The Los Angeles County sheriff on Tuesday announced he was launching an investigation into a reporter behind an article detailing a cover-up of inmate abuse within the department.
Tchekmedyian reported that sheriff’s department officials attempted to cover up an incident in which a deputy kneeled on a handcuffed inmate’s head for three minutes in March 2021.
The announcement of the investigation drew immediate condemnation from the LA Times.
The sheriff’s “attempt to criminalize news reporting goes against well-established constitutional law,” Kevin Merida, executive editor of the Times, said in a statement. “We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian’s and the Los Angeles Times’ rights in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities.”
On Monday, a sheriff’s commander reportedly filed a legal claim stating that Villanueva and other sheriff’s officials tried to cover up the 2021 incident, fearing bad publicity.
Villanueva had earlier claimed that he was unaware of the incident for eight months, but Tchekmedyian had reported that the head of the department not only viewed a video of the altercation five days after it occurred, but Villanueva allegedly led the effort to conceal any information about it from the public.
Tchekmedyian’s reporting featured security video footage of the incident, which showed several sheriffs standing around and watching as the restrained man was pinned to the floor.
When NPR called the sheriff’s Tuesday afternoon seeking more information about the investigation, a public information officer declined to comment.
In a follow-up statement sent to NPR over email, the LASD said: “The department is unable to comment any further due to several active ongoing investigations, pending litigation, including a criminal investigation. What we can say is, Sheriff Alex Villanueva is committed to transparency and accountability.”
The sheriff released the following statement on Twitter late Tuesday night claiming 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,” the statement said. “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.”
Villanueva, who is running for reelection, categorically denies having anything to do with a cover-up, calling the commander a “disgruntled employee.” And on Tuesday, he framed the probe into a journalist as a criminal leak investigation, describing it as a “standard corruption case.”
The sheriff showed images of former sheriff’s Commander Eli Vera, LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman and Tchekmedyian with the words, “what did they know and when did they know it?” Vera is a political opponent of Villanueva, while Huntsman is investigating the sheriff over the incident. Tchekmedyian covers the sheriff’s department for the Times.
“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.
He declined to answer whether he was specifically investigating Tchekmedyian, saying instead, “All parties to the act are subjects of the investigation.”
Villanueva added: “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 actually become part of the story.”
The department and Villanueva have been under immense scrutiny in recent years for allegations of abuses, discrimination, excessive force and even murder. Last month, a civilian oversight board announced it’s launching an investigation into the prevalence of deputy gangs within the department. Villanueva also defied a county mandate refusing to fire LASD employees who have failed to follow the county’s vaccine mandate.