Los Angeles detectives are investigating whether a recording last year that captured city councilmembers' racist remarks was made illegally, the police chief said Tuesday.
The recording's disclosure earlier this month unleashed a growing scandal in the nation's second-largest city just weeks before Election Day. The councilmembers' bigoted discussion — laden with crude insults — laid bare the unequal representation and divided political power along racial lines in Los Angeles.
The uproar began with the release nearly two weeks ago of a previously unknown recording of a 2021 private meeting involving Martinez and Councilmen Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, as well as powerful labor leader Ron Hererra, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
"The department has initiated a criminal investigation into an allegation of eavesdropping," Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said Tuesday during a media availability in response to a question from The Associated Press.
The group, all Latino Democrats, was captured on the recording scheming to protect their political clout in the redrawing of council districts during an hourlong, closed-door meeting that was laced with bigoted comments. They used racist language to mock colleagues — as well as one councilman's young Black son — while they planned to protect Latino political strength in council districts.
It's not known who made the tape, or why.
Under California law, all parties must consent to the recording of a private conversation or phone call. Otherwise, the person who made the recording could face criminal and civil penalties. The state's wiretapping statutes are among the strongest in the nation and allow the "injured party" — the person being recorded without their permission — to sue.
Martinez, de León, Cedillo and Herrera approached the Los Angeles Police Department on Friday — more than two weeks after the recording, which had been posted on Reddit, was first reported by the Los Angeles Times — and asked for the agency to open an investigation, Moore said.
"This (request) was done by the principals — this wasn't done through some intermediary or otherwise," he added.
Detectives have since interviewed the group about why they believe the recording was made "unlawfully and surreptitiously," the chief said.
But Pete Brown, a spokesperson for de León, said Tuesday night that the councilman had not been involved in the report to police and had not been interviewed by detectives.
"Councilmember de León did not make a request for an investigation," Brown told AP hours after Moore said that all four had been involved.
Martinez's spokesperson during her time in office did not immediately respond to requests for comment late Tuesday, nor did a spokesperson for Cedillo or the county labor federation.
The labor federation previously called the leak of the recording illegal and unsuccessfully attempted to halt the LA Times' publication of the discussion's details.
No suspects have been identified, Moore said.
"We'll also look, as far as possible, to understand how such a recording was made and identify, if possible, the person or persons responsible," he said.
Detectives will consult with the city attorney — whose office handles misdemeanors — and county prosecutors for felony charges if needed, the chief said.
Other questions remain about what the investigation could entail and whether other recordings were made at the labor federation's headquarters.
The state is separately investigating how the council districts were drawn and whether the process was rigged. Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat, has said his investigation could lead to civil liability or criminal charges, depending on what is found.
The fallout has left City Hall in turmoil and President Joe Biden has called on de León and Cedillo to step down. Noisy protesters at City Council meetings have provided a steady backdrop of chants and shouting as they try to increase pressure on the duo to resign.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.