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Criminal Justice

LA County's Chief Lawyer Accuses Sheriff Villanueva Of 'Politically Motivated' Investigations

A close-up of Sheriff Alex Villanueva's face from the neck up looking off to the side.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)
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In an extraordinary letter to California Attorney General Rob Bonta, L.A. County’s top lawyer accuses Sheriff Alex Villanueva of conducting “intimidating, politically motivated investigations” against his critics and asks Bonta to “assume control” of the inquiries. The attorney general’s office has agreed to review two of the sheriff’s investigations.

“Sheriff Villanueva has used these investigations to discourage legitimate oversight of himself and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department … and to retaliate against any public official who criticizes him or the Sheriff's Department,” County Counsel Rod Castro-Silva argues in his letter.

“The only way to put an end to the Sheriff's abuse of power is to have the California Department of Justice supervise these investigations (including any future investigations the Sheriff may announce against oversight officials), determine whether they have merit, and end them if they do not,” Castro-Silva adds.

The letter was sent in December. It came to light Tuesday when the sheriff sharply criticized Bonta’s response.

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The AG Takes These Matters ‘Very Seriously’

In a Jan. 25 letter to Castro-Silva, Assistant Attorney General Lance Winters said the attorney general’s office “takes these matters very seriously,” and will review “two specific matters” involving the sheriff, according to a copy of the letter we viewed.

One involves Villanueva’s two-year old investigation into Inspector General Max Huntsman and four others, whom the sheriff accuses of unlawfully obtaining and distributing confidential personnel records from the department.

Villanueva said on Facebook Live Tuesday that his department concluded the Huntsman investigation in November and had already handed it over to Bonta’s office.

People say, ‘Oh, they have secret police and they target their critics.’ We don’t.
— Sheriff Alex Villanueva

“You have our complete cooperation in these matters,” the sheriff said. “All we’re asking from you is to pick up the pace here.”

In response to the accusations that the investigations constitute an abuse of power, Villanueva said, “People say, ‘Oh, they have secret police and they target their critics.’ We don’t.”

The Investigation Of The Inspector General

Castro-Silva’s letter says the investigation was in retaliation for Huntsman’s critical reports on the sheriff’s department, including the sheriff’s decision to re-hire a political aide who had been fired from the department for alleged domestic abuse and lying. “During a meeting on June 17, 2019, Sheriff Villanueva threatened Mr. Huntsman, warning him that there would be "consequences" if the OIG released a report critical” of the hiring, the county counsel states. The sheriff had denied the accusation.

In response to the Attorney General’s decision to review the investigation, Huntsman issued a statement saying, “Sheriff Villanueva’s threats and intimidation of public officials have had a catastrophic impact on the functioning of county law enforcement for the last three years and I greatly appreciate the intervention of the Department of Justice.”

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Bonta will also review accusations made by Villanueva in 2020 that former county CEO Sachi Hamai engaged in a conflict of interest while in her position. Hamai was CEO when the Board of Supervisors voted to pay her $1.5 million after she threatened to sue for defamation and a toxic work environment because of various accusations against her by Villanueva.

Sheriff Villanueva has used these investigations to discourage legitimate oversight … and to retaliate against any public official who criticizes him or the Sheriff's Department.
— L.A. County Counsel Rod Castro-Silva

Under the state constitution, the attorney general has “direct supervision” over the sheriff and “shall direct the activities of any sheriff” when deemed in the public interest.

‘Mr. Attorney General, You Need To Answer Some Questions’

Villanueva criticized Bonta for not responding earlier to his concerns about Hamai and called for a criminal investigation into her.

“I think Mr. Attorney General, you need to answer some questions,” he said. Villanueva also suggested Bonta may be biased in any decision he makes. “California is one-party state, one-party rule, where everyone is playing with the same loyalty to one party establishment. It begs a lot of questions here.”

The attorney general also told Castro-Silva it would ask the sheriff for a report on an ongoing investigation into a nonprofit headed by the former chairwoman of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, Patti Giggans.

Oversight Commission members have also argued that Villanueva’s investigations are politically motivated. In Oct. 2020, the panel unanimously called on the sheriff to resign.

Last month, the county asked a judge to find Villanueva in contempt for defying three separate subpoenas last year — one of which called on him to testify about his alleged abuse of power. A hearing in that case is set for May 12.

A Plea For Ongoing Supervision Of The Sheriff

In his letter, Castro-Silva asks the attorney general for continued supervision of the sheriff’s investigations into oversight officials, and says such supervision should include these elements:

  • LASD must make regular reports to the Attorney General's Office on what criminal investigations it has opened or plans to open.
  • LASD may not open any new investigations without prior approval from the Attorney General's Office.
  • The Attorney General will make all decisions about whether to close, charge, or continue any current investigations.
  • For investigations that should commence or continue, the Attorney General's Office should decide whether the Sheriffs Department or another agency will investigate.”

Bonta’s office did not respond to that part of Castro-Silva’s request, while noting, “we will take your additional requests under submission.”

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