Internet Gossip Site Accused of Hiding Microphones in Court

     (CN) – A man who was accused of trying to extort Stevie Wonder has sued TMZ, claiming it hid microphones on the judge’s bench and at counsels’ table at his criminal hearing, to send privileged communications to the Internet gossip site.
     Alpha Walker sued TMZ Productions, EHM Productions, Time Warner and Christopher Manivong, in Los Angeles Federal Court.
     Manivong, the complaint states: “is a cameraman and media person who-working at the instruction of the other defendants-surreptitiously placed microphones on the judge’s bench and behind books at counsel table for both the prosecution and defense, enabling the secret recording of (a) privileged and off-the-record communications between counsel and the Court at sidebar; (b) privileged communications among Deputy District Attorney Frances Young and her colleagues relating to this and other matters; and (c) conversation between counsel for defendants directly related to potential defenses.”
     In the underlying case, Walker had falsely claimed to be Stevie Wonder’s nephew and threatened to sell false information about the singer unless he was paid $5 million, according to contemporary media reports.
     Walker, 38, pleaded no contest in September 2012 and was sentenced to 292 days in jail and released for time served, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
     His co-defendant girlfriend, Tamara Diaz, also 38, also was released for time served. They were arrested on May 2, 2012-two weeks before the hearing at issue.
     Wonder’s attorney told the Times that Walker had showed him video footage that allegedly depicted dilapidated conditions in the home of Wonder’s late mother; this apparently was the information Walker threatened to release. Diaz was nearby watching as Walker met Wonder’s attorney, the attorney told the Times.
     In addition to time served, a Superior Court judge in that case also ordered Walker to get mental health counseling and told Diaz she had to go to 78 Narcotics Anonymous meetings, according to the Times.
     In his federal complaint, Walker claims: “a plea was ultimately entered in this matter to a lesser charge, allowing for an immediate release and a reduction to a misdemeanor that would be expunged upon successful completion of probation.”
     Walker’s 25-page complaint includes a 14-page transcript of the May 16, 2012 Superior Court hearing on the attempted extortion charge.
     In the transcript, Judge Ray Jurado and attorneys discuss the discovery of the microphones, and ask Manivong to explain what the microphones were doing there.
     Deputy District Attorney Frances Young asks the court to confiscate all the microphones.
     Judge Jurado says: “I would like to state for the record that I was not aware of this microphone. Had I been aware, I would have made sure that it was either removed from the bench when we have sidebar conference or turned off or both. This will not happen again.”
     Walker’s attorney, Ian Wallach, with Feldman & Wallach, then says: “This will be the basis of a standing objection and the repeated objection related to the presence of the media. This is absolutely offensive.”
     After an off-the-record discussion, Judge Jurado says he has “just been made aware that there was, unbeknownst to counsel and the court, a microphone placed at counsel table. Counsel has a concern that audio may have been recorded of their discussions, which should not have been recorded at counsel table.”
     In response to a question from the judge, Young says, “It appears it [the microphone] was placed in a way that it wasn’t apparent. So, based on that, I don’t believe this particular organization-if you don’t confiscate the devices, I think we’d almost be, not condoning it, but it would be evidence of a crime, so that’s the basis for my request.”
     According to the transcript, Young continues: “I realize it’s an unusual request, but I also, in 16 years, have never-and I’ve done many media cases, never had a media organization surreptitiously record a bench officer, a D.A. and two defense attorneys.”
     Also present that day, for co-defendant Diaz, was Alternate Public Defender Alexander Sario.
     Judge Jurado asks Manivong, then 26, to identify himself and explain himself.
     Wallach asks the judge to order Manivong and TMZ not to broadcast anything he surreptitiously recorded. Wallach points out that if all counsel and the judge listen to what Manivong has recorded, the mere act of listening “is going to be damaging to the defense.”
     Jurado asks Manivong if there is “any reason” why he should not accede to Wallach’s request.
     Manivong claims that he turned the recording devices off “when you guys went on sidebar.” Manivong claims that “Procedure for many courts that I have recorded, whenever everyone goes up to the sidebar, everything goes off, nothing is recorded. …”
     The judge asks, “What about at counsel table?”
     Manivong replies, “Everything was low.”
     Wallach asks: “But is there information that-there is data that could turn into the substance of our conversation that someone could process and play and learn what was said, correct?”
     Manivong replies: “Unfortunately, due to law we’re not allowed to broadcast out. If it’s not on the record – “
     Wallach cuts him off: “That’s not my question. My question is does it exist; does the data exist? I believe the answer is, yes, it does.”
     Manivong denies it.
     Attorney Young enters the colloquy: “To protect the court, your honor, if I may. Because it’s the act of placing the devices that is the criminal conduct, whether or not it’s successful or not, my recommendation would be that we turn-you confiscate both devices, turn them over to the Sheriff’s Department, allow the Sheriff’s Department to conduct their own investigation as to whether or not anything was compromised …”
     After going off record to listen to and watch TMZ’s audio and video tapes in chambers, and returning to the record, Young calls Manivong and TMZ’s actions “illegal and underhanded.”
     Judge Jurado says that upon listening to the tapes, “there was no discernible voices that were audio recorded, at least with regard to the sidebar conference between the court and counsel. With regard to the microphone at counsel table there were also no recordings of discussions between counsel in this case on the tape. There is a brief moment when Mr. Walker was shown on the tape just prior to the court ruling that the media could be present in the courtroom.”
     Manivong recorded the videotape before the hearing began or as it began.
     Walker’s lawsuit against TMZ describes the events somewhat differently.
     The complaint states that he was appearing in Superior Court with co-defendant Diaz on charges that they “attempted to extort Steveland Morris, who is also known as ‘Stevie Wonder’ … During the hearing, the judge discovered that a microphone had been placed on a bench without his knowledge, and that privileged sidebar conversations had been recorded. It was then discovered that separate microphones had been hidden at both sides of counsel table, capturing privileged conversations of counsel for the prosecution and counsel for the defense. It was then learned that these privileged communications were instantaneously transferred to the headquarters of TMZ Enterprises, Inc, (‘TMZ’). The transcript of the proceedings-discussing these events-is attached hereto as Exhibit A.”
     Diaz is not a party to Walker’s complaint.
     In the complaint, Walker describes defendant EHM Productions as “an affiliate or owner of TMZ”, and defendant Time Warner as “an affiliate or owner of EHM and/or TMZ” which “maintains control over the conduct of TMZ”.
     Walker seeks an injunction and punitive damages for privacy invasion, wiretap violations, criminal violations, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
     The 57-page filing includes some correspondence between attorney Wallach and counsel for TMZ, in which TMZ’s attorney tells Wallach that she is “surprised and dismayed” by his characterization of what happened in court.

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