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Criminal Justice

Oversight Panel Chair Accuses LA Sheriff Villanueva of ‘Ducking and Dodging’ Subpoena

Priscilla Ocen stands facing the camera, her hair swept down the left side of her head, wearing a grey t-shirt and large round orange earrings, with a dark band on her right wrist. She is leaning her right elbow on the top of an office cubicle.
Loyola Law School professor Priscilla Ocen chairs the L.A. Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission.
(Courtesy Loyola Law School)
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The head of the L.A. Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission is sharply criticizing Sheriff Alex Villanueva for planning to defy a subpoena to testify about his alleged harassment of department critics.

The sheriff’s decision, and the response by commission chair Priscilla Ocen, represent the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle to force Villanueva to submit to more civilian oversight.

In a letter to the panel, Villanueva said he was too busy to attend Thursday’s meeting, citing “two separate speaking engagements, a meeting, and a Town Hall event.”

“That is not acceptable,” Ocen told LAist. “When you are issued a lawful subpoena, you clear your schedule.”

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The sheriff “is ducking and dodging hard questions,” she said. “That suggests he doesn’t have the real interest or ability to root out intimidation or corruption in the Sheriff’s Department.”

Ocen, a Loyola Law School professor, said she will ask her colleagues on the panel to ask that a judge compel Villanueva to answer their questions.

In a statement, the Sheriff's Department denied Villanueva is trying to avoid answering the commission's questions, saying he "has appeared multiple times regarding this issue." The department did not respond to a request for a list of the events that Villanueva said he’ll be attending Thursday.

'An Effort To Bully Her'

The commission wants Villanueva to address allegations of intimidation because he’s launched criminal investigations into Inspector General Max Huntsman, a frequent critic, as well as into commission member Patti Giggans, another strong critic. Villanueva has accused the county’s former CEO, Sachi Hamai, who sought to reduce his budget, of committing a felony.

“I believe that was an effort to bully her,” Ocen said.

Since taking office in late 2018, the sheriff has resisted civilian oversight. He has called the oversight commission members “political lapdogs” of the L.A.County Board of Supervisors.

In October of 2020, the commission called on Villanueva to resign, citing his alleged failure to rein in "violent deputy cliques or gangs" operating in the Compton and East L.A. stations, and his alleged attempts to block efforts to "ensure independent oversight of deputy-involved shooting investigations," among several other complaints.

If he is a no-show, this will be the third time the sheriff has refused to comply with a subpoena from the panel since voters approved a measure giving it such power in March of 2020.

Last December, Villanueva appeared before the commission after a judge ruled the sheriff had to honor a subpoena.

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Another subpoena last year sought to compel Villanueva to provide documents related to allegations that he tried to cover up the sharing by deputies of graphic photos from Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash site. “The Sheriff’s counsel served objections to the Bryant subpoena but has not yet produced any documents,” according to a statement from the county counsel.

This year, Villanueva fought a subpoena from Huntsman to answer questions about deputy subgroups, or alleged “gangs,” operating inside the department. Earlier this month, the sheriff agreed to sit down with Huntsman, but refused to answer questions under oath and would not allow a court recorder to document his words, according to the inspector general’s office.

This story has been updated to include the Sheriff's Department's response.

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