A new whistleblower lawsuit against the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in general, and Sheriff Alex Villanueva specifically, was filed Tuesday morning in behalf of Sergeant Vanessa Chow.
It begins like this:
“Routine retaliation against whistleblowers did not start in LASD with the current sheriff, Alex Villanueva. Former sheriff Lee Baca and former undersheriff Paul Tanaka both served prison terms. But Villanueva has picked up the torch and has taken retaliation against whistleblowers to a whole other level.
“Sheriff Villanueva has held himself out as above the law and immune to accountability, with leadership operating with the lack of transparency and audacity of a third world dictatorship and evading any oversight.”
Chow, like a list of recent whistleblowers, is bringing the lawsuit because of the retaliation she has experienced simply, it appears, for having done her job correctly and professionally.
According to Tuesday’s 54-page complaint, written by civil rights attorney Vincent Miller, the retaliation took a variety of forms, including allegedly having Chow’s test score altered downward when she took the lieutenant’s exam at the urging of one of her superiors in the department.
The alleged sabotage was reportedly done by a Villanueva accolite, Captain Yvonne O’Brien, who is also known to be quite close to the sheriff’s wife, Vivian Villanueva. O’Brien’s reported involvement with the alleged rigging of departmental promotions based on favoritism and/or retaliation, is an issue WLA has written about before.
According to WitnessLA’s sources, Chow is considered to be intelligent, professional, ethical, with expertise in handling complex tasks.
Sergeant Vanessa Chow is married to Sergeant Jefferson Chow, another department member who, by doing his job, has also become the focus of retaliation by the sheriff.
As readers may remember, it was Jefferson Chow, a 26-year veteran of the LA County Sheriff’s Department, who was the lead investigator for the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, or ICIB, on the notorious Kennedy Hall case. This was a violent incident that involved three admitted shot callers for the deputy clique known as the Banditos, which operates out of the East LA Station.
We’ll get to more details of the reported retaliation against Vanessa Chow in a minute.
But, first it helps to know that in October 2018, a few weeks before the November election that would result in Alex Villanueva defeating incumbent sheriff Jim McDonnell, Sergeant Vanessa Chow was selected by then Sheriff Jim McDonnell to be the sheriff ‘s liaison to the Board of Supervisors, a career path that she was given to believe would allow her to be “mentored and groomed for promotion and to advance in the ranks of the LASD.”
But with the arrival of the new sheriff who defeated the incumbent McDonnell in a surprise victory, mentoring, promotions and advancement turned out not to be in the cards for Sgt. Chow, according to the new civil rights filing, despite the quality of her work.
Although Villanueva didn’t select Vanessa Chow for the board liaison position, once he became the sheriff, it was reportedly part of Chow’s job was to regularly interact with the new sheriff and his inner circle, as well as with the members of the LA County Board of Supervisors, their respective staffs, and the County CEO’s office.
The result, according to today’s legal filing, is that Sergeant Chow was witness to a variety of “acts of corruption by the sheriff,” as well as an impressive amount of incompetence at the top rungs of the nation’s largest sheriff department.
Chow’s problems with the new sheriff began when she was approached by someone in the LASD’s “budget department,” who asked her to deliver some budget related paperwork to the sheriff.
The sheriff wasn’t in his office, so Chow spoke instead to then-Chief of Staff Larry Del Mese, explaining that she’d been asked to deliver the department’s annual budget request to the county CEO and the board of supervisors.
The paperwork was also to include a list of the LASD’s budget priorities.
She needed a “wish list,” is the way Chow described the matter to Del Mese
Chow explained to the chief of staff that the paperwork she was delivering was in fact a condensed version of a far more comprehensive budget binder that had evidently been delivered to the sheriff months earlier for him to study and review, then make recommendations.
Villanueva was still new to the job. Furthermore, prior to being elected, he had never climbed higher on the LASD the food chain than the position of lieutenant, so he was presumably unfamiliar with dealing with the department’s approximately $3.5 billion budget, which obviously contained a great many complexities.
