On Sunday, December 15, civil rights attorney Ron Kaye sent a letter to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva informing him of what Kaye described as “unlawful conduct” on the part of an LA County Sheriff’s sergeant who, among other things, Kaye wrote, violated “federal constitutional law.”
The sergeant whom Kaye named in the letter, which was also sent to the LA County Board of Supervisors, and LA District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, is an LASD homicide investigator named Richard Biddle.
Biddle has reportedly launched a criminal investigation into actions by Scott Budnick, a well-known film producer turned justice advocate, plus two highly-respected defense attorneys, Blair Berk and Michael Cavalluzzi.
According to the LA Times, in a May 8 public report authored by Biddle, the sergeant initiated a criminal investigation alleging that the three variously criminally tampered with a witness’s actions, conspired to obstruct justice, destroyed or concealed evidence, and engaged in various other potentially criminal and unethical actions.
Kaye, who is representing Budnick and the attorneys, wrote in his letter to Villanueva that because of his clients’ “successful advocacy” for a young man charged with a serious crime, Biddle “has made numerous false allegations, without any legal basis,” and has “abused the legal process” to obtain a warrant to access Budnick and company’s “confidential documents and private communications” that, according to Kaye, was only one component of Sergeant Biddle’s “campaign of harassment.”
At the letter’s end, Kaye expressed his office’s “sincere hope” that the department Sheriff Villanueva leads will open an Internal Affairs investigation into Sergeant Biddle’s “misconduct,” and will also “restrain” him from continuing to engage in any additional “unconstitutional behavior.”
On the other hand, many of those who’ve known Biddle for years say he’s a straight shooter who cares deeply about every case he approaches.
So what exactly is going on?
A devastating murder
The crime that began this story is terrible and tragic.
In November 2015, Downey Police Officer Ricardo Galvez, 29, a Marine who was well-liked in the department, and whose two sisters and a brother also worked for Downey police, was shot and killed in the course of a botched robbery. At the time, Galvez was off duty and in plain clothes, sitting in his BMW, having just finished a K-9 training.
After the shooting, police arrested two young men, 18 and 21, plus a 16-year-old boy for the crime, much of which was caught on various surveillance videos.
The 16-year-old was named Abel Diaz, and was originally set to be tried as an adult for the murder. Although he had no direct part in the shooting, and reportedly was not in possession of a weapon, under what was at the time the felony murder rule, Diaz could be convicted of the killing of Officer Galvez, just as if he planned the act and pulled the trigger.
When Diaz was waiting for his case to make its way through the adult justice system, he was housed at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar where well-known film producer-turned-justice-advocate, Budnick, taught a once-a-week writing class.
Before his advocacy, Budnick was best known as the executive producer of the funny, raunchy, and stratospherically-grossing Hangover trilogy. The three movies mostly made money for other people, not Budnick himself, but they put him irrevocably on the Hollywood map.
Yet, as his interest in justice issues deepened, for around half a decade Budnick quit his Hollywood career altogether to spend nearly all of his waking hours as one of the state’s most effective prison and juvenile justice reform activists.
Among other things, Budnick founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition — ARC — a nonprofit dedicated to helping men and women transition out of lock-up to a successful life outside. He helped get better college programs into some of the state’s prisons. He was named a Champion of Change by the Obama administration. Jerry Brown named him the volunteer of the year in 2012. And he was appointed to the state’s powerful Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) in 2013, where he is now the co-chair. Recently, Budnick has waded back into filmmaking by creating a new production entity under the banner One Community. Its first project is the Warner Bros. film Just Mercy, based on the work of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson.
Yet, through it all, Budnick kept teaching every Saturday at Barry J, as the Sylmar juvenile hall is known, through the nonprofit “InsideOutWriters.” There and elsewhere he made a habit of mentoring young people he felt had demonstrated particular promise, but whom the justice system seemed determined to throw away.
(WitnessLA wrote about such a case here.)
Abel Diaz was one of those kids. Thus, when Diaz’s first attorney from the alternate public defender’s office reportedly failed to show up for several court dates, Budnick recommended a couple of well-known and highly respected defense lawyers who offered to take his case pro-bono.
In most people’s world, such help with an attorney is known as a referral. Yet, this appears to be one of the actions that have become a part of Sergeant Biddle’s investigation of Budnick.
With the new attorneys, the Los Angeles D.A.’s office more fully analyzed Diaz’s case and offered him a deal. In December 2018, Diaz pleaded guilty to one count each of murder, robbery, and attempted robbery, and admitted in detail to his part in the botched robbery that resulted in Officer Galvez’s murder. In return, he was sent to California’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) for his sentence and kept out of adult court, where he could have received a life term in adult prison.
Instead, Diaz will be eligible for release when he’s 25.
According to Kaye’s letter, Diaz reportedly has used his time well, becoming the first young person in the history of LA County Probation* to get both his high school diploma while locked up, but also an Associate of Arts college degree.
Yet, not everyone viewed his sentence as a good or just outcome.
