Harvey Levin to sheriff: Fight's on

Venting in depth for the first time about official prying into his personal phone records, TMZ editor Harvey Levin tonight called it an illegal abuse of power — "a brutal assault on freedom of the press" — for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office to obtain a search warrant after the department felt embarrassed by TMZ's scoops on the 2006 arrest of Mel Gibson. At the time, the sheriff's department told the media that Gibson was booked without incident. TMZ, however, reported — accurately — that Gibson had become abusive and profane, and more significantly that the arresting deputy was ordered to lie on the arrest report.

The sheriffs' dishonesty then "was indefensible, it was corrupt," Levin told the Radio & Television News Association, whose members met tonight at UCLA. But then, Levin said, he was stunned and outraged to learn this month, from the L.A. Times, that the sheriff got his phone records to pursue an internal investigation into the deputy. Levin suggested, ominously, that he has information indicating it has become standard procedure for the sheriff's office to get reporters' phone records.

It breaks federal law, it breaks state law...I have reason now to believe they have done it again...to reporters. This is like Chinatown. It is disgusting...

We have met with lawyers and we are charting our course of action. This is not going to go away [and] I can only imagine the Pandora's Box that will open up....

We are going to fight...it's just stunning this can happen in 2009....This really caught us off guard. We didn't have an inkling. It's taken a week to get our bearings.

Levin said, by the way, that the sheriff has not tried to argue that he isn't a journalist or that TMZ isn't a bona fide news organization. "TMZ has broken thousands of stories in four years," Levin said. He called on the RTNA to protest the action, and the group gave him a big round of applause. "It's an attack on the media and it's our job to call them on it," said Jose Rios, VP for news at Fox 11, who was on a panel with Levin.

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