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Attorney for top L.A. County official accuses sheriff of defamation over Facebook Live comments

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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An attorney representing Los Angeles County’s chief executive officer has accused Sheriff Alex Villanueva of defamation and threatened to take legal action against him over comments he made Wednesday on a live Facebook broadcast.

The spat centers around a question about the propriety of CEO Sachi Hamai’s position on the board of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. The nonprofit helped push a proposal to the Board of Supervisors this week to redirect 10% of the county’s general fund — which includes part of the Sheriff’s Department’s budget — to better address the needs of low-income residents in under-resourced communities.

Villanueva has suggested that the proposal is a veiled attempt to defund his department. Hamai stepped down from the United Way board before Tuesday’s vote to avoid the appearance of any conflict. During the meeting, she raised concerns about the proposal. Even so, the board voted 4-1 to draft a measure that could appear on the November ballot.

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The question to Villanueva was posed on Facebook by his wife, Vivian, who asked in a comment whether it is a felony for Hamai to serve on the United Way board.

“Hey, Viv, sweetpea,” Villanueva responded before reading aloud her question. “Apparently it is a felony if you’re receiving money from United Way, and you’re on the board, or you’re a county officer and you’re voting on a measure or you’re facilitating a measure which you stand to gain from your position on the other third party. That is a felony.” Villanueva then cited a government code.

Skip Miller, an attorney for the county and Hamai, sent Villanueva a letter Thursday demanding that he retract his “illegal and defamatory” statements.

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“The statements above about Ms. Hamai are malicious lies, and you know it perfectly well. It’s shocking and grossly irresponsible for anyone, much less the sheriff of Los Angeles County, to be publishing such defamatory falsehoods. And you’re doing so about the top executive officer in the county that employs you,” Miller wrote in the letter.

Villanueva did not answer questions about the dispute, directing a reporter to the sheriff’s information bureau.

A Sheriff’s Department spokesman later provided The Times with a letter Villanueva sent to Miller saying that it was a violation of ethical rules for the county’s attorney to advise Hamai to sue the sheriff, whom he also represents in a number of matters. Villanueva demanded that Miller retract his letter. Miller told The Times he does not represent Villanueva and never has.

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Miller said the government code Villanueva cited requires that a public official “have a prohibited ‘financial interest’ in a matter involving her or his public entity.”

“Ms. Hamai has no financial interest therein or in any matter involving UW. Until recently, she served as an unpaid member of the UW board. She received no financial benefit for this service,” he wrote.

In an interview Thursday, Miller said, “It’s very serious, and he’s in big trouble.”

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In a letter announcing her resignation from the United Way board, Hamai said she was unaware of the charity’s involvement in putting forth the ballot measure proposal.

“I was previously unaware of these efforts by United Way and, unfortunately, now believe there may be a perceived conflict of interest given my role as the chief executive officer for the county of Los Angeles,” Hamai wrote. “Therefore, in an abundance of caution and effective immediately, it is with sadness that I will be stepping down from serving as a board member.”

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