Secret moves and “unfettered” access
Along with his letter to the sheriff, Kaye attached two motions recently filed by attorneys Alan Jackson, who is Budnick’s criminal defense lawyer, hired in response to Biddle’s filing of a criminal investigation, and Alan Eisner, who represents Diaz’s brother, having to do with another part of the labyrinthine weave of actions that are reportedly part of Biddle’s investigation.
In early July Biddle delivered a new report, in which he accused Budnick and the two attorneys of “dissuasion” of a witness, conspiracy to destroy or conceal evidence, conspiracy to provide false testimony, and more.
Jackson’s motion requested the court to unseal the underlying documents Biddle has used to file for several very broad search warrants designed to delve into the work and lives of Budnick and Diaz’s two attorneys, Blair Berk and Michael Cavalluzzi.
In the text of the motions, Jackson and Eisner list their own allegations about Biddle’s actions.
For example, one of the motions describes how on June 25, 2019, without notifying Abel Diaz’s attorneys, Sergeant Biddle and his partner, Sergeant Howard Cooper, personally removed Diaz from his placement at the DJJ facility and transported him to LA County’s Men’s Central Jail, where he was placed in solitary confinement.
Much later, Diaz’s attorneys were told that the young man’s secret transfer was for the purpose of testifying as a prosecution witness in the trial of his former adult co-defendants — never mind that, as the attorneys would find out, the trial was not at all ready to proceed.
Both Jackson and Eisner described the decision to secretly transfer Diaz to adult jail as “particularly concerning” because Diaz and his family members had reportedly received “credible threats” from members of 18th Street gang. This meant, Jackson wrote, that if Diaz were to be released unprotected into the jail’s general population, his life would be at risk because, due to statements he originally made to the police, he was labeled a snitch.
(After bringing the situation to the attention of a judge, attorneys Berk and Cavalluzzi were able to get Diaz placed back at DJJ.)
The motions also detail how on April 3, a search warrant granted to Biddle allowed the sergeant to order Google, Inc. to produce all records associated with Budnick’s Google account “with no limitation as to time or scope.” According to the motion, the warrant gave the sergeant “unfettered access to all of Mr. Budnick’s emails and correspondences,” a record of every physical place he visited while carrying an electronic device, all of his internet search histories, all documents he created, every photograph he took, every email from the date his account was created, his Google wallet information, and all passwords associated with the account.
One of the odder of Biddle’s accusations was against the two attorneys alleging that they committed “witness intimidation” by advising their own client regarding whether he had a continuing Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, should he have to testify in another trial.
The examples of actions and allegations by Sergeant Biddle go on from there.
“Sergeant Biddle’s personal vendetta against juvenile justice advocate Scott Budnick and attorneys representing Diaz has spun out of control,” wrote Jackson. “As retribution for seeking and procuring a fair and just outcome for Diaz, Sergeant Biddle has self-authored baseless reports and affidavits accusing those associated with Diaz of unethical and criminal conduct.”
This conduct, he said, is a “ham-handed attempt to send a very clear and unambiguous message: ‘Defend those that Sergeant Biddle deems prosecution-worthy and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department will come after you.'”
Yet, while an array of defense attorneys who’ve reviewed the paperwork told us they found Biddle’s conduct “disturbing,” and other terms to that effect, Deputy District Attorney Michael Blake, who was the DDA who prosecuted Diaz’s case, told the LA Times he did not believe Biddle’s actions were retaliatory.
Instead, Blake described Biddle and his partner, Sergeant Cooper, as having performed “impeccably and with extreme professionalism.”
Not surprisingly, Ron Kaye disagreed with this characterization.
“Scott Budnick has committed his life to reducing crime, reducing recidivism, and has a track record that is extremely effective,” Kaye told WLA. His work has been lauded by two governors, Kaye said, meaning former Governor Jerry Brown and Governor Gavin Newsom.
Now, this sergeant who didn’t like the outcome of a case “is portraying him as a criminal who is acting in a surreptitious way against the good of our county.”
What Biddle is doing, said Kaye, “risks having a chilling effect” not just on Budnick’s efforts,” but on the efforts of others who are working to create a better society.”
In response to our request for the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s position on Sergeant Biddle’s actions, and on the letter from Ron Kaye, the LASD gave WitnessLA the following statement from Sheriff Villanueva:
“There were two search warrants sought for probable cause which were approved by a judge,” Villanueva wrote. “The information obtained is being reviewed as part of the ongoing legal process.”
We have yet to see what material Biddle gave the judge in order to get his search warrants as, until now, those documents have been either sealed or unavailable
Yet we just learned that the Budnick, et al, search warrant filings have been unsealed — or are about to be unsealed. When they become available, we’ll let you know.
Top photo courtesy of CDCR.
*Editor’s Note: Abel Diaz got his high school diploma and his AA degree while still under the care of Los Angeles County Probation, not the Department of Juvenile Justice. (Correction made on Dec. 18, 2019, 10:30 a.m.)