Alex Villanueva

Are Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s “criminal investigations” of so-called adversaries chilling oversight of the LASD? A report says yes.

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

An alarming new report was introduced during the last few minutes of  the virtual meeting of the sheriffs Civilian Oversight Commission on Thursday, July 15.

The ten-page report, written by Sean Kennedy, a member of the COC, describes how, in the last 24 months, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, with the help certain members of his administration, targets oversight officials and  other “perceived political adversaries,”  with what seem to be specious criminal investigations that never result in actual charges.

(You can read the report for yourself here: LASD Investigations of Oversight Officials.)

The report was actually completed on May 27 but, perplexingly, despite the obvious relevance of the topic, was never agendized to be introduced at a COC meeting until this week.  And even so, the topic was called only as the commission was nearly out of time.

The report was introduced by COC member Robert Bonner, arguably the commission’s most conservative member, but also the most experienced when it comes to law enforcement.

(In his past, Bonner was a U.S. District Judge for the Central District, and the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), appointed to the post in 1990, by George H. W. Bush. In 2001, post 9/11, George W. Bush appointed Bonner to head up the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He is also a former U.S. Attorney, and a former prosecutor.)

On Thursday, Bonner seemed determined to squeeze in at least a short discussion of the document he characterized as laying out “the sheriff’s apparent pattern of attacking those who have oversight responsibilities over him.”

Bonner also moved that the commission issue a subpoena to cause the sheriff to “appear personally” at the COC’s next regularly scheduled meeting, in order to answer questions “about his conduct,” which the report describes.

“If you’re being bullied, you need to call out the bully,” Bonner said.

After Bonner finished, it was Kennedy’s turn to talk.

“Since August 12, 2019,” he said, the sheriff has “been announcing investigations into various government heads who have been involved in oversight,” including budgetary oversight.

“I have been a criminal lawyer for over 30 years,” Kennedy continued, “and I’m just not used to law enforcement announcing ongoing investigations.”  Traditionally, cops make an announcement, “after they’ve arrested and charged someone.”

But these announcements by the head of the nation’s largest county sheriff’s department, according to Kennedy and his report, seemed to have an extra purpose, which concerned him,  Kennedy said, because of the “effect” of the pattern of announcing this string of criminal probes.

“It chills oversight.”

And that’s not good.

The sheriff’s actions he said, convey “a message that there’s a price to be paid for carrying out the core mission of this commission.”  If the matter persists, Kennedy had noted earlier, it risked reducing the COC to “oversight theater.”

Yet, despite the series of dramatic announcements,  by Villanueva and company, of alleged wrongdoing, “none of the targets of these so-called investigations, has ever been charged with any criminal offenses,” said Kennedy.

The supposed evidence — or lack thereof — raises “serious questions about the motives for” and legitimacy of “these ultimately fruitless investigations,” according to Kennedy, whose day job is as an associate clinical professor at Loyola School of Law, and the executive director for Loyola’s Center for Juvenile Law & Policy.

The empire strikes back

As luck would have it, on July 14, the day before this week’s COC meeting, Kennedy’s thesis that the sheriff was engaged in a purposeful strategy of intimidation and threat-making, was re-illustrated by a fury-laced letter sent by the sheriff to Kennedy and the COC, in response to the memo.

(WitnessLA has obtained the sheriff’s letter, which you can read here.)

The response from Villanueva, which was also signed by LASD Undersheriff, Tim Murakami, first accuses Kennedy of slander, and of “skirting numerous rules of conduct prohibited by the [California] bar.”

Then the sheriff alleges that the COC is simply aiding Inspector General Huntsman by trying — illegally — to get information on “active criminal investigations” the department is conducting.  (It isn’t clear what investigations he means, unless it’s the “investigations” over oversight figures that Kennedy outlines in his memo.)

The Villanueva/Murakami letter follows-up by stating that Kennedy is getting most of his information from sources that have “no  basis in fact” other than being “published on the internet.”  To expand on this point, the letter name checks the LA Times, WitnessLA, LAist, La Opinión, ABC 7, and a few others.

