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California AG to review sheriff’s cases county lawyers call ‘politically motivated’

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta at a news conference in December.
California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta at a news conference in December.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

California’s attorney general will review several investigations conducted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department amid allegations by county officials that Sheriff Alex Villanueva is abusing his power by investigating his critics.

In a letter last month, Los Angeles County Counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva urged Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to take control of the “intimidating, politically motivated investigations initiated or threatened” by Villanueva.

“Sheriff Villanueva has used these investigations to discourage legitimate oversight of himself and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and to retaliate against any public official who criticizes him or the Sheriff’s Department,” Castro-Silva said in the Dec. 6 letter, which was later made public.

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Castro-Silva pointed to several cases opened by the Sheriff’s Department, including a long-running criminal investigation into allegations made by department officials that Inspector General Max Huntsman and others improperly downloaded confidential personnel records on Villanueva and others. Castro-Silva said that Huntsman made a written request for the records and accessed them as part of his oversight duties.

In a live broadcast Tuesday on Facebook, Villanueva challenged Castro-Silva’s allegations. Villanueva claimed that after sheriff’s investigators concluded their investigation into Huntsman and four others in November, they presented the case to the attorney general’s office for possible criminal charges. The AG’s office didn’t respond until it informed officials of its review last week, Villanueva said.

A little-known team of investigators in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has pursued criminal investigations into some of Villanueva’s most vocal critics.

“We want the AG to just do their job,” Villanueva said. “You have our complete cooperation in these matters — all we’re asking from you is to pick up the pace here.”

The Sheriff’s Department was also carrying out a criminal inquiry into Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit that is run by a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, which oversees the Sheriff’s Department. The commission member has been a vocal critic of the sheriff and is associated with county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who has clashed fiercely with Villanueva and called for his resignation.

Both the alleged data breach and Peace Over Violence case were handled by the Sheriff’s Civil Rights and Public Integrity Detail, a unit formed by Villanueva to investigate public corruption that has been accused of targeting his political enemies. Castro-Silva’s formal request to Bonta came after the oversight commission in September called on the attorney general to take over any of the unit’s cases involving elected or oversight officials.

“None of these investigations appears to have merit, despite Sheriff Villanueva’s attempts to publicize them, and none has resulted in criminal charges,” Castro-Silva wrote to the attorney general. “The lack of charges and the circumstances underlying the investigations strongly suggests that these criminal inquiries are designed to intimidate a watchdog agency and its employees.”

The Sheriff’s Department says allegations against the watchdog include conspiracy and theft. “Smells a little bogus,” says Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

He wrote that the “only way to put an end to the Sheriff’s abuse of power” is for the state Department of Justice to determine whether the investigations have merit, and end them if they don’t.

In a response letter last week, Bonta’s office said it would review the investigation into Huntsman and others, as well as allegations by Villanueva that the county’s former chief executive, Sachi Hamai, had a conflict of interest because of her position on the board of a nonprofit that helped push a proposal to the Board of Supervisors in 2020. The county paid Hamai $1.5 million after she threatened to sue for defamation.

The Sheriff’s Department in July 2020 had referred the allegations against Hamai to then-California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra.

Bonta’s office also said it would ask for a status report on the investigation into Peace Over Violence.

It’s unclear what the reviews will entail or whether the attorney general will resolve the cases either by filing criminal charges or closing them.

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.

In a statement to The Times, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office wrote: “We can confirm that, as requested by the county, we’ll review the sheriff department’s investigation into the matters you referenced. Our review will seek to determine whether any additional action regarding these matters is appropriate or required.”

Huntsman on Monday praised the attorney general’s move.

“Sheriff Villanueva’s unlawful use of his authority to threaten and intimidate public officials has catastrophically disrupted the administration of local law enforcement for the last three years,” Huntsman said. “I greatly appreciate the Dept. of Justice intervening.”

Villanueva said earlier this month that the public corruption unit has investigated 24 cases. Fourteen of the cases were closed after investigators determined “no crime occurred or there’s insufficient evidence to make a determination,” while 10 remain open, Villanueva said. He did not specify which cases are active.


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