Just hours after he threatened to include a Los Angeles Times reporter in a criminal leak investigation for her reporting on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s alleged coverup of an excessive force incident, Sheriff Alex Villanueva is walking back his comments.
“I must clarify at no time today did I state an L.A. Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation. We have no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters,” he said in a statement on Tuesday evening.
(1/3) Resulting from the incredible frenzy of misinformation being circulated, I must clarify at no time today did I state an LA Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation. We have no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters. pic.twitter.com/43Ro4kK8HM
— Alex Villanueva (@LACoSheriff) April 27, 2022
Villanueva added that he issued a statement regarding the matter due to an “incredible frenzy of misinformation being circulated” despite a video from a Tuesday news conference in which he stated otherwise.
The sheriff’s statement follows widespread outrage from free press organizations and politicians over his initial remarks during a live-streamed news conference on Tuesday morning, which many called an attack on the First Amendment rights of journalists.
Alene Tchekmedyian—the Times reporter who Villanueva initially said would be questioned in a criminal leak investigation—published an account last month alleging that officials attempted to conceal an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed innate for three minutes because they feared it would paint the department in a “negative light.”
On Monday, she published follow-up story that a legal claim had been filed against Villanueva, accusing the sheriff of “obstructing justice and retaliating against those who blew the whistle.” The claim also alleged that the sheriff told subordinates, “We do not need bad media at this time.”
During Tuesday’s news conference, Villanueva displayed large photographs of three people who he said would be probed for illegally leaking information including Tchekmedyian, Eli Vera—a chief in the department who’s running to unseat Villanueva—and Sheriff’s Inspector General Max Huntsman. Beneath the enlarged images were the words: “What did they know and when did they know it?”
“So these are the three individuals that we want to know a lot about,” Villanueva said during the conference, implying that Vera and Huntsman had been involved in providing the video to Tchekmedyian. The sheriff then displayed a list of potential felonies under investigation, including burglary, conspiracy, unauthorized access of a database, and breach of public duty.
“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.
When repeatedly asked whether he was investigating Tchekmedyian, the sheriff responded “all parties to the act” are being examined.
As CNN notes, “Villanueva appears to have set up a strawman here,” because there is a difference between being the subject of an investigation and a suspect in an investigation where criminal charges can be brought. “The former was reported by news organizations, not the latter.”
Kevin Merida, the Times’ executive editor, responded to Villanueva’s attack, saying, “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.”
Jeff Glasser, the newspaper’s general counsel, also sent a letter to the sheriff, saying that “any attempt to prosecute Ms. Tchekmedyian—or to threaten her with prosecution, as your announcement appeared intended to do today—is an abuse of your official position that risks subjecting you and the county to legal liability.”
Although Villanueva seemingly walked back on his comments hours after the conference, he said that the department is still planning to “conduct a thorough investigation regarding the unlawful disclosure of evidence and documentation in an active criminal case. The multiple active investigations stemming from this incident will be shared and monitored by an outside law enforcement entity.”
He added, “What should be of interest is the fact the L.A. Times refuses to acknowledge their reporting, and the account of a disgruntled employee, were thoroughly debunked during today’s press conference.”
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