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The LA sheriff now says no charges for the reporter who wrote about a cover-up

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva disputed allegations that he orchestrated the cover-up of an incident where a deputy knelt on a handcuffed inmate's head last year.
Damian Dovarganes
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva disputed allegations that he orchestrated the cover-up of an incident where a deputy knelt on a handcuffed inmate's head last year.

Updated April 27, 2022 at 12:22 PM ET

The Los Angeles County sheriff now says the department is not pursuing criminal charges against a journalist at the Los Angeles Times over a report about the attempted cover-up of an inmate abuse incident by sheriff's deputies.

The announcement is an apparent change of course after a striking Tuesday news conference in which Sheriff Alex Villanueva, asked directly about Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian, responded that "all parties" were subject to investigation.

On Tuesday night, the sheriff released a statement on Twitterclaiming that "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," his 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."

The statement follows an afternoon news conference in which Villanueva said he was investigating leaked materials, including surveillance camera footage published by the Times in an article written by Tchekmedyian.

Tchekmedyian's story detailed efforts by sheriff's department officials to cover up an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes in March 2021, less than two months after the California attorney general had announced an investigation into the sheriff's department over human rights violations.

Villanueva's original comments suggesting that Tchekmedyian could face criminal investigation drew immediate condemnation from the 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 Tuesday. "We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian's and the Los Angeles Times' rights in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities."

In a letter to Villanueva, Times General Counsel Jeff Glasser warned the sheriff that any attempt to prosecute the reporter would be "an abuse of your official position."

"You are on notice that if the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department attempts to search the property or data of Ms. Tchekmedyian or any other L.A. Times employee in this matter, the Department will have directly violated [state law] and clearly established constitutional law, and L.A. Times will seek every available remedy against you, the Department, and every individual official involved in any such unlawful conduct," Glasser wrote.

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 had viewed a video of the altercation five days after it occurred — and that 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 sheriff's officials standing around and watching as the restrained man was pinned to the floor.

Villanueva denies any cover-up

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."

As he spoke, the sheriff showed large photographs of Tchekmedyian, former sheriff's Commander Eli Vera and L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman underneath the words "What did they know and when did they know it?"

"These three people have some important questions to answer," Villanueva said.

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 was 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.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.