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TMZ's founder outraged over use of his phone records in Mel Gibson case

Harvey Levin plans to take legal action against the L.A. County Sheriff's Department over what he calls an abuse of power in its probe of a news leak about the actor's 2006 arrest.

October 21, 2009|Richard Winton

The founder of TMZ.com has expressed outrage at revelations that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department obtained his telephone records as part of its investigation into who leaked information about actor-director Mel Gibson's drunk-driving arrest.

Harvey Levin, in his first remarks since a Times article revealed how sheriff's investigators obtained his phone records, said it was a violation of state and federal laws.

He also called it an abuse of power by a department embarrassed by TMZ's scoop of Gibson's profane and abusive behavior when he was arrested in Malibu in 2006.

"We are going to stand up not just for us but because it is the right thing to do. . . . It is outrageous what law enforcement has done here," Levin told a meeting of Radio & Television News Assn. members Monday night at UCLA. "I can only imagine the Pandora's box this is going to open up to find out what else has happened."

Levin said he had no idea that the records had been obtained from his phone provider until the article earlier this month, but he plans to take some sort of legal action.

"It is a fight about the 1st Amendment, a fight about democracy," he said. "It is a fight about the freedom of the press. It a fight about the abuse in law enforcement."

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said his department consulted a prosecutor before seeking the sealed search warrant. He noted that a judge approved the warrant and the department believed it acted lawfully.

"We believe the 1st Amendment is vital to keeping this country free," Whitmore said.

Levin declined to comment to The Times. But during an interview on KCRW-FM (89.9), Levin said he spoke to representatives of the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office and that "each kind of said the other was responsible."

Media law experts and journalism groups have expressed outrage that sheriff's investigators had obtained Levin's phone records during a leak investigation.

Sheriff's officials initially played down Gibson's arrest on July 28, 2006, saying it occurred "without incident." But a day later, TMZ posted a report about the actor's behavior. It detailed profane outbursts by Gibson, an attempt to escape custody and repeated threats against the arresting deputy.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

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