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Democratic Party rebukes L.A. County sheriff; some feel ‘misled, almost conned’

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva garnered support in his long-shot election bid last year by speaking to local Democratic clubs and winning the powerful endorsement of the L.A. County Democratic Party. Now the party is criticizing him.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Thousands of people in Los Angeles County found fliers in their mailboxes last year touting a little-known candidate with an unusual advantage in his bid to become sheriff.

Alex Villanueva, a Democrat running to unseat a well-established incumbent in the nonpartisan race, was described in the mailers as “the only candidate for sheriff endorsed by the Democratic Party.” The message helped propel Villanueva to an astonishing upset that was widely attributed to the endorsement and his promise to kick federal immigration agents out of jails in this deep-blue county.

But nearly nine months into his term, Villanueva is facing a rare rebuke from the party amid concerns about his reinstatement of fired deputies, testimony by a former Sheriff’s Department official that Villanueva’s former chief of staff pressured her to alter records of misconduct, and his policy allowing inmates to be handed over to federal immigration agents through intermediaries.

Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party passed a resolution calling on Villanueva to restore trust in his department. It asks him to adhere to recommendations on hiring practices by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, to end inmate transfers to federal immigration agents and their contractors, and to reverse all decisions by a panel that reinstated a deputy fired for violating department policies regarding domestic abuse and lying. The resolution also expressed concern that Villanueva’s son was admitted into the Sheriff’s Department academy despite a history of driving under the influence.

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Party leaders said it was highly unusual — if not unprecedented in recent memory — for the organization to publicly express sharp disapproval of an official so soon after endorsing him.

“We felt really misled, almost conned, by the difference between Villanueva’s rhetoric and the things he has done since he was elected,” said Damian Carroll, member-at-large of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, who authored the resolution. Carroll said he had been a big believer in Villanueva and his progressive ideas during the campaign.

Carroll said the resolution stems from a feeling of “buyer’s remorse” by the wider membership and serves as a warning to Villanueva that he will not be endorsed again if he doesn’t make swift changes.

County Democratic Party Chair Mark Gonzalez cautioned that the resolution is not an outright condemnation of the sheriff but rather a call to action and an opportunity for Villanueva to institute reforms.

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“We made history when we elected him as sheriff and were part of a coalition in doing that, and we were proud of that,” he said. “We feel a bit disappointed by some of the stuff we see in the press about him…. We got a good Democrat in office, and we want to make sure we maintain the values of the Democratic Party.”

The resolution says Villanueva “ran on a platform of reforming and restoring trust in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; but, since his election, trust has only been further eroded by numerous complaints of abuse of his office…. We are now making a public appeal to the sheriff asking him to make significant changes to restore the public’s trust in Sheriff’s Department.”

The resolution was approved by a simple majority of members, with 177 of them in attendance, Gonzalez said.

In a statement, Villanueva said he is dedicated to the values of the county Democratic Party but dismisses its resolution as the product of influence by the county Board of Supervisors, whose members did not endorse him.

“The timing of this resolution is suspect, coming on the heels of the news of a criminal investigation involving both current and/or former elected and/or appointed officials. I am fully aware of the efforts of certain [Board of Supervisors] members to rally support from third party validators to encourage public outcry while misleading residents,” the statement said.

Villanueva, in his statement, also rejected the critique of his deputy rehires, saying his predecessor made similar reinstatements that did not come under scrutiny. He also defended the hiring of his son as a deputy sheriff trainee, saying that he met all requirements. Villanueva also asserted that his policies in the jails have led to a dramatic reduction in transfers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A longtime deputy sheriff, Villanueva had reached only the rank of lieutenant when he announced in 2017 his run to replace then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell, a former Long Beach police chief and Los Angeles Police Department official who spent years in the upper echelons of law enforcement.

Villanueva ran a bare-bones campaign for much of the race, visiting local Democratic clubs around the county and raising a relatively small amount of money. He got a boost after advancing to the runoff and attracted support from the deputies union, left-leaning groups and the county Democratic Party, which helped position him as the progressive alternative to McDonnell at a time when a “blue wave” of voters were reacting against the policies of President Trump.

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Since taking office, Villanueva has faced criticism for his handling of secret societies of tattooed deputies; increasing potential liability tied to reinstating deputies fired for unreasonable force, dishonesty and domestic violence; and accusations that he has not provided the transparency he promised during his campaign.

This week, his undersheriff alerted the county’s governing board that the Sheriff’s Department has opened a criminal investigation into its own chief watchdog over allegations of stolen personnel files. The target of that inquiry, Inspector General Max Huntsman, says his office did not break any laws, noting that county code requires the department to comply with the oversight agency’s requests for documents including confidential personnel records.

Villanueva has repeatedly claimed that the scrutiny of his administration is the result of attacks by those in the political establishment who didn’t support his candidacy.

“The sheriff has alleged that all of the criticism of him is from people who didn’t want him to win the election,” said Carroll, the author of the resolution, adding that he found Villanueva to be “combative, dismissive and evasive” when given a chance to respond to criticisms at a recent meeting at his club, which had largely supported the sheriff.

“It’s just not credible to say that we are motivated by anything more than disappointment and despair at the actions he’s taking,” Carroll said.

Villanueva did not respond to a request about those comments.

The Democratic Party’s resolution follows a public announcement by a coalition of 41 progressive organizations and individuals admonishing Villanueva for his statements that some reforms to curb jail abuse were a “social experiment,” his comments questioning the credibility of a woman claiming abuse at the hands of a deputy, and his policy allowing inmates to be handed to officers contracted by ICE.

“You ran on a reform platform of reducing cronyism, lessening violence, protecting immigrants, and building trust; however, your actions since taking office fly in the face of these campaign promises and raise serious concerns among the very communities that elected you,” said the letter signed in February by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Dignity and Power Now, Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Youth Justice Coalition and other groups.


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