According to Chow, Del Mese pointed to a thick and dust-covered item in corner of his bookcase, which was the full budget the sheriff had been sent months before and, as Del Mese suggested, never read.
“The Sheriff and I do not know a f*** about budgets,” he reportedly told her.
Therefore, he said, one of the department’s civilian budget people should meet with-then CEO Sachi Hamai about all this budget business.
According to Chow, she attempted to explain to Del Mese that, traditionally, the sheriff is the one who meets directly with the CEO “in order to defend the department’s need for a healthy budget.”
They could do mock meetings to prep the Sheriff, if that would help, she told the chief of staff.
Del Mese told Chow that the Sheriff couldn’t meet with the CEO because he was “doing a TV or radio interview and didn’t have time.’
Why the sheriff could meet with the CEO some other time when he wasn’t giving interviews was not clear.
Not dealing with the budget, and the avoidance of interacting with members of the Board of Supervisors, was to become a problematic pattern.
Much later, according to Chow, when the sheriff “saw that he was not getting his budget priorities met,” rather than belatedly meeting with the CEO, and the board, the sheriff instead resorted to a series of public threats.
For instance, during the period of the 2020 COVID budget cuts, Undersheriff Tim Murakami told Chow that Villanueva would be holding a press conference to announce he was going to be closing patrol stations and discontinuing critical programs due to the budget slashing by the Board of Supervisors, which in fact was affecting nearly all the county’s agencies, not just the LASD.
According to Chow, Murakami went on to describe how the sheriff and his inner circle had been brainstorming to decide what stations and programs that Villanueva would “pretend they would close.”
The idea was to threaten to discontinue programs that the Supes cared about “in order to strong arm them into increasing the budget.”
On the faux closure list was the Marina Del Rey station, Youth Programs, Special Victims, and the department’s Parks Bureau, among others, according to Chow.
As WitnessLA has previously reported, the sheriff did exactly what Chow described. In late July 2020, the sheriff put out a statement describing an array of cuts that he said the supervisors were making to programs, cuts that neither the board nor the CEO had, in fact, threatened to make at all.
Then, two days later still, on June 29, 2020, the morning of the board’s budget meeting, Villanueva held another press conference, at which he upped the emotional ante.
Within an hour of the press conference, Sgt. Chow, who was still the liaison to the Supes, received a call from the justice deputy of then board Chair Supervisor Kathryn Barger. The justice deputy requested a meeting with the LASD’s budget people in order to go over the department’s budget numbers and most critical needs.
Chow informed then chief of staff, John Burcher, of the request. Burcher told her to discuss it with the sheriff.
In Tuesday’s filing, Chow describes walking into an executive conference room where she saw Sheriff Villanueva, Assistant Sheriff Steven Gross, and others. In addition, Undersheriff Murakami was in attendance via speaker phone.
According to Chow, Steven Gross, who was sitting to the left of the Sheriff, said that the supervisors needed to call the sheriff “begging him not to close any stations” because Villanueva was going to “sit back and wait for the Supervisors to call him and throw themselves at the Sheriff’s feet and beg.”
Chow describes having witnessed as each member of the board reached out to the sheriff multiple times, inviting him to events in their districts. Yet, each time the Sheriff would resist, as he continued to bash the board and its individual members on social media.
To Sgt. Chow he opined that the board “could go F*** themselves,” for not endorsing him.
(Villanueva also expressed various versions of this same theme to WitnessLA. “They hate me because I defeated their golden boy,” he said repeatedly, both in relation to the supervisors, and the LA Times.)
As it would turn out, the weird theater in which Villanueva and company engaged around the issue of the department’s budget, and other interactions with the LA County Board of Supervisors, was to be followed by activities that, according to Chow, were far more corrupt.
Rigging test scores
Villanueva ran for sheriff on the promise to root out “cronyism and corruption,” and to move people up to leadership who were “dedicated, educated, extremely bright, and experienced,” rather than using favoritism as the main metric.
