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Criminal Justice

Oversight Panel Will Subpoena Undersheriff Over Investigations of Department Watchdogs

Close-up view of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. He is wearing a khaki uniform with a black tie and gold stars pinned to his lapels.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva is facing closer scrutiny over his investigations into watchdogs of his department.
(PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
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The L.A. Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission on Thursday voted to subpoena Undersheriff Tim Murakami — the department's second-in-command — to respond to allegations he oversees a group of deputies that investigates and harasses critics and official watchdogs of Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

The vote follows Villanueva’s decision to defy a subpoena to discuss the allegations Thursday, claiming he was too busy to attend. The panel also voted to pursue “all legal means” to force the sheriff to comply with that subpoena.

Oversight Panel Will Subpoena Undersheriff Over Investigations of Department Watchdogs

This is the third time Villanueva has refused to comply with a subpoena from the panel.

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Among the commission’s concerns is that Villanueva has an ongoing two-year criminal investigation into the county's Inspector General, Max Huntsman, designed to stifle oversight of the department.

“The sheriff is doing this to intimidate those with oversight to get them to back off and back down,” said commissioner Robert Bonner, a former federal judge. “Much like Joseph McCarthy.”

The sheriff's department also has opened an investigation into a grant awarded by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit headed by commissioner Patti Giggans.

‘I Am So Fed Up’

"I am so fed up with this open investigation that doesn’t end, that goes nowhere,” an exacerbated Giggans told the commission. “This kind of intimidation is illegal, unnerving.”

The nine-member commission also unanimously voted to ask county lawyers to report back in 30 days on whether they believe the sheriff is breaking the law with the investigations of oversight officials. In addition, it requested that the state Department of Justice investigate the sheriff’s actions.

The state has already launched a wide-ranging civil rights investigation into “credible reports” of excessive force, retaliation and other misconduct in the department.

“We are not going to back down,” Bonner said.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Villanueva denied the allegations. “The department has been investigating multiple complaints of public malfeasance since I took office in December of 2018, which is well within the authority of the department,” he said. “This is of particular significance when the community is demanding transparency and accountability from all elected and appointed officials.”

Bonner: Villanueva’s Recusal Is Meaningless

The sheriff department's Public Corruption Unit is overseen by Murakami, according to Villanueva. “I have recused myself from all decision making to avoid any potential conflict of interest,” he said in his statement.

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Bonner noted that Murakami reports to Villanueva, so the recusal is meaningless.

In addition, the commission voted to issue another subpoena demanding the sheriff appear at its next meeting to discuss an opinion from county counsel that he has the authority to ban deputies from joining subgroups or “gangs,” which was the recommendation of a recent RAND Corporation report.

While saying Thursday that he will attend the panel’s October meeting, Villanueva has dismissed county counsel’s opinion as “laughable” and said the RAND report overstates any problem with subgroups, which he maintains are benign.

The RAND report concluded that, “[a]t their worst, subgroups encourage violence, undermine the chain of command, and gravely harm relationships with the communities that LASD is dedicated to serve.”

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