Sheriff Villanueva Says Oversight Panel Can't Subpoena Him, Refuses to Testify

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva Wednesday said the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission lacks the authority to subpoena him and he will not show up Thursday to testify about how he's protecting jail inmates from coronavirus.

The panel had subpoenaed Villanueva amid concerns about a growing number of cases inside the country's largest local jail system.

"I will not be adhering to any subpoena," Villanueva said during a news conference live streamed on the department's Facebook page.

"It's unfortunate he is going to ignore the subpoena," Commission Chair Patti Giggans said. She did not say whether her panel will go to court to try to enforce it.

The commission issued the subpoena May 7 after the sheriff had rejected invitations to attend previous meetings.

It was the first time the nine-member group — appointed by the Board of Supervisors — used its new subpoena power.


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In March, voters overwhelmingly approved Measure R, which gave the commission the power to compel the department to produce documents and testimony during investigations into the agency.

But Villanueva said he doesn't believe the measure is legal because sheriffs, unlike other elected county officials, are named as officers in the California Constitution and are accountable only to the voters. The voter-approved measure tries to "supersede" state law and that is "unconstitutional and it's not permitted," the sheriff said.

Because sheriffs are "enshrined in the state constitution ... county supervisors cannot easily oversee the sheriff in the way that mayors and councils can hold appointed police chiefs accountable," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State LA, in a Sept. 2019 commentary for CalMatters.

The legality of Measure R aside, the sheriff appeared uninterested in meeting with the panel, which had been sharply critical of some of his policies long before the pandemic. Members likely would have questioned him about why COVID-19 cases are on the rise and why so many inmates are in quarantine.

"If they're engaged in a public shaming endeavor, which it looks like on face value, they are sadly mistaken," Villanueva said. "We're not going to be participating in that."

Informed of the sheriff's comments, Giggans said, "it is not about trying to shame him. We are trying to do our oversight job. If he is talking about shame, maybe he is feeling shame."

Villanueva said his assistant sheriff had "volunteered" to appear before the commission.

More than 600 inmates have gotten COVID-19 in L.A.'s jails. The sheriff said he's "cautiously optimistic" that the worst is over.

The department is doing well protecting inmates from the virus, said Villanueva, who then added what's become a trademark hint of suspicion: "We are succeeding in our efforts in spite of people trying to derail them."

Villanueva, who campaigned on a platform of transparency, encouraged the public to go to the department's website to get information about the agency, suggesting that would be preferable to getting information from the oversight panel.

"I want people to decide for themselves, without any interference, without any middleman," he said.

Villanueva has been resistant to independent oversight. Last year, in an unprecedented move, he launched an investigation into County Inspector General Max Huntsman, accusing him of improperly accessing documents during an inquiry into the Sheriff's Department.