Sheriff Villanueva investigates reporter who exposed jail cover-up

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said on Tuesday his department was targeting a Times reporter in a criminal leak investigation for her reporting on a department cover-up, but after a barrage of criticism from politicians, of the newspaper and press freedom groups, he backed down. his announcement and denied that he considered the journalist a suspect.

The sheriff lashed out at Times writer Alene Tchekmedyian during an early morning press conference in which he suggested two longtime enemies leaked surveillance video to him showing a deputy kneeling on his head of a handcuffed inmate.

Detailing an ongoing criminal investigation into the leak, Villanueva posted a poster with large photographs of Chekmedyian, his political rival Eli Vera and Sheriff Inspector General Max Huntsman with arrows pointing from the two men towards the reporter.

“The three people we want to know a lot about,” Villanueva said. “These three people have important questions to answer.”

Villanueva presented a list of possible crimes under investigation, including conspiracy, burglary and unauthorized use of a database. When asked by reporters if he was investigating Chekmedyian specifically, the sheriff replied, “All parties to the act are under investigation.”

The comments were immediately condemned, with Times editor Kevin Merida saying in a statement: “His attempt to criminalize reporting goes against well-established constitutional law. We will vigorously defend the rights of Chekmedyian and the Los Angeles Times in any proceedings or investigation by authorities.

Supervisor Hilda Solis, who along with other supervisors has repeatedly clashed with the sheriff, followed up hours later by pledging to ask California Atty. General Rob Bonta to “investigate his pattern of impermissible and dangerous actions like the one today”.

“Unfortunately, Sheriff Villanueva has a habit of attacking, slandering and threatening those who monitor or report his misconduct,” Solis said in a statement.

At 6:46 p.m., Villanueva released a statement reacting to what he called an “incredible frenzy of spread disinformation.”

“I must clarify that at no time today did I say that an LA Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation,” he said. “We have no interest in pursuing, and we do not pursue, criminal charges against journalists.”

The Times published a report last month outlining how sheriff’s department officials worked to cover up the March 2021 incident because they feared it would portray the department in a “negative light.” The Times report was accompanied by surveillance video from a San Fernando courthouse detention area that captured the deputy kneeling on the inmate’s head for three minutes after handcuffing him.

Earlier this week, the newspaper and other outlets reported on a lawsuit in which a department commander alleged that Villanueva had participated in the cover-up, telling underlings, “We don’t need bad media right now”.

Villanueva denied involvement in the cover-up, saying he learned of the violent detention eight months after it happened and immediately launched an investigation into it.

The sheriff had also announced that he had launched a criminal investigation into how the Times obtained the video of the detention, but declined to give details. Then on Tuesday, following news reports of the commander’s claims, Villanueva summoned the media to the downtown courthouse for an update on the ongoing criminal investigation.

“These are stolen goods that were illegally removed from people who had intent – criminal intent – and that will be investigated,” Villanueva said.

Chekmedyian was present at the press conference as the sheriff repeatedly gestured towards her photo with a pointer. When she attempted to ask a question, he snapped, “We’re not going to answer you.”

Vera, a former high-ranking department official who is running to overthrow Villanueva, has publicly said the sheriff was involved in the cover-up and viewed the video at an aide’s office days after it happened.

And Huntsman announced he was investigating allegations that Villanueva lied about his knowledge of the incident and issued a subpoena ordering Villanueva to testify or turn over records.

David Loy, legal director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, said Chekmedyian’s reporting was “a matter of public concern on which the press has the absolute right, indeed the duty, to report.”

The Western Media Guild said in a statement: “We condemn these outrageous attacks on newsgathering, and we remain committed to supporting journalism that reports the facts without fear or favour.”

Villanueva called the video stolen property, but Loy said if the reporter received a copy of the video and reported it, that would be “exactly what the 1st Amendment gives the press the right to do.”

“I am flabbergasted on some level because what the Sheriff is doing reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic 1st Amendment law. This has been settled for decades,” Loy said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that journalists generally cannot be held liable for the publication of leaked documents on matters of public interest, even if the journalist knew or should have known that they were obtained by 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 gross misconduct. MPs then argued that a Times reporter had committed a crime by possessing internal personnel files. An appeals court dismissed their complaint and the newspaper published the story.

In a letter to Villanueva, Jeff Glasser, general counsel for The Times, said any attempt or threat to sue Chekmedyian “is an abuse of your official position that risks exposing you and the county to legal liability.”

Glasser said that under the State Journalists’ Shield Act, Chekmedyian could not be compelled to reveal his sources and that investigators had no right to obtain search warrants targeting Chekmedyian.

“You are warned that if the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department attempts to search the property or data of Ms. Chekmedyian or any other LA Times employee in this matter, the department will have directly violated [state law] and clearly established constitutional law, and the LA Times will seek all available remedies against you, the Department, and every official implicated in such unlawful conduct,” Glasser wrote.

Villanueva said he respects the work of the media, but has made a habit of attacking some of the journalists who cover him. In 2020, KPCC reporter Josie Huang was knocked to the ground by two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and arrested. In the days following the incident, Villanueva told The Associated Press that Huang had “crossed the line from journalism to activism” and defended the actions of his deputies. The case against Huang was later dropped.

The broadsides have increased as he seeks a second term. After Times columnist Gustavo Arellano mocked his decision last fall to let MPs wear cowboy hats, Villanueva called it a “vendido” — a sold-out sale — on his weekly livestream on Facebook. This spring, he used the same forum to lash out at the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Robert Greene after a meeting in which Villanueva made the bizarre accusation that Huntsman was a Holocaust denier. Holocaust.

Chekmedyian, who covered for the sheriff’s department for most of Villanueva’s tenure, was a frequent target of her wrath.

Villanueva has for months refused to speak with Tchekmedyian, ignoring her frequent interview requests and the questions she submits for her weekly Facebook shows.

She and other Times reporters 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 scene of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash. , and a secret unit the sheriff formed to investigate his political enemies and critics.

As she reported the story of the secret unit, a department spokesperson told The Times that sheriff’s officials would not discuss the matter with Chekmedyian, saying she had a conflict of interest. The spokesperson repeatedly declined to provide details of the alleged dispute to a Times editor. The department suggested it would take questions from “any other” Times reporters.

The Times declined to assign a new reporter to the story.

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