth — inaccurately, of course — on the law governing reporters and their duties. If stolen material is given to a reporter, he said, “I’m pretty sure that’s a huge complex area of the law, and freedom of the press and all that, however, when it’s stolen material, at some point you actually become part of the story.”

Wrong. The 1st Amendment protects a reporter’s right to receive and publish information about matters of public interest such as excessive use of force and alleged attempts to cover it up. That remains true even if the material was passed to the reporter by someone who obtained it unlawfully.

Asked repeatedly whether Tchekmedyian was under investigation, the sheriff gestured toward the three photos and said that “all parties to the act are subjects of the investigation.”

Tellingly, Villanueva’s rant then strayed to a stream of umbrage, old grievances and personal complaints against his former Sheriff’s Department superiors, The Times, Huntsman, his election challengers, the Civilian Oversight Commission, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and anyone else who is supposedly picking on him in “concert and coordination.”

The arrest and hogtying of a reporter, the childish and racist tweets by the sheriff’s spokesperson, the treatment of the families of people killed by deputies and the ongoing resistance to oversight by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva all make a tense situation worse and demonstrate the need for even stronger sheriff oversight.

Sept. 17, 2020

He recited the circumstances behind his reprimand for a 2016 incident in which he as a lieutenant violated policy by transporting a person who had been stunned by a Taser to jail instead of a hospital.


He complained that the inspector general treats misconduct allegations differently now than he did under the prior sheriff.

He griped about county lawyers because they are hired by the Board of Supervisors and not him.

He repeated a bizarre claim that The Times purposely timed several critical articles, including the kneeling incident story, to run during his March 26 reelection campaign kickoff rally — presumably in order to spoil the festivities.

And on and on, as part of a continuing recitation of pettiness.

It would be merely pathetic were it not for the enormous power Villanueva has at his disposal, not just to patrol the streets and run the jails but to investigate real and imagined crimes. His department is already probing Huntsman, former members of his staff and a member of the oversight commission. He operates a secretive investigative unit that apparently focuses on his political enemies and critics.

Los Angeles County voters chose this sheriff in 2018 in part because they were seduced into backing a supposedly liberal Democrat over the Republican incumbent. He has now swung far to the right to appeal to voters who might somehow believe he is the answer to the crime and homelessness that grew on his watch. But regardless of changing politics or ideology, the constant is Villanueva’s paranoia and misuse of his authority. He is a stain on self-government — one that voters have in their power to wash away.