A judge ruled on Thursday that The Times could not be stopped from reporting on testimony from the top manager of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in a deposition for an open-government lawsuit.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin said that in asking the court to deny Times reporters access to the testimony and a prohibition against articles about it, the commission sought “essentially a gag order.”
“This is a public matter,” Lavin said of the lawsuit brought against the commission by The Times and a 1st Amendment group, Californians Aware.
At a deposition in March, the Coliseum’s interim general manager, John Sandbrook, objected to the presence of reporters, refused to answer questions and walked out of the proceeding at a downtown law firm. Lavin’s order means the deposition is to continue and The Times may cover it.
The lawsuit accuses the commission of illegally withholding records from the public and violating state law by conducting months of secret deliberations on a stadium lease with USC. The agency — made up of representatives of the city, county and state — denies the allegations.
The commission sought the new lease with USC, whose football team plays at the taxpayer-owned Coliseum, after a corruption scandal led to criminal charges against five former stadium employees and three people who did business with the venue. The criminal investigation grew out of Times articles in 2011.
During Thursday’s court session, commission attorney Deborah Fox argued that the attendance of reporters at Sandbrook’s deposition was an abuse of the evidence-gathering process, known as discovery. Fox also objected to the scope and breadth of the discovery, saying it was excessive.
Referring to Fox, Times attorney Kelli Sager told the judge, “The only thing she cared about … was to prevent the L.A. Times from reporting.”
Sager said the commission’s motion was “all about the suppression of information” and a “pretext for suspending the deposition.”
Lavin said the “fact that Mr. Sandbrook may not like an article that the Los Angeles Times writes about him” was not a reason to exclude reporters from the deposition.
In his written order, the judge referred to the public’s interest in the lawsuit and noted that the Coliseum, the site of two Summer Olympics, is “an important landmark with cultural and historic significance.”
Lavin denied The Times’ request that the commission pay the news organization’s legal fees in the deposition dispute. He also declined to grant the commission a 30-day stay of his ruling.
Sandbrook did not respond to an interview request.