Sheriff’s sexist slur and accusations of ‘blood money’ ramp up feud with L.A. County supervisors
During a recent broadcast on Facebook, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva spent several minutes criticizing Supervisor Hilda Solis for her comments earlier that week on systemic brutality and racism by police toward people of color.
He questioned whether she was trying to sow more distrust between law enforcement and the community and said she owed an apology to Sheriff’s Department employees and all law enforcement agencies throughout Los Angeles County.
And then the sheriff turned more personal.
“I don’t know,” he said on the live broadcast. “Are you trying to earn the title of a La Malinche? Is that what it is?”
Many were stunned by Villanueva’s use of a name used to demean a woman as a traitor or sellout. It refers to a historical figure in Mexican culture who was the interpreter and slave of the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés and became a symbol of betrayal for facilitating the conquest of the Aztec empire.
Solis, a child of immigrants from Nicaragua and Mexico, called Villanueva’s reference “highly unprofessional, inappropriate, racist and sexist.”
“It doesn’t just malign me, but women everywhere,” Solis said in a statement to The Times. “The sheriff needs to recognize his influence and be a good role model, as I am sure I was not the only one offended by his slur.”
It is one of the latest flare-ups in a long-running feud between L.A. County’s most powerful leaders that has intensified and become more personal in recent weeks. The incident occurred as they grapple with a pandemic-induced economic slowdown that has triggered cuts to the Sheriff’s Department and other county offices, as well as the aftermath of the deputy killing of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, which has drawn national attention as leaders across the country are rethinking the role of police in communities.
Solis urged Villanueva to “stay focused on protecting the public from wayward deputies within his department and keeping his budget tight.”
“We are dealing with an unprecedented global pandemic and a local budget crisis,” she said. “We have too much to do as we work to preserve the public’s health at this critical moment.”
Villanueva did not answer questions about what he meant by his remark, directing queries to the department’s Information Bureau. A spokesman responded later, referencing a different supervisor.
“On the topic of ‘racist and sexist’ comments, I would ask Supervisor [Sheila] Kuehl what she meant when she attacked Sheriff Villanueva on the radio and told him, among other things, to ‘put on his big boy pants,’” Lt. John Satterfield said by email.
In a statement, Kuehl responded that Villanueva’s budget has run “unprecedented deficits” in the last two years. “He needs to operate within a balanced budget and be accountable to taxpayers. That’s not a slur. It’s a fact,” she said.
Zev Yaroslavsky, who spent years as both a county supervisor and an L.A. City Council member, said Villanueva’s relationship with the board could stifle good policy.
“It’s a governance mess,” said Yaroslavsky, who is director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “And the people are the ones that will be hurt in the end.”
Villanueva’s remarks about Solis were particularly disturbing to many in L.A.'s Latino community.
For centuries, La Malinche has been portrayed as the “Mexican Eve, a traitorous woman,” said Sandra Messinger Cypess, who has studied the historical figure for about 35 years.
“It’s usually one of the most derogatory things that one could call a woman,” said Cypess, professor emerita of Latin American literature at the University of Maryland. “From her name comes malinchista, which means you’re a sellout.”
She said that interpretation often misses the complicated history of La Malinche, who was among about 20 Indigenous women given to Cortés to “placate him.”
Cortés found out that La Malinche spoke Mayan and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and he brought her into his entourage — a rare status for a woman, Cypess said. What’s often missed, she said, is that La Malinche had little choice but to obey.
“If she had said, ‘No thanks, I don’t want to do this,’ do you think she would have lived long? She has no agency in this position — as a woman, as an Indigenous person, as a slave,” Cypess said. “She obeys whoever is her master. That’s how she survives.”
There’s been a movement to reclaim the term and to reexamine how colonialism and patriarchy have intersected, said Maria Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, who is of Mexican descent. But she said the context of Villanueva’s remarks perpetuates the notion that one woman — who was oppressed and enslaved — was responsible for a colonization that caused so much trauma for so many Indigenous people.
“We don’t need that old way of thinking that the sheriff is trying to perpetuate. No way,” Brenes said. “We’ve done too much work. We cannot let him take us there.”
Ivette Alé, senior policy lead at Dignity and Power Now, who identifies as Latinx, said Villanueva’s use of the term La Malinche — about whom Alé wrote her graduate thesis, she said — toward the sole Latina on the board was “incredibly offensive.”
