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Criminal Justice

Oversight Panel Subpoenas Sheriff Villanueva Over Alleged ‘Abuse of Power’

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva stands at the podium at a press conference inside the Hall of Justice in downtown L.A. His hands are on the podium; he's wearing his uniform, with his badge and medals on his chest, and a brown tie. The Hall of Justice logo is partly visible behind him.
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva faces a subpoena from the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission over alleged abuse of power.
(L.A. Sheriff's Department)
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The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission has voted to issue a subpoena to Sheriff Alex Villanueva demanding that he defend his department’s criminal investigations into critics and others.

In the past two years, Villanueva’s department has opened criminal investigations into two key watchdogs — the inspector general and a member of the oversight panel. It has also investigated a former department official who played a role in disciplining deputies, and the sheriff has publicly accused the former county CEO of illegal activity.

“The effect I think is clear,” commissioner Sean Kennedy said before Thursday’s vote. “It chills oversight.” None of the investigations have so far yielded criminal charges. Villanueva defends them as proper.

Another member of the oversight commission — former federal judge Robert Bonner –— expressed dismay at the sheriff’s willingness to investigate people charged with overseeing his agency. “Why in the world would he not understand that he has a conflict of interest?” he asked.

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Bonner, the former head of the DEA and a law-and-order conservative, said it was important to respond to the sheriff’s behavior. “If you are being bullied, you need to call out the bully,” he said.

The watchdog panel has frequently battled with Villanueva, claiming he has blocked its oversight efforts on numerous occasions. Last fall, the commission voted unanimously to call on the sheriff to resign.

Villanueva’s Response: ‘False Accusations’

In 2019, Inspector General Max Huntsman announced he was about to issue a critical report of the sheriff’s attempt to rehire Carl Mandoyan, an ex-deputy fired for domestic abuse and lying. Mandoyan was a top aide to Villanueva during his campaign for sheriff.

Shortly thereafter, Undersheriff Tim Murakami announced the investigation of Huntsman, accusing him of illegally accessing deputy personnel files. He listed a series of possible criminal acts by the inspector general, including conspiracy, theft of government property and burglary, according to a 10-page memo by Kennedy that he presented to the commission.

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Huntsman documented Villanueva’s resistance to oversight early in the sheriff’s term, and has repeatedly clashed with him over transparency and oversight.

In his memo outlining the allegations against the sheriff, Kennedy called on the oversight commission to further investigate “in the face of substantial evidence that the Sheriff is engaging in extortion or some other abuse of power.”

In a letter to the panel before the vote and in response to the Kennedy memo, Villanueva accused the panel of spreading “false accusations.” The sheriff has said he recused himself from all of the investigations, putting Murakami in charge.

Villanueva told us earlier this year that he is free to investigate anyone he believes has committed a crime. He did not say whether he will comply with the subpoena.

A Settlement For ‘Severe And Pervasive Harassment’

The sheriff also raised the stakes in his battle against efforts by Huntsman’s office to examine how his department works.

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Villanueva said Huntsman was using the commission to obtain information on active criminal investigations. “As you are well aware, this is not only a violation of the law, but a gross overreach of authority granted to the [inspector general] by the Board of Supervisors’ ordinance,” Villanueva said.

“Why in the world would he not understand that he has a conflict of interest?”
— Civilian Oversight Commission member Robert Bonner

Other people who have been targeted for criminal investigation by the Sheriff’s Department or have been accused by Villanueva of breaking the law:

  • Diana Teran, the department’s former constitutional policing advisor, who worked for Villanueva’s predecessor, Jim McDonnell. Undersheriff Tim Murakami told ABC7 in August 2019 that Teran downloaded confidential personnel files. (McDonnell later told us that he had authorized her access.) Villanueva has been harshly critical of Teran for her work assisting McDonnell in deciding how to discipline problem deputies, saying she targeted good deputies for dismissal.
  • Sachi Hamai, former L.A. County CEO. During a Facebook Live appearance in July 2020, Villanueva publicly accused her of an illegal conflict of interest because a nonprofit she volunteered for received county funds. That summer, the county agreed to provide Hamai with full-time private security and $1.5 million to settle claims she brought regarding "severe and pervasive harassment, defamation, malicious prosecution and hostility" by Villanueva. Hamai had angered the sheriff by seeking to reduce his budget and urging the board of supervisors to remove him as head of the county’s emergency operations center.

Villanueva has also made allusions to alleged illegal conduct by others. During an April, 2020 board of supervisors meeting where budget officials discussed whether department heads who overspent on their budgets were committing a misdemeanor, Villanueva said, “I could go on for a long, long time about a long list of felony crimes and the consequences of them — and they’re done by public officials.”

Villanueva's comment prompted Supervisor Kathryn Barger to ask whether that was a veiled threat.

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