Editorial: Villanueva’s attempt to intimidate a Times reporter is a gas attack on the press
Sheriff Alex Villanueva outdid himself at a news conference on Tuesday when he said he had launched a criminal investigation targeting Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian, who has consistently reported on unstable and erratic management from the LA County Law Enforcement Agency Sheriff. After being heavily criticized by 1st Amendment supporters, the sheriff the same afternoon denied saying such a thingdespite his earlier recorded and widely reported statements to the contrary.
The apparent reason for the criminal investigation is the alleged leak of footage showing the sheriff’s deputy kneeling on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes inside a holding cell at the San Fernando courthouse on March 10, 2021. The Times reported allegations that Villanueva knew about the incident but covered it up to avoid bad publicity.
During the press conference, Villanueva displayed the photo of the journalist alongside photos of the retired Cmdr. Eli Vera, who is running against him in the June 7 election, and Inspector General Max Huntsman, with arrows leading to Chekmedyian. The sheriff suggested they may have had a hand in leaking the video to Chekmedyian, who wrote the story, but produced no evidence to support those claims.
Criminally investigating a journalist for doing her job is a shocking assault on constitutionally protected press freedoms and aligns Villanueva with a number of tin dictators and power-hungry officials who abuse their power to exercise retaliation against journalists for critical coverage. To claim that there is such an investigation and then to deny it is the act of a coward who seeks to intimidate his detractors without having to back up his words. It’s standard operating procedure for a demagogue, as with Villanueva’s ridiculous statement earlier this month that he has two sources to support his baseless claim that Huntsman is a Holocaust denier. The sheriff, of course, will not reveal these sources.
During the press conference, Villanueva expounded – inaccurately, of course – on the law governing journalists and their duties. If stolen material is given to a journalist, he said: “I’m pretty sure it’s a huge complex area of law, and freedom of the press and all that, though, when it comes to material. stolen, at some point you actually become part of the story.”
Bad. The 1st Amendment protects a journalist’s right to receive and publish information about matters of public interest such as excessive use of force and alleged attempts at a cover-up. This remains true even if the material was passed to the journalist by someone who obtained it illegally.
Asked repeatedly whether Chekmedyian was being investigated, the sheriff gestured to the three photos and said, “all parties to the act are being investigated.”
Tellingly, Villanueva’s rant then devolved into a flood of umbrage, old grievances and personal complaints against her former superiors in the Sheriff’s Department, the Times, Huntsman, her election opponents, the Civilian Oversight Commission, the LA County Board of Supervisors and anyone else believed to be going after him in “concert and coordination.”
He recited the circumstances of his reprimand for a 2016 incident in which, as a lieutenant, he broke 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 allegations of misconduct differently now than he did under the former sheriff.
He went after the county lawyers because they are hired by the board of supervisors and not by him.
He repeated a bizarre claim that the Times had deliberately timed several critical articles, including the story of the kneeling incident, to run at his March 26 re-election campaign launch rally – presumably to spoil the festivities.
And so on, in a continuous recitation of pettiness.
It would be nothing short of pathetic if it weren’t for the enormous power that Villanueva wields, not only to patrol the streets and run the prisons, but also to investigate real and imagined crimes. His department is already investigating Huntsman, a former member of his team and member of the oversight committee. He leads a secret investigation unit that apparently focuses on his political enemies and critics.
Los Angeles County voters chose this sheriff in 2018 in part because they were enticed into supporting a supposedly liberal Democrat over the incumbent Republican. He has now swung far and wide towards appealing to voters who might somehow believe he is the answer to the crime and homelessness that has grown under his watch. But regardless of changing politics or ideology, the constant is Villanueva’s paranoia and abuse of authority. It is a stain on self-government – a stain that voters have the power to erase.