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Los Angeles County Sheriff Announces Plans to ‘Investigate’ Journalist Over Articles

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has announced plans to target a journalist for an “investigation” over her reporting on their treatment of a man in custody.

Conspiracy theory-slinging Los Angeles County sheriff Alex Villanueva held a press conference to announce his intention to target Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian over her ongoing coverage of a deputy kneeling on a man’s head in March 2021 — and a subsequent cover-up by the department.

Tchekmedyian had followed a story for months about L.A. County sheriff’s deputies restraining a man they had in custody by kneeling on his head for more than three minutes in March 2021. She had written an article the day before the April 26 2022 press conference about a claim that the cover-up had taken place specifically at the sheriff’s behest:

In the legal claim against L.A. County, which is a required precursor to a lawsuit, Allen Castellano offered new details about Villanueva’s alleged role in keeping the March 2021 incident under wraps that contradict the sheriff’s claim that he learned of the incident several months after it happened.

According to the claim, Villanueva, along with a lieutenant working as his aide, Undersheriff Tim Murakami and Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon, viewed a video of the incident just five days after it occurred.

After watching, Villanueva allegedly said to the group, “We do not need bad media at this time,” and told Limon that he would “handle the matter,” the claim said.

“Villanueva really meant that he would proceed to obstruct justice and direct a cover up of the incident,” the claim alleged.

According to the claim, Villanueva wanted to tamp down negative or critical coverage of his department because he feared losing political capital; additionally, he apparently had concerns that the public at large would compare the treatment of the man in custody to George Floyd’s murder:

The man in custody, Enzo Escalante, suffered minor injuries. Deputy Douglas Johnson was holding the handcuffed Escalante down with his knee after he had punched the deputy in the face.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Announce...
Los Angeles County Sheriff Announces Plans to ‘Investigate’ Journalist Over Articles

In his whistleblower lawsuit, Commander Allen Castellano claims he immediately sent the video of the March 10, 2021 incident, which was obtained by LAist, up the chain of command to Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon.

[…]

“Sheriff Villanueva blocked and stalled an investigation into an excessive Use of Force (“UOF”) incident to obstruct justice and avoid bad publicity for his re-election campaign,” the lawsuit claims. Villanueva faces eight challengers in the June primary.

During the press conference, Sheriff Alex Villanueva also announced his intent to investigate a political rival and the Inspector-General as well as Tchekmedyian, accusing all three of being part of a conspiracy to discredit him:

But in a Tuesday press conference to address “false claims made in a recent lawsuit filed by a disgruntled employee,” Villanueva again denied those allegations before offering a timeline of events following the use of force incident—which, according to Tchekmedyian’s reporting, the sheriff and a lieutenant learned about just five days after it occurred. Villanueva then showed a slide including a press photo of Tchekmedyian, who was present at the press conference, alongside Eliezer Vera, a chief in the Sheriff’s Department who is running against Villanueva to lead it, and Max Huntsman, its Inspector General—who were both involved at one point in the investigation into the alleged cover-up.

“So these are the three individuals we want to know a lot about,” Villanueva said about the slide, implying that the Vera and Huntsman had access to the investigation materials, including a video of the incident, he said “landed” in Tchekmedyian’s hands. “These three people have some important questions to answer.”

The Los Angeles Times released the following statement from executive editor Kevin Merida:

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. 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.

Local news site KnockLA posted the footage of the incident:

The announcement was not an unprecedented move from Villanueva, whose time leading the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has been rife with accusations and revelations of disinformation campaigns, corruption, gangs within the department and association with far right organizations, previous harassment and “investigations” of perceived critics and potential political rivals, and extreme violence by sheriff’s deputies toward everyone from inmates to working reporters.

Update, 4/27/2022, 3:06PM: A few hours after Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced his intent to investigate journalist Alene Tchekmedyian, he claimed that he had never actually announced that intent, and that in fact anyone claiming that he had was just “fake news.”

However, there was video of the entire event:

On April 28 2022, Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano observed that Villanueva clearly was not expecting the backlash he immediately received:

The blowback was so harsh that Villanueva walked back his allegation against Tchekmedyian. Michael Jackson never moonwalked as fast as the sheriff slid back on his comments.

“I must clarify at no time today did I state an LA Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation,” he tweeted. Never mind that he alleged exactly that just hours earlier. Villanueva missed his mark so badly that even his loud-mouthed campaign manager, Javier Gonzalez — who has long trolled Tchekmedyian on Twitter — has been as silent as Marcel Marceau.

Villanueva exposed himself nationally as someone more rattled than a can of WD-40. He’s the Incredible Shrinking Lawman, his threats against enemies becoming wilder and less effective and no doubt about to increase in ineptitude as a June 7 primary looms.