L.A. sheriff will defy subpoena from oversight commission on jail conditions

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he will defy a subpoena from the civilian board that oversees his department.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva plans to defy a subpoena from a civilian oversight board to testify about coronavirus in the jails, escalating a battle with county officials and testing a system designed to keep his powers in check.

Villanueva said he would not attend Thursday’s virtual Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission meeting, instead sending Asst. Sheriff Bruce Chase to discuss the jail issues. He described testifying before the commission as a “public shaming.”

This is the first time the commission has attempted to use the subpoena powers granted by Measure R, which was overwhelmingly approved by L.A. County voters in March. After Villanueva did not appear voluntarily at a May 7 meeting, the commission voted unanimously to subpoena him.


Although Villanueva has significantly reduced the jail population to combat the virus’ spread, 662 inmates have tested positive. Nearly 190 sheriff’s department employees — some of whom do not work in the jails — have also contracted the virus.

At a press briefing Wednesday, Villanueva questioned the legality of Measure R. In California, aside from wielding the budgetary purse strings, county officials generally have limited authority over elected sheriffs.

The Civilian Oversight Commission was formed in 2016 after corruption and brutality in the jails led to multiple indictments of sheriff’s deputies. All nine members are appointed by the county Board of Supervisors, with five nominated by supervisors and the other four recommended by community groups.

Villanueva has been at war with the supervisors almost from the day he took office in December 2018, with the coronavirus pandemic becoming a new battlefield.

The sheriff said he has shared information about coronavirus in the jails with the commission and on the department website. But until the legal issue is resolved, he said, he will not testify.

“If transparency is being provided, if the information is being provided, what exactly is the purpose of the subpoena?” he said. “If they’re engaging in a public shaming endeavor, which it looks like at face value, well, they’re sadly mistaken. We’re not going to be participating in that.”

In response to a reporter’s question about whether he was rejecting the will of residents who voted for Measure R, Villanueva said: “I don’t think the public understood the true nature of the measure.”

Patricia Giggans, chairwoman of the oversight commission, said she was disappointed but not surprised at Villanueva’s defiance. She said she is pleased that Chase will be testifying, but that the board wants to hear from the sheriff himself.

“It’s such a serious time for all county departments, and we have our job to do. We’re not going away,” Giggans said. “We submitted a subpoena, and we’re not going to walk away from it.”

Measure R does not contain a mechanism for enforcing subpoenas, but the commission could request that a judge hear the issue.

Jasmyne Cannick, a political consultant on the Measure R campaign, said enforcement was not a primary concern because it seemed far-fetched that sheriff’s officials would not comply.

Along with local progressive groups that had long pushed for subpoena power against the Sheriff’s Department, Cannick supported Villanueva’s election. She said she is not likely to back him again.

Villanueva’s attitude as sheriff has been “I’m going to do what I want to do, make up the rules as I go, and I’m not accountable to anyone,” she said.

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said the wrangling over the subpoena is the latest incarnation of Villanueva’s pugnacious approach.

His refusal to testify before the commission shows the necessity of civilian oversight over the sheriff, she said.

“The idea that the sheriff would fail to comply voluntarily, fail to comply with the law under a newly passed ballot measure is, let’s say, curious for somebody who is a top member of the law enforcement community,” she said.

Also on the agenda for Thursday’s Civilian Oversight Committee meeting is a subpoena by the Sheriff Department’s inspector general for documents relating to the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.

The inspector general, Max Huntsman, is investigating allegations that Villanueva directed a cover-up after deputies shared graphic photos of the crash scene.

Villanueva said Wednesday that Huntsman is overreaching and has no authority to demand the documents. The department’s internal investigation into the photo-sharing incident will be made public after its completion, he said.