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California

L.A. County sheriff’s top watchdog is under investigation — by the L.A. County sheriff

L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman
L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman says county code requires the Sheriff’s Department to promptly provide documents, including confidential personnel records.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has launched a criminal investigation into its chief watchdog tied to allegations that the oversight agency unlawfully obtained internal records, according to a letter from Undersheriff Timothy Murakami to the county Board of Supervisors.

The letter, dated Monday, says the inquiry centers on “very troubling information and preliminary evidence” indicating that the county Office of Inspector General and current and former members of the Sheriff’s Department may have engaged in conspiracy, theft of government property, unauthorized computer access, theft of confidential files and burglary.

Murakami writes that the FBI has been briefed on the matter but does not describe any more details about the investigation, which was first reported by KABC-TV Channel 7. Sheriff Alex Villanueva recused himself from the inquiry and designated Murakami as his surrogate in the probe, according to a letter he wrote to Murakami on April 23.

Inspector General Max Huntsman told The Times on Tuesday that his office did not break any laws, noting that county code requires the Sheriff’s Department to promptly comply with the oversight agency’s requests for documents, including confidential personnel records.

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The move by the Sheriff’s Department drew swift condemnation from county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who said the investigation “smells a little bogus.”

“It looks to me to be mostly intimidation,” Kuehl said in an interview Wednesday. “I find it very strange that the sheriff feels it’s appropriate for him or his people to have a criminal investigation into the very people we have assigned to oversee them. We passed an ordinance giving Max Huntsman the power to look at personnel files. He was doing it all along under former Sheriff Jim McDonnell.”

Huntsman said the inquiry bore some similarities to conduct by former Sheriff Lee Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, whose staff attempted to intimidate an FBI agent who was investigating abuse in the county jails run by the Sheriff’s Department. Baca and Tanaka were convicted of obstructing the FBI investigation.

“It is improper for a sheriff to criminally target a public official for formally discharging their duties under a county code,” Huntsman said.

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The Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to those comments but issued a statement from Murakami.

“Max Huntsman, the Inspector General who is supposed to provide honest oversight of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and who reports to the Board of Supervisors, is under investigation for potentially stealing protected files of high ranking employees and others, for purposes unrelated to the Office of Inspector General’s oversight duties,” the statement said.

The criminal investigation is the latest episode in a clash over how much access should be given to the watchdog organization as part of its role in monitoring the Sheriff’s Department.

On Monday, the inspector general issued a report concluding that Villanueva’s administration has blocked access to personnel records, meetings and computer databases that had been previously available to the watchdog agency.

Huntsman told the Board of Supervisors last month that the Sheriff’s Department was exhibiting a “Tanaka-level crisis” in its refusal to comply with requests from his office, referring to the former undersheriff, who is now in prison on the obstruction conviction and on a conviction of conspiracy. Tanaka was said to encourage deputies to work in the “gray area” of policing and dismissed efforts to hold deputies accountable.

In response to a request from Huntsman, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to explore how to grant his office subpoena power — a legal mechanism that would give the watchdog agency a stronger tool to compel information from the Sheriff’s Department.

The Sheriff’s Department has recently raised concerns that confidential personnel records — including about 2,000 pages from case files related to Villanueva — were downloaded from an internal system just before Villanueva was sworn in. A declaration by Sheriff’s Det. Todd Bernstein filed in court last week said a department official downloaded “an unusual amount of data” from the agency’s Personnel Review Management System on Nov. 28, five days before Villanueva took office. The data included 78 documents from 22 unique employee case files, according to Bernstein.

The declaration was filed by attorneys for Villanueva and the Sheriff’s Department in a lawsuit over the reinstatement of Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, who was fired in 2016 for violating department policies regarding domestic violence and dishonesty and was reinstated by Villanueva. Mandoyan served as a volunteer aide on Villanueva’s campaign, though the sheriff has denied providing the deputy favorable treatment.

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The county sued Villanueva and the Sheriff’s Department, alleging Mandoyan’s reinstatement was unlawful.

Huntsman said his staff requested the files mentioned in Bernstein’s declaration because they had been designated as secret and because his office has an interest in monitoring information that the department is trying to keep confidential. Huntsman said he later developed concerns that some personnel records would be altered under Villanueva’s administration and wanted to have a record of the original files.

Huntsman said he believed the criminal investigation into him and his office stemmed from a conversation he had with Villanueva in person on June 17 about Mandoyan.

“The sheriff asked me not to report publicly on Mandoyan and said that, if I did, there would be consequences. Now I know what he meant,” Huntsman said. In July, Huntsman released a detailed report examining the evidence in Mandoyan’s case, raising serious questions about the integrity of the reinstatement process under Villanueva and concluding that the deputy should not have been given his job back.

Michael Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor who has served in oversight roles for police agencies across the country, called the investigation “unconscionable.” Gennaco monitored the Sheriff’s Department for more than a decade as head of the Office of Independent Review, which is no longer in operation.

“I think it smacks of a pure conflict,” Gennaco said. “For the Sheriff’s Department to be involved in the investigation of its own watchdog is inappropriate and inconsistent with the principles of criminal justice. For the sheriff to recuse himself does not take care of the problem because the person running the investigation reports to the sheriff. This is exactly why we have other independent governmental entities to step in.”

In his letter Monday, Murakami asked the board to appoint an interim inspector general while Huntsman is under investigation. The board declined to reassign Huntsman, saying in a letter from county Executive Officer Celia Zavala, dated Tuesday, that it is the Sheriff’s Department that ought to recuse itself from any investigation of the inspector general’s office. Zavala wrote that it would be more appropriate for the FBI, California attorney general or another independent agency to conduct such an inquiry.

“The Board knows you can appreciate the apparent conflict of interest and the inappropriate message it sends to the community to have the LASD investigate the OIG, given that the OIG’s sole purpose is to monitor and investigate the LASD,” Zavala’s letter said.


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