Yet, according to an earlier civil rights lawsuit filed in January of this year, favoritism and rigged promotions appeared to be back in operation in a Villanueva-led department, and those who failed to cooperate faced vicious retaliation, which reportedly included having baseless internal affairs investigations opened on anyone who blew the whistle on wrongdoing.
(In contrast, IAB investigations are reportedly made to vanish for those in the sheriff’s favor, according to multiple sources.)
In her January lawsuit, Sergeant Rosa Gonzalez reported such rigged promotions, along with favoritism not backed by merit, plus retaliation against anyone who failed to cooperate.
According to Chow, and also WLA’s sources, the people at center of this alleged system of rigged promotions were Captain Yvonne O’Brien and Lieutenant Carmen Arballo.
At the same time that favorites of Villanueva and/or his wife, were getting promotions whether their tests warranted them or not, Chow describes how a variety of actions could trigger retaliation, such as her refusal to fire her “perfectly qualified assistant,” who is identified in the complaint only by her initials, “K.C.” According to Chow, the orders for the firing of K.C. came from the sheriff’s wife, Vivian Villanueva and her friend, the alleged score-rigging Captain Yvonne O’Brien,
The reason for firing K.C., according to the lawsuit, was solely due to the fact that Chow’s assistant was said to be supporting one of Sheriff Villanueva’s then competitors in last June’s primary election.
When Chow didn’t want to engage in what the complaint describes as unwarranted retaliation against an assistant whose work she valued, the retaliation rockets were, all at once, trained on Chow herself.
This retaliation, according to the complaint, came in the form of an alleged manipulation of Chow’s exam results after her operations lieutenant submitted Chow’s name for promotion.
According to Chow’s lawsuit, she was not promoted, specifically because her score on the 2021 Lieutenant Promotional Exam was “manually manipulated downward by O’Brien” with the approval of the sheriff’s wife.
Unsure what else to do, Chow reported the various exam cheating issues, and the lowering of her score, both to Undersheriff Murakami.
Chow also told Murakami that there were allegations that the sheriff was overheard talking to a particular sergeant (with the initials, A.H), who asked the sheriff for a promotion to lieutenant, which Sheriff Villanueva allegedly promised. The sergeant was promoted to lieutenant shortly after, although she was reportedly was not on the “eligible list” to be promoted, which Chow verified with a certified copy of that list, which she showed the undersheriff.
Chow reports that Murakami told her he would launch an investigation regarding O’Brien and the Lieutenant exam scores, and reverse Chow’s score if her allegations were founded.
However, no investigation ever occurred. “And it later became clear that Murakami knew that O’Brien and Arballo had committed fraud with the exam and LASD did nothing about it.”
Chow spoke about the issue with Carl Mandoyan, who according to the lawsuit, remained one the sheriff’s closest advisors, even after Mandoyan was forced to give up his official LASD job by court order. He asked her if she would file any complaints regarding the incidents surrounding the removal of her assistant, K.C. and about O’Brien tampering with the her lieutenant’s Exam score.
The advisor, who happened to be the now infamous Carl Mandoyan, also asked Chow if she had emails to back up her allegations.
Chow reported that she did have such proof. Then, shortly after her conversation, Chow the found herself blocked from access to her work emails.
It was not the only time that elements of her work environment, including her personal belongings, were tampered with.
In September of 2019 she noticed that things started disappearing from her desk, things like framed pictures. Another time, her computer wouldn’t boot up, and she saw that her cords were cut. Also, according to the new complaint, when Chow was working on a project that had turned controversial, her locked file cabinet was breeched, and critical files taken.
Manipulating the Kennedy Hall/Bandito investigation
As time went on, Sergeant Chow began to have her loyalty questioned not just because of her own efforts at remaining ethical. She also had her fidelity to the sheriff doubted in relation to her husband, Sgt. Jefferson Chow, who had been assigned as the investigator into the violent assault that occured at the post-training party held at Kennedy Hall in East Los Angeles.
