Judge Vacates Order Requiring Newspaper to Alter Article in Gang Case

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A federal judge today lifted his previous order requiring the Los Angeles Times to remove information from an article that gave details of a plea agreement between prosecutors and a Glendale police detective who admitted lying to investigators about his ties to organized crime.

The plea agreement between prosecutors and detective John Saro Balian was supposed to have been filed under seal, but it was mistakenly made available Friday on PACER, a public online database for federal court documents.

On Saturday, The Times published an article about the plea deal that included what U.S. District Judge John F. Walter called ``sensitive information” that could possibly result in harm to Balian or his family. Walter quickly granted a defense attorney's request for a temporary injunction barring the publication of information from the document. The Times complied, but challenged the order.

In court Tuesday, Balian's attorney, Craig H. Missakian, said, ``The damage has essentially been done,” adding that once the article was posted, nobody can ``unring that bell.”

Walter said when he issued the order Saturday, he did not know how The Times reporter had obtained what was ostensibly a sealed document.

"It was inconceivable to me that a document that appears on PACER as sealed” could be viewed by the public, the judge said from the bench. ``I didn't know how that could possibly happen.”

It wasn't until he investigated the matter Monday that he determined a processing error by a docketing clerk had left the document unsealed -- although the docket itself clearly stated the plea agreement was filed under seal.

"It was an issue that caused me a great deal of concern on Saturday morning,” Walter said, adding that he was ``terribly concerned that the disclosure ... would result in serious physical harm to the defendant or members of his family.”

Walter said that while he believes that prior restraint should be used only in extraordinary circumstances, he concluded that ``a life or possibly lives were at risk” as a result of the disclosures.

He said he was doubly concerned when told of ``efforts taken to protect the defendant.”

The judge said he did not ``necessarily” agree that a news reporter should ``exploit” a mistake by a clerk, particularly when the reporter was aware of the possible danger that could result from publication.

Walter said the Times reporter -- Alene Tchekmedyian -- acknowledged in a telephone call to a defense attorney Friday night that she knew the plea agreement had been filed under seal, but apparently had no intention of waiting to publish.

Missakian said The Times had been ``reckless” in publishing information that had been sealed for good reason. He added that when the article was published, steps were taken to protect his client, who is in custody pending his September sentencing.

Kelli Sager, a lawyer for The Times, said she disagrees with ``the suggestion” by Missakian that the paper acted recklessly.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement Monday in support of The Times, saying, ``It does not matter whether the information was placed in a court file by mistake, 90 years of legal precedent says that the court cannot prevent a news organization from doing its job and reporting the information to the public.”

The committee filed a petition with an appeals court Monday on behalf of 59 media outlets in support of The Times.

Balian pleaded guilty Thursday to three counts: lying to federal investigators about his links to organized crime, accepting a bribe and obstructing justice by tipping off a top criminal target about an upcoming federal raid.

When Balian was arrested in May, federal prosecutors said the detective -- who is on unpaid leave from the department -- made false statements while being questioned by investigators about suspected ties to the Mexican Mafia and Armenian organized crime and lied about his ties to gang member Jose Loza, described as a Mexican Mafia member and shot caller for the Canta Ranas street gang.

Loza, who is facing federal racketeering charges, communicated with Balian, who used a so-called burner phone to discuss criminal activities, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Balian took money from an informant and had ``relationships with several Hispanic gang members.”

Balian not only knew Hispanic gang members, including Loza, he also texted them, provided them pre-paid cellular phones, and met with them in person, prosecutors said.

Photo: Getty Images

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