“It’s also surprising that he, as a Latino sheriff who is currently in charge of a jail that’s over 50% Latino, would use that language,” Alé said, adding that Villanueva has resisted accountability in the Guardado case by withholding video and reports from county watchdogs and the public. “If we’re talking about people who are actually harming the Latino community, Sheriff Villanueva is at the top of that list.”
(Villanueva has said that little information has been released about Guardado, who was shot and killed by a deputy June 18 in Gardena, because the investigation is ongoing.)
Lex Steppling, who works with Alé, said the slur is “entrenched in toxic masculinity — ‘Not only did you sell us out, but you gave your body to them too.’” He added of Villanueva: “He really crosses the line when it comes to women of color figures in the county.”
Villanueva’s 34-minute broadcast this month began with criticism of several actions by the Board of Supervisors, including a proposal to examine closing Men’s Central Jail. He eventually singled out Solis, saying she went over the top in comments about law enforcement agencies conducting investigations of their own when they use fatal force.
“Supervisor Solis, I don’t know if it’s willful ignorance on your part or a deliberate effort to misguide your constituents on the role of law enforcement and the role of the Sheriff’s Department investigating deputy-involved shootings, but I’d encourage you to educate yourself a little bit further before you make a comment like that,” he said.
He went on to say that Solis had accepted $13.7 million in “blood money” from the federal government to sell out immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
He was referencing a federal grant the Sheriff’s Department had applied for and accepted for years that required sending federal officials personal information about inmates who were in the country illegally. Villanueva stopped the agency’s participation in the program.
A county spokeswoman said the Board of Supervisors has played no role in applying for or accepting the grant since 1999.
Tensions between Villanueva and board members date to his campaign, when several supervisors endorsed his predecessor, former Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
The discord ramped up soon after Villanueva took office in 2018, with fights over Sheriff’s Department oversight and Villanueva’s rehiring of deputies who had histories of misconduct. More recently, Villanueva and board members fought over the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing budget cuts.
During discussions about the Sheriff’s Department’s budget deficit at two board meetings, county officials said a department head could face misdemeanor charges for closing the year with a gap.
“You did say a misdemeanor?” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas asked at one meeting in October.
“Yes, sir,” an official said.
The issue came up again in April after a question posed by Solis.
Villanueva fired back: “There’s a lot of crimes that are misdemeanors, a lot of crimes that are felonies. And I could go on for a long, long time about a long list of felony crimes and the consequences of them — and they’re done by public officials. … Good luck with that if you’re gonna scare me with the claim about a misdemeanor crime.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger asked whether that was a veiled threat.
Earlier in the pandemic, Barger and Villanueva appeared to be working together more amicably. But that didn’t last long.
The supervisors voted in March soon after to put the county’s chief executive officer, Sachi Hamai, in charge of its crisis response, which effectively removed Villanueva as the director of the emergency operations center. The supervisors said the move was long in the works, but Villanueva called it a “silent coup” and has complained on multiple occasions that he was left out of important pandemic-related decisions.
Recent broadsides have become more derisive.
In another Facebook broadcast last week, Villanueva fielded a question from his wife, Vivian, about the propriety of Hamai’s position on the board of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. The nonprofit helped push a proposal to the Board of Supervisors that would 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.
“Hey, Viv, sweet pea,” 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.
Hamai had stepped down from the United Way board Tuesday, before the supervisors’ vote on the proposal, to avoid the appearance of any conflict. Sheriff’s Department officials questioned why she did not step down sooner.
Skip Miller, an attorney representing Hamai and the county, said in a letter to Villanueva that his “malicious lies” amounted to defamation and threatened legal action.
“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.
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” and added that Hamai had no financial interest in the United Way, serving as an unpaid member of the board.
In a response letter Friday, Villanueva said that he was falsely accused and that Miller violated ethical rules in advising Hamai to sue him, because the attorney also represents the sheriff. (Miller told The Times that he does not represent Villanueva and never has.)
Villanueva’s undersheriff, Tim Murakami, signed a letter the same day advising the supervisors that the Sheriff’s Department had referred a criminal inquiry concerning an unnamed “subordinate to the Board of Supervisors” to California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra. He wrote that the potential charges included breach of public duty, conflicts-of-interest disclosure and a public official with a financial interest attempting to influence a political decision.
Miller inferred that the Sheriff’s Department was referring to Hamai and, in a response letter to Villanueva, called it retaliation and malicious prosecution.
“If anybody should be investigated by the AG, it is you for what you’ve done here,” his letter said.
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