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Criminal Justice

LA Sheriff Villanueva Denies Coverup of Jail Video; Hours Later He Says LA Times Reporter Is Not Under Investigation

LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva, wearing his sheriff's uniform,  speaking at a podium at a news conference. A partially obscured sign behind him reads 'Hall of Justice.'
Sheriff Alex Villanueva
(Screenshot from LASD Facebook video)
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva Tuesday denied allegations by one of his senior staff that he attempted to cover up a jailhouse video that shows a deputy with his knee on the head of an inmate for about three minutes. The sheriff called Commander Allen Castellano, who made the charge in a legal claim, a “disgruntled employee” making “false claims.”

At a news conference at the Hall of Justice, the sheriff also announced he is investigating three people in connection with the leak of the video to the Los Angeles Times — including the reporter who first broke the story.

Then hours later, Villanueva tweeted that an "incredible frenzy of misinformation" was responsible for the impression that the L.A. Times reporter was subject to his investigation.

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Here's video of an exchange between the sheriff and LAist, the voice you hear asking the questions is mine.

Seeking clarity, I asked the sheriff to specify who was being investigated, noting that a photo of L.A. Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian was displayed. He responded "the act is under investigation all subjects to the act are subject to the investigation."

I asked specifically: "Is she under investigation?" The sheriff answered: "Well, she received the information and then she put it to her own use."

What The Claim Alleges

In his whistleblower claim, Castellano said Villanueva viewed the video several days after the March 2021 incident and blocked a criminal investigation into the deputy’s actions. A legal claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

Villanueva maintained he did not see the video until November, roughly eight months later, and that he then immediately ordered an investigation. “They’re making a claim, but they don’t have any facts to support their claim,” he said.

The claim alleges the sheriff viewed the video in March with Undersheriff Tim Murakami, then-Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon, and a top aide, Lt. Anthony Blanchard.

Murakami backed up the sheriff at the news conference, saying there was no March meeting to view the video.

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“The claim in March is false,” Murakami said when asked by reporters. “It never happened.”

A reporter spotted Blanchard in the back of the room and asked him about the meeting.

“The video was never seen in March the way it was presented,” he said. Neither Murakami nor Blanchard elaborated.

Castellano said in his complaint that he heard about the March meeting from Limon, who so far isn’t talking.

The sheriff demoted her two ranks to captain shortly after the L.A. Times broke the story of the video earlier this month, according to Castellano’s lawyer, Vincent Miller.

'A Thinly-Veiled Attempt To Intimidate'

Villanueva said the leak of the video is under investigation and named Commander Eli Vera and County Inspector General Max Huntsman as possible targets. Vera is one of eight candidates challenging the sheriff in the June election, and Huntsman has authored numerous reports critical of the department.

As we noted previously, the sheriff also said Tchekmedyian, who obtained the video, is a subject of the investigation.

“She received the information and put it to her own use,” he said. “When it's stolen material, at some point you actually become part of the story.”

Villanueva displayed a photograph of Tchekmedyian alongside Vera and Huntsman, and addressed her directly as she sat a few feet away from him at the news conference.

"Maybe you need to start clarifying exactly what you did with this, who did you get it from and when did you get it," the sheriff said to the reporter, who did not respond.

Times' General Counsel Jeff Glasser sent Villanueva a letter Tuesday denouncing his remarks as "a thinly-veiled attempt to intimidate Ms. Tchekmedyian." Glasser said any investigation of her "would contravene well-established constitutional law, which bars prosecutions of news reporters for publishing information from confidential official records, including leaked videos that involve matters of public interest."

Glasser went on: "Although I would have assumed that someone in your position would be familiar with these longstanding principles, this letter should leave no doubt that any attempt to prosecute Ms. Tchekmedyian — or to threaten her with prosecution, as your announcement appeared intended to do today — is an abuse of your official position that risks subjecting you and the County to legal liability."

David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the First Amendment “absolutely guarantees” the right of the press “to publish and comment on matters of public concern contained in recordings and documents, even if those recordings and documents were unlawfully obtained by the [journalist’s] source.”

Villanueva has asserted that the newspaper’s coverage of him and his department is part of a political effort to oust him from office.

“There’s a lot of people working in concert and coordination,” the sheriff said. He also named Huntsman, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, and political opponents.

“There’ll be more of this nonsense thrown at me until June 7,” Villanueva said, referring to the primary election.

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Updated April 26, 2022 at 7:52 PM PDT
This story was updated to include a tweet posted Tuesday evening by Sheriff Villanueva and further details from a press conference earlier in the day.
Updated April 26, 2022 at 6:14 PM PDT

This story has been updated to include the letter from L.A. Times general counsel Jeff Glasser and comments from First Amendment Coalition legal director David Loy.