The topic of the investigation heated up to the point that on several occasions during the period from December 2018 to January 2019, Chow was approached by close advisers to the sheriff who expressed concerns over whether her husband should be allowed to remain as the main investigator on the case.
This expression of “concern” occurred around the same time that Vanessa Chow was informed that Sheriff Villanueva had met with the leaders of the Banditos gang in December 2018, shortly after he was sworn in, while those same men were being investigated by her husband.
Some time later, Carl Mandoyan, who was, at the time, the sheriff’s driver, confided to Chow that Villanueva had assured the gang’s leaders—the so-called “shot callers” involved in the brawl—that he would make sure a “weak case” went to the DA’s office. Villanueva also reportedly informed the gang leaders that he would need to terminate them eventually through the IAB investigation “because there was just too much bad publicity”
Yet, according to Mandoya, Villanueva also told the shot callers that he would ensure a weak case also built in Internal Affairs, “so they would get their jobs back through the civil service appeal process.”
The Bandito issue and Sheriff Villanueva’s involvement with the matter, has continued to plague the lives of Vanessa and Jefferson Chow.
On August 18 and 19, 2022, Sheriff Villanueva and some of his close associates tried to dissuade Jefferson Chow from testifying at the Civilian Oversight Commission’s most recent hearing on deputy gangs.
Jefferson Chow, a hard worker who sources say preferred to keep a low profile, had not volunteered to testify, but had been served with a subpoena by the COC.
According to Vanessa Chow, prior to the day he was to testify, the sheriff repeatedly tried to get her husband to accept representation from one of Carl Mandoyan’s attorneys, who could aid Chow in not complying with the subpoena.
When Mr. Chow declined the representation by Mandoyan’s attorney, and also declined to be contempt of the subpoena, Villanueva persisted.
The next day, Friday, August 19, 2022, the day of the COC’s hearing, and 18 minutes before Mr. Chow was scheduled to testify under oath, Villanueva reportedly made another attempted at stopping Chow from appearing. This time the sheriff’s surrogate was Chris Kusayanagi, the lieutenant aide to Undersheriff Murakam1. Kusayanagi reportedly called Mr. Chow from Murakami’s office, intending to tell him that the sheriff had given an order for him to not testify.
Chow did not pick up the phone. But, later, after his testimony, he returned Lt. Kusayanagi’s call.
Unaware that Chow had already spoken in front of the COC, and that his testimony had been broadcast for anyone who cared to watch, Kusayanagi told Jefferson Chow falsely that the department’s two main labor unions, ALADS and PPOA, supported Mr. Chow putting himself in contempt of the subpoena and not appearing for the COC.
Then Kusayanagi delivered his main message to Chow, namely that Villaneuva ordered him to not testify, clearly not realizing that the message was too late.
That same Friday, after Mr. Chow left Loyola Law School, where the COC hearing had taken place, he noticed that he was being tailed by some undercover surveillance units on the drive home.
When Jefferson Chow got to his house where his wife was waiting to discuss the day’s experience, according to her new lawsuit, a lone surveillance unit with tinted windows pulled up in front of their home.
The car idled in front of the Chows’ home in the manner that suggested a waiting predator. Finally, Vanessa walked outside with a video camera to record the incident, at which point the surveillance unit vanished.
“The Sheriff and his wife, Vivian, run LASD like their own personal fiefdom and business by placing individuals whom they consider as allies in key positions within the department, despite these individuals’ lack of qualifications and ethics,” the new lawsuit states. At the same time, Alex and Vivian Villanueva “weed out individuals with integrity, without regard for their accomplishments or contributions.”
Thus it would seem.
And so it is that Sgt. Vanessa Chow has reportedly developed severe medical conditions, including temporary lower body paralysis, due to the ongoing stress of her employment conditions. At present, she is unable to go to work.