Sheriff To DA: Let's Probe Corruption Together. DA To Sheriff: No Thanks.
Last month, L.A. District Attorney George Gascón received an unusual proposal from Sheriff Alex Villanueva: The sheriff wanted to create a joint task force with the DA to fight government corruption and target dirty politicians.
"The mission of [the task force] is to develop meaningful and productive investigatory relationships among our detectives and deputy district attorneys, who are charged with investigating public corruption," said a draft memorandum of understanding written by the Sheriff's Department and obtained by LAist. It argued the task force would serve as "a force multiplier."
The memo said the DA would chair the group and it envisioned other law enforcement agencies joining. Participants would brief each other on "sensitive cases" they were working on, it said.
Gascón rejected Villanueva's proposal, said his spokesman Alex Bastian.
"We do not want to compromise our ability to engage in that work in an independent manner," Bastian told us, adding that the DA's Public Integrity Division, which investigates corruption, has "significant expertise."
The sheriff did not respond to requests for comment on what prompted his proposal. On Feb. 27, Villanueva endorsed a nascent campaign to recall Gascón, citing the DA's efforts to reduce prison sentences to address mass incarceration.
'IT SEEMS LIKE OUR SHERIFF WANTS TO PLAY THE ROLE OF DA'
Law enforcement task forces are hardly unusual. But the sheriff's proposal puzzled Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor in L.A.
"These task forces usually come more organically, where law enforcement talks to the prosecutors and then the prosecutors help coordinate an appropriate task force," she said.
Public corruption investigations are particularly sensitive since the targets often are elected or government officials. That's why they often are led by the DA, the U.S. Attorney or state attorney general — not local police, Levenson said.
"It seems like our sheriff wants to play the role of the DA," she said.
Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former assistant U.S. Attorney in L.A., agreed. The DA needs "autonomy and independence" in corruption investigations, she said.
INVESTIGATING THREE CURRENT AND FORMER WATCHDOGS
Villanueva's proposal comes as his department investigates three current or former Sheriff's watchdogs for possible corruption.
The most recent investigation involves allegations that Patti Giggans — a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission — improperly obtained contracts with Metro and money from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl for Giggans' nonprofit, Peace Over Violence.
Sheriff's officials on Feb. 18 served a search warrant on Peace Over Violence but have since written a letter stating they don't believe Giggans — who is the group's executive director — has committed a crime, according to her attorney, Austin Dove.
He would not provide the letter clearing Giggans. The Sheriff's Department says the investigation is ongoing.
"I think this was a form of retaliation for Ms. Giggans publicly criticizing the sheriff in her capacity as a person on the Sheriff's oversight commission," Dove said. Giggans was particularly critical of Villanueva when she and the other eight members of the panel voted to call for his resignation.
The sheriff told us the investigation of Giggans was prompted by a news story on Fox 11 News and that he recused himself from making any decisions about the case. "All the decisions are being made through [Undersheriff Tim Murakami's] office," he said.
When pressed about the potential ethical conflict of having his department investigate a member of the oversight commission, Villanueva justified the inquiry by saying the oversight panel is "advisory only."
He also said investigators consulted with the DA about the Giggans investigation. Bastian would neither confirm nor deny that the sheriff had consulted with Gascón's office on the matter.
'DON'T...APPEAR AS IF YOU HAVE AN AGENDA'
The Sheriff's Department has conducted public corruption investigations in the past, said former Sheriff's Commander Rod Kusch, who once headed the department's elite Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau. But whatever Giggans did or did not do, the sheriff has no business investigating her or her organization, Kusch said.
"You just don't want to have a situation that makes you appear as if you have an agenda toward any particular entity," he told us. "The idea is to have a completely unbiased investigation."
Another sheriff's watchdog under investigation by the department is County Inspector General Max Huntsman. In the summer of 2019, Villanueva publicly accused Huntsman of improperly accessing personnel files, even though a county ordinance allows him to inspect files.
Huntsman claims the investigation is payback for his sharp criticism of the department, which has included reports on deputy gangs and critiques of the sheriff's re-hiring of a deputy accused of domestic violence who had served as a political aide to Villanueva.
The sheriff denies Huntsman's allegations.
"The data breach happened long before they started throwing rocks at me," Villenuava said. As with the Giggans inquiry, the sheriff said he has recused himself from the investigation and it's being run by Undersheriff Murakami — although the sheriff's feelings about the inspector general are well known.
"His actions are purely politically driven and an attempt to undermine the reputation of the Department," Villanueva wrote of Huntsman last year. Last month, he called on the County Board of Supervisors to fire Huntsman, arguing that the inspector general's reports criticizing the sheriff "are filled with unproven allegations, anecdotal data, omissions, distortions, and an overall permeation of bias and intellectual dishonesty."
'THE SHERIFF IS EMPANELED...TO INVESTIGATE ALL CRIMES'
In addition to the Huntsman and Giggans inquiries, the sheriff has an ongoing criminal investigation into the former Constitutional Policing Advisor for former Sheriff Jim McDonnell. She was responsible for guiding department discipline and raised the ire of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which considered her approach too harsh.
In fact, Villanueva won the union's support for his election in part by promising to reverse McDonnell's discipline policies. Within months of taking office, the sheriff opened an investigation into the former advisor, accusing her of improper use of personnel files - an accusation she denies. Again, Villanueva said he recused himself from the investigation, and Murakami is handling it.
The investigations into Huntsman and the former advisor have lasted nearly two years. The sheriff said they are complex. Dove, the attorney for Giggans, suspects there is another reason.
"By continuing to keep the investigation improperly open, then they've got leverage and they can keep you uncomfortable and intimidate you," Dove said.
Villanueva defended all of the investigations.
"The sheriff is empaneled according to the state constitution with investigative powers to investigate all crimes within L.A. County," he said.