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Candidate alleges Sheriff Villanueva’s radio show violates election, broadcasting rules

Eli Vera, candidate for sheriff
Eli Vera, candidate for Los Angeles County sheriff, filed complaints with state and federal agencies over Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s radio show on KFI-AM (640).
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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A candidate for Los Angeles County sheriff on Tuesday filed complaints with state and federal agencies alleging that Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s weekly radio show on KFI-AM (640) violates election and broadcasting rules.

L.A. County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Eli Vera, who is retiring from the Sheriff’s Department this month to focus on the campaign, is seeking to have KFI remove the Sunday night segment, “Live and Unscripted with L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.”

“He’s utilizing this radio show for political purposes,” Vera told The Times, adding that the show is unfair to the other candidates who aren’t getting comparable airtime from the station. “We’re within 100 days of the election, but yet he’s the only one that’s getting these opportunities and is talking about things that are highly political, and doesn’t shy away from saying so.”

In a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, Vera alleges he has requested “numerous times” that KFI interview him about his candidacy and has been turned down each time.

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An FCC spokesperson declined to discuss specific programs but said that stations are required to entertain requests for comparable time on air by qualified candidates.

“It does not require a station to provide opposing candidates with their own programs identical to the initiating candidate,” the spokesperson said, adding that a station may opt to ask an on-air personality to take a leave of absence from the gig until after the election. “Doing so is a business decision that is totally within the discretion of the station.”

Vera filed a second complaint to the California Fair Political Practices Commission alleging that the show amounted to an illegal campaign donation by KFI to Villanueva. His complaint claims that KFI charges more than $1,000 for a 30-second radio ad, which he said would put Villanueva’s segments well above the $3,000 limit a person or entity can contribute to a candidate. He filed a third complaint to the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk.

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who teaches election law, said KFI is essentially giving free ad space to Villanueva, which could run afoul of election rules.

“They’re not checking his comments. There’s no counterpoint, so in that way it feels like a bit of an in-kind campaign contribution,” Levinson said. “Arguably this is much more useful than someone who donates office furniture or markers for signs.”

KFI aired Villanueva live for two hours one evening in August last year, and he has been appearing regularly on the station in recent months. The topic of Sunday’s show was what KFI promoted on its website as the “deputy gangs” that operate inside the Sheriff’s Department. For decades, the department has been dogged by allegations that groups of deputies hold sway in various stations, controlling assignments, disregarding command staff and, for some, encouraging abusive behavior by deputies.

“We’re going to tackle a big subject, a subject that you’ll hear about pretty often in the campaign, the sheriff’s campaign, for example,” Villanueva said in introducing the show.

Villanueva went on to criticize the news coverage and independent studies conducted about the secretive groups of deputies, whose members often get matching tattoos.

“We should get a Hello Kitty gang. What do you think about that?” he said on the show. He said that many of the 18 groups identified in studies and news reports were active in the 1970s and their members have since retired. He pointed out the Tasmanian Devils — “yes,” he said, “it’s a Disney character.”

Villanueva throughout his term has downplayed the problem but has also taken credit for fixing it with a policy that prohibits deputies from joining groups that promote behavior that violates the rights of others.

He has complained that people compare the groups to criminal street gangs. Last month, he sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Board of Supervisors, demanding the board and others stop using the phrase “deputy gangs.”

The issue is front-and-center in the sheriff’s race, with almost every candidate running to unseat Villanueva arguing that he hasn’t done enough to confront the rogue groups.

KFI Program Director Robin Bertolucci said Tuesday that KFI is complying with election rules and that equal time is available upon request to all candidates.

“To my knowledge no one at KFI has heard from Eli Vera regarding a request for equal time,” Bertolucci said. “Since I heard about this matter I have emailed and called Eli but have not heard back.”

Vera’s campaign manager Michael Trujillo said KFI is on the campaign’s news release distribution list.

“We have sent out numerous advisories and releases to all L.A. media to discuss the sheriff’s race,” he said. “ The truth is, KFI is allowing a candidate for office free airtime.”

Villanueva told The Times his campaign complies with all regulations. “This is an act of desperation from a failing campaign, nothing more,” he said, and directed The Times to KFI’s programming director. “Rest assured, they are following all the necessary rules and regulations.”

Villanueva’s campaign manager, Javier Gonzalez, said another sheriff candidate has had airtime on KFI.

“He should take it up with KFI,” Gonzalez said. “As the show has been part of the department, the campaign has nothing at all to do with it.”

Vera says Villanueva’s impropriety is not limited to his KFI show. Vera alleged in an interview that a deputy who works in the Sheriff’s Information Bureau, which handles media requests for the Sheriff’s Department, runs a pro-Villanueva social media account that is updated during work hours while the deputy is on duty.

Villanueva hosts town hall meetings outside of the sheriff’s patrol area, flanked by department members in uniform, and Vera argued that “countless times, those events turn political.”

“You can’t differentiate between Alex Villanueva the sheriff and Alex Villanueva the candidate,” Vera said. “The lines are completely blurred.”

Villanueva said that he has no knowledge of “anyone running a social media account while on duty from SIB.” He added: “As of last week I’ve completed 90 town halls all over L.A. County, and last time I checked the entire county is my jurisdiction. The videos of the town halls are available online in the interest of transparency. Again, another futile effort from a failing candidate.”


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