LA County Officials Say Sheriff's Watchdog May Need Subpoena Powers To Ensure Villanueva Is Transparent

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the graduation ceremony for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy class in January. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

In response to growing concern that L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has built a wall of secrecy around his department, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors took a step Tuesday toward giving a civilian oversight group more power to hold the sheriff accountable.

The supervisors approved a proposal designed to give the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission the authority to direct the county's inspector general to issue subpoenas for a wide array of records, including files relating to internal investigations into deputy misconduct, and to compel testimony from agency officials, including the sheriff himself.

The inspector general would review the information and produce a report to the commission, which would only see documents not covered by state laws protecting deputy privacy.

Department personnel subpoenaed to testify would in some cases speak only to the inspector general and in others to the nine-member commission, which is appointed by the supervisors.

The motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl directs county counsel to report back in 30 days on how the county might confer subpoena power on the oversight commission.

"At this point, it seems like the only way that will allow for the transparency and accountability that the public demands," Supervisor and Board Chair Janice Hahn told KPCC/LAist.

"I don't think this is antagonistic at all," Supervisor Hilda Solis said Tuesday. "I think this is an effort to get people to the table."

While arguing that subpoenas are the only way to achieve effective oversight, Inspector General Max Huntsman told the supervisors Tuesday that "I would expect subpoenas to be very rare."

He predicted Villanueva would comply with record requests more often if subpoenas were a possibility.

"We must have the ability to sometimes make the Sheriff's Department do what they don't want to do - shine a light where one must be shone," Oversight Commission Chair Patti Giggans said in a statement following the supervisors' vote.

"It is our hope that the Sheriff would give us maximum cooperation," Commission Executive Director Brian Williams said in the statement. "Subpoena power will be a tool of last resort for us, but it is a tool that I think we need if we really want to increase transparency."

It's unclear whether the supervisors, who don't have the authority to compel the independently elected sheriff to produce documents or provide testimony, can legally confer that authority on someone else.

'A POLITICAL ATTACK DOG'

The Office of Inspector General was created in 2014, after the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence found deputies had engaged in a "persistent pattern of unreasonable force" against jail inmates. Former Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff Paul Tanaka later were convicted and sentenced to prison for trying to cover up the misconduct.

The oversight commission was created in 2016.

Former Sheriff Jim McDonnell opposed subpoena power, but often worked cooperatively with the inspector general. He eventually signed an agreement granting nearly unfettered access to department records and personnel.

Villanueva, who took office in December, has said the inspector general's office is biased.

"They're a political attack dog ... an arm of the Board of Supervisors," the sheriff told KPCC/LAist. "I need the [inspector general] to be a good watchdog. I need him to be a credible watchdog, objective, impartial."

If the supervisors end up granting the civilian commission subpoena power, they would preempt the outcome of the vote on a March 3 ballot measure that proposes the same thing.

The supervisors are also researching whether they can grant subpoena power directly to the inspector general.

THE SHERIFF VS. THE INSPECTOR GENERAL

Earlier this year, the sheriff cut off Huntsman's ability to access department records remotely. Villanueva now requires inspector general staff to use computers inside sheriff's headquarters and prohibits them from downloading files. They may only write down information and are monitored by sheriff's officials.

That's one of several ways in which Villanueva has violated the section of the county code that allows the inspector general access to records, Huntsman told the supervisors in July.

Villanueva also has blocked efforts to monitor his plan to re-hire deputies fired by McDonnell, as well as his push to hire 2,000 new deputies over two years, Huntsman said.

"Background checks for incoming deputies appear to have been radically scaled back, and the administration has refused to allow us to monitor the hiring process and ignored our document requests," he told the board.

The sheriff's reluctance to share information "is an issue that pre-dated the current sheriff," the oversight commission's Williams told the supervisors Tuesday. "We have seen it over and over again."

In response to Huntsman's charges, Villanueva hasn't budged. Instead, he's upped the ante.

In August, the sheriff took the unprecedented step of opening a criminal investigation into Huntsman. Villanueva accused Huntsman, a former deputy district attorney who prosecuted public officials charged with corruption, of illegally accessing department documents protected by California's Peace Officers Bill of Rights.

Huntsman says the ordinance that created his office and the agreement signed by McDonnell grant him that access.

POLITICAL PAYBACK?

Critics of the investigation have accused Villanueva of political payback against the inspector general, who has issued reports critical of the sheriff's re-hiring of a deputy accused of domestic violence and his decision to close dozens of investigations into deputy misconduct before they were complete.

But relying on subpoenas issued by a majority vote of the civilian commission, which meets monthly, to watchdog the sheriff's department could be cumbersome, said Hahn.

"Subpoena power doesn't get you all the information you want all the time," she said. "Every time you use it, of course, you have to go to court, and it takes a while to get the information you were seeking."

She wants Villanueva to cooperate with the inspector general.

"I still hold out hope for that," Hahn said.

Huntsman wants more than subpoena power. He's hoping county lawyers will present to the board an amendment to the inspector general ordinance that would require sheriff's personnel to speak with him.

Huntsman is particularly interested in having the ability to ask deputies about "secret societies," or deputy subgroups, including the Banditos at the East L.A. Station who have been accused of violently attacking colleagues who oppose them.

"LASD will never be able to rid itself of its crippling veil of secrecy without help," Huntsman said in his July testimony to the board. "We need a stronger ordinance - one that rejects secrecy and has strong mechanisms for enforcement."

SUBPOENA POWER IS 'THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE'

Reform activists praised the board's move to give the civilian commission subpoena power.

"It's exciting," said Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors. "Many of us have worked on this for years."

"We should have nine independent people be able to see documents that can save our community from sheriff violence," said Cullors, who has said her brother was "brutalized" by jail deputies two decades ago.

"When we talk about subpoena power, we are talking about it being the power of the people," she said.

UPDATES:

4:43 p.m.: This article was updated with the supervisors' approval of the motion.

5:18 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Brian Williams and the comment from Patti Giggans.