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Criminal Justice

LA Sheriff Villanueva Punches Back In His Fight With The County’s COVID-19 Testing Firm

LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva, in uniform, gestures with his right hand while speaking at a news conference. Part of the lower portion of the Sheriff's Department seal is visible on the wall behind him.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva at Wednesday's news conference.
(Screenshot from L.A. Sheriff's Department's Facebook page)
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In his first comments on a COVID-19 testing company’s plan to sue him over his claim that it would collect genetic data from county employees and likely share it with China, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Wednesday called the firm’s legal claim "false.”

The sheriff also revealed that L.A. County Counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva refused to provide him with legal counsel in the case, calling the decision “retaliation.”

Last Fall, Villanueva informed the Board of Supervisors that his department would no longer use the county’s COVID-19 testing and registration program run by Fulgent Genetics, claiming the FBI warned him and top county officials at a Nov. 26 meeting that genetic data “will likely be shared with the Republic of China” by the company.

Fulgent denied that claim, saying it “does not collect or use DNA in connection with COVID-19 testing.” The county said in a statement that it "has no evidence from any credible and reliable law enforcement agency or any other source that any County employee data has been or will be shared with the Chinese government."

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In papers filed in court, Fulgent said the FBI “neither accused Fulgent of wrongdoing nor alluded to any evidence that Fulgent provided or would provide private medical information to China," the Los Angeles Times reported.

At a press conference Wednesday, Villanueva called Fulgent’s legal claims of defamation “patently false.”

Noting that Fulgent also claimed in court documents that the FBI “never even mentioned Fulgent’s name” during the November meeting, the sheriff insisted that the company was discussed.

He suggested his version of events will be vindicated when Castro-Silva and County CEO Fesia Davenport, both of whom attended the meeting with the FBI, are questioned about it in court.

The two officials have so far refused to comment on the meeting beyond what was said in the county’s statement.

‘It’s Kind Of Complicated’

Villanueva also displayed what he said was a redacted email from an L.A.-based FBI agent inviting the sheriff to a briefing “to discuss security concerns related to mandatory COVID-19 testing at Fulgent Genetics Laboratory.” The agent’s name was blacked out, but the title “Weapons Of Mass Destruction Coordinator” was visible.

The email provided no other details. In describing the discussion at the meeting with the FBI, the sheriff did not mention Fulgent. Here is how he described what he learned at the briefing:

“[I]t’s a very big picture. It’s kind of complicated, about the bioeconomy, and the challenges that China poses in terms of trying to corner the market on bioeconomy and all the things that entails in terms of research and databases and genomes and everything that has to do with the bioeconomy.”

‘You Acted With Actual Malice’

Villanueva also displayed portions of a letter, marked confidential, that Castro-Silva sent him on Feb. 15, notifying him that the county will not provide him with legal defense in his fight with Fulgent.

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The letter cites two reasons: “First, your actions were not within the scope of your employment. Second, the facts indicate you acted with actual malice, including your taking actions to undermine the county's vaccination policy.” The excerpt refers to a further explanation later in the letter, but Villanueva did not display the rest of the communication.

In response to the sheriff's claim that the refusal to provide him with legal representation amounts to “retaliation," Castro-Silva's office said in a statement that its decision “in no way represents retaliation” against Villanueva, saying “it is unfortunate that the Sheriff is mischaracterizing this decision.”

The statement cited state law that requires the county to provide legal counsel in civil lawsuits against public employees unless the act giving rise to the suit “was not within the scope of employment” and/or in cases of “actual malice.”

It said the county cannot release the full letter because it’s “attorney-client privileged.”

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