Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced that Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian was under a criminal leak investigation during a press conference on April 26, 2022.
The statement came nearly a month after Tchekmedyian first reported on internal documents detailing an alleged cover-up within the sheriff's department around an inmate abuse case. During the press conference, Villanueva displayed a picture of Tchekmedyian and two other individuals, saying all three were connected to the leak.
When pressed to say whether Tchekmedyian was specifically under criminal investigation, Villanueva responded that Tchekmedyian received information and put it to use. “What she receives legally and puts to her own use and what she receives legally and the L.A. Times uses — I'm sure that's a huge, complex level of law and freedom of the press and all that. However, when it's stolen materials, at some point, you actually become part of the story. So, that's up to the L.A. Times to decide that."
Times Executive Editor Kevin Merida immediately condemned Villanueva's comments in a statement to the outlet.
"His attempt to criminalize news reporting goes against well-established constitutional law. We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian's and the Los Angeles Times' right in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities," Merida said.
Times’ General Counsel Jeff Glaser published a letter of protest, warning Villaneuva that any attempt to prosecute the reporter would be "an abuse of your official position," and the outlet would “seek every available remedy against you, the Department, and every individual official involved in any such unlawful conduct."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also condemned Villanueva's comments, calling it “blatantly retaliatory conduct.”
"Publishing newsworthy information about an alleged law enforcement cover up that sought to block an investigation into the use of excessive force is constitutionally protected activity, and clearly in the public interest," said Katie Townsend, RCFP’s Deputy Executive Director and Legal Director.
Hours after the press conference, Villanueva addressed the public outcry in response to his comments.
"Resulting from the incredible frenzy of misinformation being circulated, I must clarify at no time today did I state an L.A. Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation. We have no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters."
Villanueva also wrote that the sheriff's department would conduct a thorough investigation around the disclosure of evidence.