Targeting TMZ

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009; 10:22 AM

Three years after Mel Gibson was arrested during a drunken, anti-Semitic tirade, Los Angeles authorities filed a search warrant seeking bank records attempting to trace cash from the Web site that broke the story: TMZ.

News of that warrant, and a second one issued earlier, provides a chilling postscript to the Gibson saga as investigators tried to uncover who leaked incriminating information to the gossip Web site. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office used the earlier warrant to obtain the cellphone records of TMZ's founder, Harvey Levin.

"I feel violated as a reporter and a citizen," Levin, who learned of the warrants this month, said Tuesday in his first interview on the subject. "This is a frontal attack on the First Amendment. . . . The only reason they're doing this is that they got embarrassed. They are motivated by revenge. It is an outrage."

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca, said the 2006 warrant for Levin's phone records was necessary as part of an investigation into who gave the gossip journalist part of a sheriff's report that detailed Gibson's conduct. Whitmore noted that a judge had approved the warrant. "The Sheriff's Office believes in and embraces the First Amendment," Whitmore said. "This is not done lightly. We're in the business of doing things legally. . . . Unfortunately, it ended up involving Mr. Levin."

On June 15, according to a district attorney's memo in the case, investigators obtained a search warrant that forced Bank of America to turn over six months of financial records for Sheriff's Deputy James Mee, his wife and daughter. The search found no history of deposits from TMZ or Levin.

The Web site has acknowledged paying for tips, but Levin told investigators that he did not pay for the account of Gibson's arrest, according to the memo. Allan Parachini, a spokesman for Los Angeles Superior Court, said the search warrant remains under seal.

With a Web site that runs racy pictures and tracks the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, Levin might seem an unlikely candidate for journalistic martyrdom. But Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she considers Levin a journalist, and one whose rights were violated.

The search warrants violate the federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980, Dalglish said. That law, she said, "makes it illegal to execute a search warrant of newsgathering material unless you are investigating the reporter himself or herself for breaking the law, not in a leak investigation."

The Los Angeles district attorney decided earlier this month not to bring charges against Mee, who was suspected of leaking the Gibson documents to TMZ, on grounds that the charge could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. According to the memo, based on information obtained from AT&T California, two calls were made from Mee's home to Levin hours after Gibson was arrested in Malibu. Levin called Mee's home eight more times in the two days after Gibson's arrest. The Los Angeles Times was the first to report the memo and the phone records warrant.

Gibson was sentenced to probation in the 2006 incident, and the drunken-driving conviction was expunged from his record this month after he paid a $1,300 fine and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

The Sheriff's Office was accused of giving Gibson special treatment in the July 28, 2006, arrest. According to the district attorney's memo, two supervisors ordered Mee, the arresting officer, to rewrite his original report on the Gibson arrest to include "only the facts relating to the driving under the influence charge." Mee removed the information describing Gibson's conduct in detail and put that information in a separate four-page report that was to be locked in a safe. Those pages, detailing Gibson's profane outbursts and such comments as "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world," were leaked to TMZ, which posted a story headlined "Gibson's Anti-Semitic Tirade -- Alleged Cover Up."

"The irony here is that the First Amendment in this case served a really important function," Levin said. "There was dishonesty in the Sheriff's Office in this case, and we were able to expose this dishonesty." The four-year-old TMZ has gradually won journalistic respect for its scoops, such as being the first media outlet to report Michael Jackson's death.

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