The Los Angeles County sheriff insinuated that a local journalist was under criminal investigation related to her coverage of a leaked tape that allegedly showed a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate — a statement he later walked back amid criticism he’s trying to muzzle the press.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva made the remarks at a press conference Tuesday when asked about Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian, who reported on the incident last year and also on the sheriff’s alleged cover up as he seeks re-election.
Reporters at the briefing grilled Villanueva on whether Tchekmedyian — whose photo was blown up and put on display by the sheriff — was the subject of an investigation.
“The act is under investigation. All parties to the act are subject to investigation,” he responded.
Hours later, the sheriff clarified in a series of tweets that despite “a frenzy of misinformation,” his agency has “no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters.”
But his comments kicked off a firestorm of outrage from Los Angeles Times leadership and First Amendment advocates.
The Times’ general counsel sent a letter to the sheriff protesting the investigation and the top editor condemned Villanueva’s remarks, calling it an illegal “attempt to criminalize news reporting.”
“Sheriff Alex 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,” Executive Editor Kevin Merida said in a statement. “We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian’s and the Los Angeles Times’ rights in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities.”
The incident Tchekmedyian reported on involved an altercation in a county courthouse on March 10, 2021 — two days after jury selection began for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of murder for kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.
The leaked video shows Deputy Douglas Johnson directing murder suspect Enzo Escalante to move up against a wall in the courthouse. Escalante swings at Johnson and punches him repeatedly in the face. Three other deputies help Johnson wrestle Escalante to the ground and handcuff him.
Tchekmedyian, who covers the sheriff’s office for the Times, reported that Johnson had his knee on Escalante’s head for more than three minutes, even after the inmate had been handcuffed, placed face-down and did not appear to be resisting. Escalante suffered minor injuries that required hospitalization.
Johnson was placed on leave months later and is currently under investigation, Villanueva said during Tuesday’s news conference. So far, no charges have been filed against the deputy.
Escalante has pleaded not guilty to two counts of resisting an officer. He has filed a federal lawsuit against members of the sheriff’s department, including Villanueva, that alleges his civil rights were violated.
At the press conference, Villanueva claimed leaked the video obtained by the Times was “stolen property that was removed illegally.”
“She received the information and then she put it to her own use,” he said, referring to Tchekmedyian. “What she receives legally and puts to her own use and what she receives illegally and the LA Times uses it, I’m pretty sure that’s a huge complex area of law and freedom of the press and all that. However, when it’s stolen material, at some point you have to become part of the story.”
During his news conference, Villanueva showed photos of the reporter, LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman and ex-Sheriff’s Commander Eli Vera under the heading: “WHAT DID THEY KNOW AND WHEN DID THEY KNOW IT?”
In an awkward twist, Tchekmedyian was in attendance — and Villanueva ignored her questions.
Villanueva went so far as to suggest that the Times was in cahoots with his political opponents to thwart his re-election.
“When you take this entire thing into context you realize that there’s a lot of people working in concert and coordination,” the sheriff said. “That includes the LA Times. That includes people that obviously want to defeat me electorally. That includes the [Board of Supervisors]-appointed inspector general and the [Civilian] Oversight Commission. A lot of people working overtime and they’re doing it as best they can, so there’ll be more of this nonsense thrown at me until June 7, but it is what it is.”
Tchekmedyian had also reported on allegations that Villanueva tried to cover up the kneeling incident, lodged by LA Sheriff’s Commander Allen Castellano.
On Monday, Castellano filed a legal claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, that accused Villanueva of first blocking and stalling the investigation into Johnson’s use of force, and then working to cover up the incident and retaliating against whistleblowers.
Villanueva, who oversees the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, is up for reelection and Castellano’s claim states the sheriff was trying to avoid bad publicity during his campaign.
The sheriff told reporters Tuesday that he did not see the video until eight months after the incident, but Castellano wrote in his claim that Villanueva had viewed it within days.
Villanueva called Castellano a “disgruntled employee” who made “false claims.”
Seeking to put to bed the swirling accusations that he is trying to silence the press, Villanueva tweeted Tuesday night: “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.
“We will 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.
“What should be of interest is the fact the LA Times refuses to acknowledge their reporting, and the account of a disgruntled employee, were thoroughly debunked during today’s press conference.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis called on the state attorney general to investigate Villanueva for a “pattern of unconscionable and dangerous actions like the one today,” she said, referring to the news conference.
“The latest attack on LA Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian is another dangerous example of Sheriff Villanueva attacking the media and the First Amendment. This is in keeping with his past harassment of other women, including KPCC reporter Josie Huang as well as myself and other county officials,” Solis said in a statement.
“Displaying Alene’s photo at today’s press conference and making her appear as if she committed a crime is not just an attack on Alene but the entire journalistic community. What’s criminal is the sheriff’s cover-up of deputies using excessive force against an incarcerated person, including kneeling on his neck for three minutes. What’s not criminal, however, is Alene and other journalists reporting on it.”
In Tchekmedyian’s original story, Vera, the ex-commander, said Villanueva viewed the video at an aide’s desk just days after the incident. Vera is running against Villanueva and also was commander overseeing court services where the incident occurred.
Huntsman is investigating the allegations Villanueva lied about the incident and issued a subpoena ordering Villanueva to either testify or turn over records.
With Post wires