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L.A. County CEO to receive $1.5 million and security in settlement over alleged harassment by sheriff

Diptych shows L.A. County Chief Executive Sachi Hamai and L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva
Sachi Hamai, L.A. County’s outgoing chief executive, has been the target of Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s anger for several months, ire that led to concerns for her personal safety, according to a letter sent to county supervisors.
(Los Angeles Times)

After facing months of alleged “unrelenting and brutal” harassment from Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the chief executive of Los Angeles County will receive $1.5 million and full-time private security after she retires Monday to address concerns for her personal safety, according to a settlement agreement and a recent letter sent to the county’s Board of Supervisors.

Sachi Hamai has been the target of Villanueva’s anger over the last several months, ire that seemed to intensify in March when the board removed Villanueva as the head of the county’s emergency operations center just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to intensify in L.A., according to the letter obtained by The Times.

Villanueva took this “as a personal affront and castigated Ms. Hamai over it,” the letter said. The three-page missive was sent to the board July 30 by attorney Skip Miller, litigation counsel for L.A. County.

“He lied to the press saying she denied first responders their salaries while quarantined,” Miller wrote. “Incited by the Sheriff, individuals threatened to post her home address and suggested she be harmed.”

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County Counsel Mary Wickham signed off on the settlement Aug. 10. Hamai will not receive severance or any other payments and agreed not to sue the county, according to the agreement. The board authorized Wickham to settle on its behalf, Miller said.

The settlement and allegations are the latest in a lengthy series of clashes and tense relations between the sheriff and other county leaders since his surprise 2018 election victory over predecessor Jim McDonnell.

Most recently, Villanueva suggested Hamai had committed a felony because she served on the board of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which is supporting a November ballot measure that could lead to millions being redirected from the Sheriff’s Department to mental health and jail diversion services. (Hamai stepped down from the United Way board before the board’s vote and has said she hadn’t previously known about the United Way’s efforts to pass the initiative.)

In July, Villanueva referred to Hilda Solis, the only Latina on the Board of Supervisors, with what many considered to be a racist, misogynistic term after she made comments publicly about systemic brutality and racism by police toward people of color.

Earlier in the year, the Board of Supervisors sent a scathing letter to Villanueva, imploring him to correct the record after supervisors said he had spread false information about deputies’ sick leave pay during the coronavirus outbreak.

This led to threats against Hamai, the letter said.

“I frankly think that if we litigated her case, a jury could have hit the county for a lot more than $1.5 million, a lot more,” Miller said.

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.

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In a live social media broadcast Wednesday, Villanueva criticized Hamai’s request, which he noted comes at a time when the Sheriff’s Department is facing budget cuts that could trigger layoffs. The board cut $162 million from the Sheriff’s Department budget, which county officials have said could result in 451 potential layoffs, records show.

“Giving the outgoing CEO who makes way north of half a million dollars in annual salary $1.5 million — I think that’s a gift of public money, but I’m not too sure. That’s just my opinion,” Villanueva said.

“For the 700-plus Sheriff’s Department employees who are looking at losing their job because supposedly we’re in a financial crisis, giving any county employee $1.5 million on their way out the door as a golden handshake — that really, I think that’s outrageous.”

Miller’s letter, which Villanueva said was sent to him anonymously, is labeled privileged and confidential. He said he plans to alert the state attorney general’s office because it “looks like there was a potential theft of attorney-client product that somehow wound up in our hands as well.”

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In the latest flare-up in his feud with county officials, Sheriff Alex Villanueva refers to Supervisor Hilda Solis as “La Malinche,” a name historically used in Mexico to demean a woman as a traitor or sellout.

Hamai had initially planned to retire at the end of March but agreed to see the county through the financial turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Known for being a low-key figure, Hamai started her job with the county in 1988, first for the auditor-controller and steadily rising through the ranks.

“Sachi Hamai has been a loyal public servant to Los Angeles County and its residents for more than three decades,” L.A. County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kathryn Barger said in a statement. “I have had the privilege of working with Ms. Hamai through much of our long County careers and I have always appreciated her steadfast dedication and remarkable stewardship.”

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Hamai said in a statement that, as she finishes up her 32-year career with the county, it’s disheartening that she has been subjected to a “hostile and toxic work environment created by a fellow department head.”

“This department head’s antagonistic statements and actions over the past several months have added needless distractions and animosity at a time that I have been working nonstop to bring our County family together to confront some of the most challenging public health and economic crises in our recent history,” Hamai said.

Villanueva could not be reached Wednesday evening when contacted by The Times about Hamai’s comments.

Although Hamai’s request for money and security were approved, her actions may have other consequences.

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Making the case for a hostile work environment could prompt the county’s Human Resources Department to launch an investigation into Villanueva, an ethics expert said.

“It struck me as a way to try and affect his behavior, so he stops this public retaliatory commentary that does actually seem to be a pattern of his, and at least based on what I could find, seems to be primarily aimed at women,” said Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Times staff writers Adam Elmahrek and Matt Stiles contributed to this report.


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