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Criminal Justice

Sheriff Villanueva Will Defy A Subpoena Related To Allegations He Harassed Officials Who Criticized Him

A close-up image of LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, wearing his official khaki uniform.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission are locked in a battle over the panel's subpoena power.
(Kyle Grillot for LAist)
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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has told the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission that he will not comply with a subpoena demanding he attend a meeting this Thursday.

The oversight group wants Villanueva to respond to allegations that he has harassed officials who have been critical of his performance, including a member of the commission and the county’s inspector general. The sheriff cited a busy schedule as the reason.

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

“[M]y schedule is extremely busy and my calendar is usually filled months, if not years, in advance,” the sheriff wrote in a letter to the commission. “I am booked for the entire day with previous commitments planned ahead of time. I will be out of the office on two separate speaking engagements, a meeting, and a Town Hall event.”

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The department did not respond to a request for the events that he’ll be attending that day.

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

“I have made it abundantly clear that I welcome fair and impartial oversight,” Villanueva said in his letter.

“He is testing them again,” said Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson.

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 2020.

One subpoena issued in May of last year demanded the sheriff attend a meeting to answer questions about how he was handling the spread of COVID-19 in the jails. He refused, and instead sent an assistant sheriff. His attorney later argued the subpoena was an “abuse of power” — an argument a judge later rejected.

Another subpoena 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.

“The real question is whether the oversight commission can go to court to get enforcement of that subpoena power, and what are the consequences if the sheriff stalls or no-shows," Levenson said. "That issue has not been litigated yet."

Villanueva also fought a subpoena to meet with Inspector General 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.

The RAND Corporation issued a report earlier this month that found “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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Thursday’s agenda includes a memo from Commissioner Sean Kennedy, a Loyola Law School professor, that raises concerns “about what appears to be a pattern of LASD officials announcing they have opened ‘criminal investigations’ of various department heads, oversight officials, and professionals.”

“These highly publicized criminal investigations have never resulted in charges being filed, suggesting an ulterior motive,” the memo states.

Villanueva has denied any ulterior motives, telling LAist that he is “empaneled according to the state constitution with investigative powers to investigate all crimes within L.A. County.”

In his letter, Villanueva said he had agreed to attend oversight commission meetings “once a trimester” and that he already had attended three this year, “in excess of my commitment.” He said he would arrange his schedule to be available during the last three months of the year.

Villanueva added that, out of respect for him and his office, "I would advise you try and coordinate with my office as to my availability before issuing any further subpoenas."

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