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Questions persist over mayor's affair

Telemundo's decision to suspend Villaraigosa's newscaster girlfriend fails to end the debate over their relationship and the fallout from it.

August 04, 2007|Meg James and David Zahniser | Times Staff Writers

The Mirthala Salinas affair isn't going away -- at least not as quickly as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or the Telemundo television network would like.

On Friday, a day after NBC Universal's Spanish-language Telemundo division suspended Salinas for two months without pay for a conflict of interest because of her romantic relationship with the mayor, questions about the company's internal probe persisted. But NBC Universal and Telemundo declined to address them.

And Villaraigosa, during an event at the Port of Los Angeles, was hounded by reporters, one of whom was shoved into the side of a metal cargo container by police.

Did Villaraigosa feel any responsibility in the punishment of Salinas and her Telemundo superiors? Had the scandal pulled down his poll numbers? (He didn't know). And this, from a dogged reporter with KNBC-TV Channel 4: "How many chances does a sinner get?"

Villaraigosa did his best to stay on-message, reminding the group that he was there to tout the port's announcement that retail chain Target would use 100 trucks powered by cleaner-burning liquid natural gas.

"That's the real news here, by the way," Villaraigosa said.

A few minutes later, however, Villaraigosa got another example of how this story continues to live on and drag more people into its messy web. As Villaraigosa began to leave, Los Angeles Port Police formed a phalanx to keep the media at bay.

"How come we're not allowed to talk to him?" one reporter demanded.

When the police line relaxed, the journalists started chasing after the mayor, who usually permits camera crews and reporters to follow him to his city vehicle.

Leading the charge was an Azteca America TV reporter, Alicia Unger, who tried to dash ahead of one plainclothes officer only to have him push her into a 20-foot cargo container.

"That's wrong," a television reporter screamed at the officer, Port Police Sgt. Kevin McCloskey.

"You can't hit a woman like that," another reporter told him.

The shoving incident was videotaped by several cameramen, but the best angle was captured by Telemundo's KVEA-TV Channel 52, the same station where Salinas in June sat in the anchor chair and delivered the news that Villaraigosa's 20-year marriage was falling apart. The 35-year-old newscaster did not disclose to viewers that she was dating the mayor.

A few hours after Friday's shoving incident of Unger, who is a reporter for KAZA-TV Channel 54, Port Police Chief Ronald Boyd said that he had launched an investigation into the actions of his sergeant.

Boyd declined to comment on whether McCloskey violated department policy by pushing the reporter against a cargo container.

"It's certainly not going to be underplayed," Boyd said of his department's review of the situation. "We saw the sergeant trying to do his job. We saw the reporter trying to do her job. We have some conflicting interests that need to be reviewed."

Add McCloskey to the growing list of people who have been caught up, punished or reassigned. Boyd said McCloskey had been moved to an administrative job at the department's San Pedro headquarters while an internal review, which is expected to last about a week, is conducted.

Boyd said officers were present not because of the mayor but to protect port security. The mayor's news conference took place in a restricted area, Boyd said.

On Thursday, it was Salinas and three others who felt the fallout from the Villaraigosa scandal.

In addition to Salinas, KVEA News Director Al Corral was suspended for two months without pay. Manuel Abud lost his job as KVEA's general manager. Abud is being reassigned to another position, although one person close to KVEA said that a new job for Abud hadn't been determined yet.

The highest-ranking Telemundo executive, Ibra Morales, who is responsible for Telemundo's 16 TV stations, was given a formal reprimand.

On Friday, it was disclosed that two additional KVEA station employees were disciplined in the wake of Telemundo's investigation into the conflict-of-interest scandal. Those two employees were each given a week-long suspension, according to two other Telemundo workers who spoke on the condition that they not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Telemundo and NBC Universal refused to name the two lower-level employees or explain why they were suspended.

With Telemundo President Don Browne's memo to employees Thursday night, briefing them on the results of the company's three-week review, executives had hoped to bring their part of the scandal to a close.

But questions linger. Browne's memo did not spell out the role that the four individuals had in the conflict-of-interest scandal or specific reasons why one each had been punished. The memo also did not say who at Telemundo conducted the review, or provide a detailed timeline of events. It also seemingly contradicted Villaraigosa, who said last month that Salinas told her superiors about their friendship "about a year ago."

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