Elsewhere in the letter, the sheriff mentions an unnamed department member who, because of the report, was “seeking counsel” and considering a civil lawsuit against Kennedy and the COC.

So what exactly is in this report that has induced such a reaction from the sheriff?

Here are some examples.

Investigating the investigator

The earliest, and still one of the most troubling of the supposed criminal probes launched by the sheriff listed in the memo, occurred in mid August 2019,  when LASD Undersheriff Murakami sent a memo to the LA County Board of Supervisors, announcing that the department had opened a “criminal investigation” into Inspector General Max Huntsman, for accessing and reviewing confidential personnel files in the course of conducting oversight of the department.

Murakami also listed additional forms of lawbreaking, including conspiracy, theft of government property,  burglary, and more– never mind that the “confidential files,” et al, that the inspector was accused of having stolen were files and material that he and his office had been permitted to access during the administration of former sheriff Jim McDonnell, and during the early months of Villanueva’s time in office.

Murakami also suggested that the FBI was assisting the LASD in criminally investigating Huntsman.

(According to Kennedy, who was, for eight years, the federal public defender for the Central District of California, no “representative of the FBI has ever confirmed that claim.”)

Furthermore, the announcement of the investigation came after the Office of the Inspector General released an exhaustively researched analysis of Villanueva’s controversial re-hiring of former deputy Carl Mandoyan.

A month prior to the release of the OIG’s report, however, Huntsman met with the sheriff about some other issues,  at which time Villanueva issued a threat. If Huntsman released the Mandoyan report, there would be “consequences,” the sheriff reportedly said.

A month later, Huntsman released the report.

A month after that, the undersheriff announced that the department was investigating Max Huntsman for criminal acts.

Attacking the County CEO

The pattern of intimidation also applied to fiscal oversight of the department, according to the report.

On March 30, 2020, during the early months of COVID, the sheriff appeared to put then County CEO Sachi Hamai on his enemies list, when the board of supervisors voted unanimously to put Hamai in charge of disaster preparedness and response, not Villanueva. He reportedly retaliated by claiming — falsely — that the CEO and her office intended to deny first responders their salaries when they were COVID-19 quarantined, causing Hamai to get threats of physical harm.

In early July 2020, the sheriff’s irritation with the CEO appeared to ratchet up to a greater enmity, when Hamai announced pandemic-forced cuts in the LASD’s budget, (along with similar cuts to the budgets of all other major county agencies).

The announced cuts produced a very public fight, in which Villanueva made a series of accusations pertaining to critical programs he said the CEO intended to cut, accusations that Hamai quickly and handily demonstrated to be false.  (WLA reported on that particular incident here.)

On July 22, 2020, a few weeks after this public discussion,  Sheriff Villanueva referenced Hamai’s participation as a volunteer board member of the United Way-Los Angeles during one of his Facebook Live sessions,  announcing that Hamai was committing a felony by supposedly enriching herself when the county granted a public contract to the United Way, in alleged violation of a particular government code.

The sheriff then announced he had reported Hamai in a letter to the Attorney General’s office for “criminal inquiry,” never mind that Hamai received no personal remuneration as board member, didn’t stand to gain from the situation, and according to Kennedy’s memo, had violated exactly zero government codes.

Finally, Hamai threatened to sue for defamation and a “toxic work environment created by a fellow department head,” but  instead settled with the county for $1.5 million and an agreement to provide security for her and her family.

The odd probe of “Peace over Violence”  

In February 2021, the sheriff and the LASD moved on to investigating Patti Giggans, a COC commissioner who had just completed two terms as the chair of the COC, and had at times been critical of the sheriff in the course of her work as a commissioner.

Regarding Giggins, Kennedy’s report describes how Villanueva announced that the sheriff’s department had executed search warrants on LA Metro and the non-profit, Peace over Violence, of which Giggins is the longtime executive director.

