The foot soldiers of theare going after his enemies in what critics describe as his most brazen, personal crusade yet. And it may be blowing up in his face.
A day after Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department investigators searched the homes of a county supervisor, the local transit authority, and a member of the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission, a local judge ordered the agency to stop part of its search.
Superior Court Judge William Ryan wrote late on Thursday that the department must immediately cease its search of computers seized from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Office of the Inspector General. Ryan also ordered the department to disclose what hard drive imaging may have been done, by whom, and who has seen the material in question.
The decision, which went public on Friday, came after attorneys for the agency’s inspector general challenged the warrant, which critics say was part of a bogus investigation of crimes that do not exist. But perhaps more disturbing to the local police reform set is that two women’s lives have been upended by the frenzy of searches they trace to L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva, even if his deputy is the one who presided over the raid.
On Wednesday, Sheriff’s investigators searched the homes and offices of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, as well as those of her friend Patti Giggans. The raids were carried out with a warrant signed by another judge, ostensibly to investigate possible bribery.
But the department’s pretense of chasing criminal activity is complicated by the fact that the district attorney has shot down the idea that either woman committed a crime, and said the office would not defend the warrants allowing for the search of their homes if they were challenged in court. Critics of Villanueva—there are many—say the raids amounted to a brazen retaliation.
After all, the women are not just obscure civilians but two local officials who have harshly criticized the man who runs the law-enforcement agency upending their lives—and sought to impose oversight on the sheriff.
At the center of the drama is the sheriff himself, who ran for office claiming a progressive bent but who critics say has emerged as a sort of reactionary run amok—a cop out of control. Among other things, Villanueva is accused of operating an ostensible law-enforcement agency that is itself rife with violent gangs run by rank-and-file cops. He allegedly tried to cover up a disturbing brutality case in jail involving an employee holding their knee on an inmate’s head for three minutes. His employees have shot and killed a Black man on a bike fleeing a traffic stop and been accused of broader civil-rights violations.
But just as disturbing, critics say, is how he has responded to scrutiny and oversight. To take just one example, in April,who was revealing alleged misconduct in his agency.
The events of the past week have taken a long-running feud between Villanueva and the County Board of Supervisors seeking to rein him in to a new level, raising the question of whether a polarizing, brash figure some liken to Donald Trump will survive a re-election race this fall.
“The sheriff has been nonstop in a campaign of intimidation against anyone responsible for oversight,” Max Huntsman, the L.A. County Inspector General, who Villanueva has—without evidence—described as a “Holocaust Denier,” told The Daily Beast.
For its part, LASD said the department’s lawyer was fired by the Board of Supervisors and County Counsel on Wednesday, calling it retaliation for the warrants and obstruction of legitimate ongoing probes.
Since taking office in December 2018, Villanueva has clashed almost constantly with critics, including the Board of Supervisors, over the rehiring of fired deputies and alleged intimidation of families of those killed by the department. He has also defied subpoenas and denied robust evidence of his department’s gang problem.
But investigators in bulletproof vests arriving at the home of a local official is something else.
Just after 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Sheriff’s deputies showed up at Kuehl’s home to serve the warrant. She walked out of her home barefoot as they searched the premises. Speaking to reporters outside her home, she called the investigation “bogus.” LASD also searched the home of Giggans, who was appointed to the nine-person Civilian Oversight Commission—which is focused solely on the Sheriff’s Department—by the supervisor. Investigators eventually had Giggans’ car towed after searching it.
The Civilian Oversight Commission, formed in 2016, is currently looking into the deputy gang allegations that have escalated in recent years. Last September, Villanueva ignored a subpoena to appear before it, saying he was “booked.”
The transit allegations revolve around a contract between the nonprofit Peace Over Violence, which Giggans runs, and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. LASD released its own affidavit justifying the searches, which alleges Peace Over Violence was awarded contracts to operate a hotline for reporting sexual assault on Metro trains without a competitive bidding process. A former Metro employee apparently presented the allegations to LASD, claiming Metro’s chief executive pushed the contract to appeal to Kuehl; as a member of the Board of Supervisors, Kuehl is on the Metro board.
Huntsman was scathing in his criticism, asking why, in an alleged investigation into fraud and money issues, the deputies towed Giggans’ car. Villanueva in turn on Wednesday accused Huntsman of tipping off Kuehl to the search warrant. The sheriff wrote to California Attorney General Rob Bonta requesting his office investigate Huntsman for possibly alerting Kuehl (Bonta’s office told The Daily Beast it was reviewing the letter), saying she and Giggans were both “waiting for detectives to arrive.”
Huntsman says phone records will show he didn’t.
As part of LASD’s public statements on the searches, which included publishing the affidavit, Undersheriff Tim Murakami said in a video statement that deputies were seeking records and other forms of evidence and that the investigation was ongoing. He also said Villanueva has recused himself, with Murakami taking charge of the investigation. The Daily Beast contacted the department for comment and was directed to a landing page with Murakami’s video and published documents.
The transit allegations go back to last September, when they were filed by LASD with the District Attorney’s office, which said in a statement to The Daily Beast that the evidence at the time didn’t prove criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt. The DA’s office said this week it hasn’t had contact on the matter since and wasn’t consulted on the warrants.
It’s worth noting that District Attorney George Gascon himself is not exactly tight with the sheriff; Villanueva endorsed a recall effort against the prosecutor that failed earlier this year.
Villanueva has also been clashing with Metro for some time, trying to get his department sole jurisdiction over policing on the agency’s trains and buses (the Long Beach and Los Angeles police departments also have contracts with Metro). He has even threatened to pull deputies from the lines.
Warrants were previously served to Peace Over Violence, Metro, and Metro’s Office of the Inspector General over the matter. The latter two have been challenging the warrant, fighting over it in court earlier in September.
This is all happening as Villanueva faces some of the most serious pushback to his authority in the form of a fall campaign rife with challenges to him. One is Measure A, a ballot measure that, if passed, would give the Board of Supervisors the ability to remove a sheriff. It was officially approved in August to go before voters in November.
But there are other major city and countywide elections that could reshape the political makeup of Los Angeles’ government. After years of feuding, both the sheriff’s office itself and at least one if not two supervisor seats could change; Kuehl is retiring at the end of this term.
The sheriff has long resisted oversight or advice from the Board of Supervisors and others. His argument for years has been that, as an elected official, he only answers to voters. But Villanueva is in a close race with former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, who said on Thursday that the investigation of supervisors should go to an independent agency. Otherwise, he said, it “erodes public trust and confidence in the department and in the investigation itself.” Luna also called out the claim Villanueva has recused himself, saying the letter the sheriff wrote to Bonta is a sign he is involved in the investigation.
Los Angeles has had a string of high-profile corruption cases in recent years, with multiple members of the City Council charged (including one for alleged actions while serving on the Board of Supervisors). But long-simmering rage at the Sheriff hit a crescendo this week.
Incoming City Council member Eunisses Hernandez tweeted “Measure A” soon after news broke of the searches on Wednesday. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who is not seeking reelection this year, called the investigation a “witch hunt.”
For his part, Huntsman, the county oversight official, rejected the premise that voters were the only ones who could intervene.
“We have criminal laws. The sheriff is not above the law. He can be investigated and prosecuted and arrested,” Huntsman said.