Sheriff Villanueva Demotes Challenger Vera, Who Claims Political Retaliation
Eli Vera was once a favorite of L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Within days of taking office in 2018, Villanueva promoted Vera two ranks — from captain to chief — and assigned him to oversee operations in the department’s most active patrol areas: Compton, South L.A., and East LA.
When the sheriff needed someone to take on the highly sensitive task of reviewing his decision to re-hire a former deputy accused of domestic violence and lying, Villanueva turned to Vera.
Vera and two other top commanders found the sheriff acted within his powers to re-hire Carl Mandoyan. A judge later overturned Villanueva’s decision.
But when Vera decided to challenge the sheriff in next year’s election, everything changed. Vera says Villanueva sent him a letter asking him how he could possibly serve as a chief while running against his boss.
Last week, the sheriff answered his own question — Vera could not.
Villanueva demoted Vera one rank from one of 11 chief positions in the department to commander. He also moved him from the Technology and Support Division to the Court Service Division, considered by some a backwater.
'Retaliation' Or A Reasonable Personnel Move?
Vera called the move “politically-driven retaliation.”
“I think what he wants to do is hurt my campaign in order to bring discredit upon me,” Vera told LAist.
The sheriff’s department issued a statement denying any wrongdoing. It insisted that Vera's claims of retaliation "lack merit."
“Although we will not comment on personnel matters, the law is firmly established that at-will employees, in particular those who serve as confidential advisers to an elected leader, cannot oppose him/her politically and keep their advisory position," it said.
The sheriff has the right to remove senior-level advisers whose views do not align with his own agenda.
"The sheriff has the right to remove senior-level advisers whose views do not align with his own agenda," the statement continued. "Who has ever heard of a cabinet secretary running a negative campaign against the president who appointed them?"
Lee Baca was a chief when he ran against incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block in 1998, although Baca resigned when he made the runoff against Block.
Baca won the election after Block died five days before the election.
“He is afraid of my campaign,” Vera said of Villanueva. “This is an intimidation tactic that has zero impact on me.”
'It Would Only Disrupt Things If The Person Disrupts'
Asked if it makes sense for a sheriff to have a top commander on his staff who is running against him, Vera said, “It would only disrupt things if the person disrupts.”
Vera said he has never been suspended or demoted during his 32 years with the department. He said he would review his legal options with employment attorneys.
Vera, who has served in several positions since joining the department in 1988, announced his run against Villanueva in April.
He argues Villanueva's contentious relations with the Board of Supervisors, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and the county inspector general have damaged the department, declaring that he wants to "restore confidence" in the office.
Besides Vera, there are six other challengers to the sheriff, including former Assistant Sheriff and current LAX Police Chief Cecil Rhambo and Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Strong. Enrique Del Real, Britta Steinbrenner, Matthew Rodriquez, and April Saucedo Hood also have filed candidate paperwork with the Registrar of Voters.
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In a memo, Chief Michel Moore said “extremist groups have hijacked the use of the ‘Thin Blue Line Flag’ to symbolize their undemocratic, racist, and bigoted views.”
LAPD Chief Moore also questioned officers' actions in the fatal shooting of Takar Smith, although not in two other fatal incidents.
In a conversation with LAist, the new sheriff acknowledges that, as an outsider, "I have my work cut out for me" in winning the support of the department's rank-and-file.
He was elected in 2018 after running as a progressive Democrat who would reform the department. He ended up fiercely resisting oversight and clashing with watchdogs and the rest of the county’s political establishment.