The searches were said to be a part of a “criminal investigation” regarding contractual services that Peace over Violence provided to subway riders who been harassed or assaulted during transit.   (Peace over Violence is, according to its mission statement, “dedicated to building healthy relationships, family, and communities free from sexual, domestic and interpersonal violence.”)

Again, the supposed criminal investigation, according to the memo,  appears to have come to nothing.  But, the search and the warrents have reportedly had their effect.

Weaponized investigating 

A month after the investigation of Peace over Violence, another “weaponized “investigation occurred in early March 2021, in the form of a probe by the sheriff’s department into the “social media accounts and online presence,” of Esther Lim, who was formerly the ACLU’s court-sanctioned jails’ monitor.

The well-respected Lim now holds the post of justice deputy for Supervisor Hilda Solis, and the sheriff has purportedly disagreed with some of Lim’s social media postings of the past, well prior to her new post with Solis, hence the drill down. (It may not have helped that Solis has been critical of the sheriff and his stand on deputy gangs.)

Sometimes Villanueva’s threats and/or allegations seemed to be habitual knee-jerk pronouncements made in a passing public moment after someone irritated him.

One example occurred at an April 2020 board meeting during which Villanueva announced that he, “…could go on for a long, long time about a long list of felony crimes and the consequences of them—and they’re done by public officials.”

In response to the remark, Supervisor Kathryn Barger asked the sheriff if he was making a “veiled threat.”

Villanueva did not retract his melodramatic claim, nor did he elaborate further regarding who exactly in county government had been engaging in all these felonious activities.

Signs and signals

Other times the threats and/or investigations  appeared to aimed at liberal-leaning non-public figures who were perceived to have crossed the department, such as the announcement by the LASD in late 2019, that the department had opened a criminal investigation into the actions of Scott Budnick, a well-known film producer turned well-known youth justice advocate, along with two highly-respected defense attorneys, Blair Berk and Michael Cavalluzzi.

(WLA reported on that particular investigation here, which — as the memo points out — again came to nothing.)

In another instance that appeared to be designed to intimidate,  according to Kennedy, the sheriff announced where four of the COC commissioners lived and listed the dollar value of their homes, explaining that these commissioners were “elites” who don’t care about working people, or words to that general effect.

This was also done, Kennedy said,  “to signal to all the commissioners that he is investigating our personal lives.”

A range of such signals appear to be ongoing.

On Wednesday, June 30, for example, Villanueva delivered his weekly live Facebook/Instagram broadcast in which he was  critical of the members of the board of supervisors, whom he urged to do their jobs, and other sentiments to that effect.

“But sometimes they just need to be taken to the shed and beat down,” Villanueva said after his torrent of criticism.  “I’m speaking hypothetically, obviously,” he added, with an eye roll.

It was an odd image to conjure regarding one’s “hypothetical” thoughts about a local government board made up of five women, one of them a Latina, another a Black woman.

So now what?

“While these heavily publicized criminal investigations have never resulted in the filing of any criminal charges,” Kennedy wrote in the memo, ” the targeted officials remain obligated to conduct oversight of the department with a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.”

The likelihood, he said,  “is high that such investigations have chilled meaningful civilian oversight of the LASD.”

At Thursday’s meeting, COC commissioner Priscilla Ocen, also a professor of law at Loyola Law School,  expressed a sentiment that most on the commission seemed to be feeling.

“We should protect folks who are volunteering their time, volunteering their talent and resources,” she said.  Ocen said she hoped the board of supervisors would provide protection for those who are being intimidated.  And that there are others who needed to be invited into the process to help  “handle this ongoing harassment and intimidation.”

Kennedy’s memo was more specific.

“To date,” he wrote,  “the COC has remained silent in the face of substantial evidence” that the sheriff is “engaging in extortion or some other abuse of power. The COC should request an independent investigation by an entity unaffected by the announced investigations, such as the Office of the California Attorney General or the U.S. Department of Justice.”

Good idea.  The sooner the better.