Sheriff Alex Villanueva Targets L.A. Times Journalist in Criminal Investigation

Villanueva says he’s investigating reporter Alene Tchekmedyian in his hunt for a leak about an alleged coverup of excessive force in his department

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced Tuesday that his department is including Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian in a criminal leak investigation for her reporting on the department’s alleged coverup of an excessive force incident.

Tchekmedyian, who has reported on the department for most of Villanueva’s tenure, published an account last month alleging that department officials attempted to conceal an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes because they feared it would paint the department in a “negative light.” Her article was accompanied by surveillance video from a lockup area at the San Fernando Courthouse that showed the incident March 2021 incident.

On Monday, Tchekmedyian reported 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 a Tuesday news conference to address “false claims made in a recent lawsuit filed by a disgruntled employee,” Villanueva denied being involved in the alleged coverup and offered a timeline of events following the incident. He said that he learned of the incident eight months after it occurred and immediately launched an investigation, the Times reports.

However, according to Tchekmedyian’s reporting, Villanueva viewed a video of the incident just five days after it occurred.

Villanueva—who last month released a reelection campaign ad composed entirely of his beefs against the Times—then exhibited a large photograph of Tchekmedyian, who was present at the news conference. Alongside Tchekmedyian’s photo were pictures of Villanueva’s longtime foes, Eli Vera—a chief in the department who’s running to unseat Villanueva—and Sheriff’s Inspector General Max Huntsman, beneath 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 the journalist. 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 asked whether he was investigating Tchekmedyian, the sheriff said, “All parties to the act are subjects of the investigation.”

He added he believes the Times is working “in concert and coordination” with the inspector general’s office and his political rival to derail his campaign, The Daily Beast reports.

“I’m sure that’s a complicated part of the law, freedom of the press and all that,” he said. “A lot of people are working overtime and they’re doing it as best they can, so there will be more of this nonsense thrown at me until June 7.”

Vera has publicly said that the sheriff was involved in the decision to cover-up the violent incident and that he watched the video at the aide’s desk within days after it happened, the Times reports. Huntsman also announced that he is investigating the allegations that Villanueva lied about his knowledge of the incident and he has issued a subpoena ordering the sheriff to either testify or turn over records.

Kevin Merida, executive editor of the Times, responded to Villanueva’s attack on Tchekmedyian and his newspaper.

“Villanueva’s attack on Alene Tchekmedyian’s First Amendment rights for doing newsworthy reporting on a video that showed a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head is outrageous,” he said 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.”

Jeff Glasser, the newspaper’s general counsel, also sent a letter to Villanueva—which has been published on their website in response to the criminal investigation.

“This outrageous assertion appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate Ms. Tchekmedyian for reporting unflattering (but entirely accurate) information about the conduct of individuals in your department and allegations of a cover-up by you and other officials,” Glasser wrote.

“If the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department actually initiated an ‘investigation’ of Ms. Tchekmedyian, it would contravene well-established constitutional law, which bars prosecutions of news reporters for publishing information from confidential official records, including leaked videos that involve matters of public interest. Although I would have assumed that someone in your position would be familiar with these longstanding legal principles, this letter should leave no doubt 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.”

Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement that she would ask California Attorney General Rob Bonta to “investigate his pattern of unconscionable and dangerous actions like the one today,” according to the Times.

“Sadly, Sheriff Villanueva has a habit of attacking, maligning, and threatening those who oversee or report on his misconduct,” Solis said.

This isn’t the first time Villanueva has targeted some of the reporters who cover him. In 2020, KPCC reporter Josie Huang was slammed to the ground by two sheriff’s deputies and was arrested. Following the incident, the sheriff told the Associated Press that Huang crossed the line from journalism to activism” and alleged that she was interfering with the “deputies doing their job.”

Huang tweeted about Villanueva’s attack on Tchekmedyian on Tuesday, saying, “Why is this LA Times reporter being investigated? She wrote about the attempted cover-up of a videotaped incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of a handcuffed inmate for 3 minutes.”

Frank Stoltze, who also works for KPCC, posted an image of Villanueva pointing at an image of Tchekmedyian during Tuesday’s conference. “This is an extraordinary escalation in the sheriff’s attack not only on the paper but also on the First Amendment,” he said.

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