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Sheriff Villanueva demotes high-ranking official who is trying to unseat him

Los Angeles County Sheriff's commander Eli Vera held a press conference in front of the Hall of Justice
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Eli Vera at a news conference in front of the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. Vera, who is running against L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, has been demoted from chief to commander.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

When Eli Vera, a high-ranking official under Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, entered the race to unseat his boss, he planned to keep his place as one of Villanueva’s top advisors.

Villanueva had a different idea.

In a letter last week, Villanueva notified Vera he was being demoted from a chief to a commander. It was, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman indicated, an unapologetic move made to shut a competitor out from planning meetings that the sheriff regularly holds with senior staff.

“The law is firmly established that ... those who serve as confidential advisors to an elected leader, cannot oppose him/her politically and keep their post,” Capt. John Satterfield wrote in response to questions from The Times. “Who has ever heard of a cabinet secretary running against the president who appointed them?”

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As part of the demotion, Vera is being transferred from his job overseeing the department’s Technology and Support Division to a lower post in the Court Services Division. He will no longer attend weekly executive staff meetings with Villanueva and other high-level discussions.

The Aug. 30 letter from the sheriff to Vera did not give a reason for the demotion. But Vera said he received an explanation from Undersheriff Tim Murakami and accused Villanueva of retaliating against him for his decision to run for the sheriff’s job.

“The undersheriff made it perfectly clear that the incumbent sheriff doesn’t feel that he could have a division chief running against him and holding that position at the same time,” Vera told The Times in an interview. “So it’s clearly politically driven, I don’t think there’s any question whatsoever.”

Because commanders are typically briefed on what’s discussed at the weekly executive meetings and attend them when chiefs are away, Vera said the demotion will have little practical impact.

“What he’s trying to do is harm my campaign,” Vera said. “It’s a message to the rest of the department: Fall in line or else.”

Satterfield said Monday that the allegations of retaliation “lack merit.”

The friction between Vera and Villanueva is an early storyline in what has already become a crowded and contentious race that will be decided next year. So far, Vera and two other current officials, as well as others, have thrown their hats in against Villanueva, and several have shown a willingness to criticize the sheriff sharply.

Lt. Eric Strong, who oversees operations at four courthouses, and Capt. Britta Steinbrenner, head of security for county buildings, including libraries and hospitals, have filed paperwork to run.

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Others vying for the job include former Sheriff’s Capt. Matt Rodriguez, who retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2013 and recently served as the interim chief of the Santa Paula Police Department, and Cecil Rhambo, who left the department after rising to its third-highest rank, assistant sheriff, and now serves as the chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police.

High-ranking officials have challenged an incumbent sheriff before. In 1998, Lee Baca ran against Sheriff Sherman Block and stepped down as division chief only after the primary election, when he forced a runoff. Block died just days before the general election.

Villanueva raised concerns about Vera’s candidacy soon after he announced plans to run in April, according to a letter Asst. Sheriff Robin Limon wrote to Vera on the sheriff’s behalf.

“With an active duty chief and an incumbent Sheriff both running in the same election, there will undoubtedly be unique challenges in this historically unprecedented situation,” Limon wrote in May. “In an effort to maintain the Sheriff’s ability to manage an efficient operation without disruption, the sheriff requests you provide a plan on how to navigate your executive role and communications with him in the coming months.”

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Around the same time, Villanueva also requested that top-ranking executives, including Vera, sign a confidentiality agreement acknowledging that those who disclose confidential information are “subject to immediate dismissal and may be subject to civil, criminal or administrative penalties.”

Vera told The Times that the agreement, which he believes no longer applies to him because of his demotion, was an attempt to keep him from criticizing the sheriff.

“The NDA was clearly an attempt to muzzle me,” Vera told The Times. “It was done to silence me — he knows very well that there are a lot of internal issues in this organization that he is directly responsible for.”

In a letter to Villanueva in May, Vera said his candidacy announcement had spurred “intimidation tactics” against him. He pointed to when two sheriff’s investigators showed up unannounced to his home to question his wife about a matter Vera said had already been resolved.

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The unwelcomed visit stemmed from an incident in August of last year, when Vera’s wife, a sheriff’s sergeant at the time, lost her purse at a church in Chino. She was carrying a personal gun and department-issued badge inside.

Vera said he and his wife didn’t realize the purse was missing for a few days because they were in the midst of packing up much of their belongings to prepare for house renovations. When the couple determined it was gone, Vera said, his wife reported the incident to Chino police. Vera’s wife has since retired from the department.

Vera said he notified Murakami of his plans to alert the department’s Major Crimes Bureau about what happened so sheriff’s detectives could help Chino police with the theft investigation. Eventually, he said, the Sheriff’s Department took over the probe. A suspect was arrested and prosecuted in the case, Vera said, but the gun was never recovered.

The Sheriff’s Department later opened an inquiry into why its investigators became involved with an investigation outside its jurisdiction at Vera’s request.

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“A thorough inquiry is being conducted to review all aspects of this case and the decision-making process surrounding it,” Satterfield said in December of last year.

A Chino police spokesman said in August of last year that the Sheriff’s Department had taken over the investigation and referred additional questions to the agency. The spokesman did not respond Monday to questions about Vera’s role in that move.

Vera denied using his influence inappropriately and said that he was cleared of any wrongdoing. He added that it’s not uncommon for the Sheriff’s Department to assist another agency when a deputy loses a weapon and badge, and that he did not use his high-ranking position in the department to pressure Chino police to give up the case.

“My recollection is that they conducted an inquiry and nothing out of policy or unusual came up,” Vera said.


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