Hello, Sheriff’s Department? How about a straight answer?
People often ask me what it’s like to cover the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
There have been satisfying moments — when a story I wrote prompted a new privacy law in California or exposed a problem that would otherwise have remained hidden. And there was the not as pleasant time Sheriff Alex Villanueva named me a subject in a criminal investigation, then quickly took it back.
But most days are more mundane. They often include phone calls with sources who pass on tips or small nuggets of information, many of which I then try to confirm with more phone calls, emails and yet more phone calls.
When chasing a story, I eventually get to the point where I need to tell sheriff’s officials what I am working on and ask for an official response. It is here that things all too often turn frustrating.
While Villanueva has anointed himself the most transparent sheriff in the department’s history, the truth is that he and officials under him routinely resort to obfuscation when dealing with me and other journalists seeking information about the inner workings of the department.
The sheriff’s chief of staff, for example, once admitted to me that he was able to “wiggle out” of giving me information because of the way I had phrased a question. The same chief of staff on another occasion quite literally slammed a door in my face as I was trying to ask Villanueva questions. Last year, Villanueva and his staff refused to answer my questions about the department’s public corruption unit, claiming I had a conflict of interest, but refusing to explain what it was. And Villanueva has yet to sit down with me for a one-on-one interview, despite my many requests and his public invitation to do so a year ago.
Another, more recent case in point: Awhile back, I got a tip that several years ago, when he was head of the Industry sheriff’s station, Undersheriff Tim Murakami had selected a company that now employs his adult son to install security cameras at the station.
The notion that Villanueva’s second-in-command, who oversees public corruption investigations, may have had a nepotism issue was troubling.
I had reported on Murakami before. In 2020, a county oversight panel found that he violated the department’s policy against discrimination when he used a Japanese racial slur to refer to employees of color. He denied the allegation and Villanueva later rejected the panel’s recommendation that Murakami be disciplined.
Some digging into the tip about the security cameras turned up enough evidence to prove the basics: The security company had done some work for the station and Murakami knew it. But there were many details to uncover: How much work had been done and when? Did Murakami’s son, who shares his father’s first name, get his job before or after the company did the work? How much was the company paid?
Here’s what I managed to find out and the runaround I got along the way. It illustrates the challenges of reporting on a public agency whose officials would prefer you not be asking questions.
In March, I approached Murakami after a news conference and asked him about work at Industry station involving Am-Tec Security.
“Involving who?” he asked.
“Am-Tec, the company that your son works for,” I said. “Did you hire them to do security cameras at Industry station?”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he replied, before walking away.
By then, I had already seen documents showing this could not be true.
They included an email that Murakami sent in November 2017, when he was the captain overseeing the Industry station, to alert staff that the “station security surveillance system is maintained by AM TEC Security.” He included a telephone number for the company.
I emailed Murakami to ask about the email and why he had denied knowing about the work the company had done at the station. He did not respond.
Instead, I heard from Lt. Oscar Martinez in the Sheriff’s Information Bureau, which handles media inquiries. He admonished me for trying to contact a department executive directly. Instead, I was to send inquiries through the “contact us” form on the department’s website, which inexplicably requires journalists to provide their city of residence before submitting a question.
“This process of yours will not speed up answers, on the other hand; it will delay the Department from responding to you because our Executives are extremely busy managing the Department and ensuring the safety of our residents,” Martinez wrote.
By then, I’d been going back and forth for weeks with Martinez and others in the information bureau.
I sent inquiries to the bureau — which staffs about 20 deputies and sergeants who are “available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to provide a number of services to Department personnel, the general public and members of the media,” according to the department’s website — asking for information about any work Am-Tec had done for the department.
The department, I was told in response, had no current work agreements with Am-Tec. If I wanted more information, I should ask the company, the bureau said.
When I pressed Martinez to clarify, he was unequivocal.
“Am-Tec Security has not been contracted by LASD. They have been approved by the County as a contractor, but not used by LASD,” Martinez told me by email.
I referenced Murakami’s 2017 email to staff about Am-Tec, which showed Martinez wasn’t giving me accurate information. He changed his answer.
“Am-Tec did do the original installation of the cameras at Industry Station,” Martinez said. “However, the station has not done any additional business with the company.”
That also wasn’t true.
I knew from documents I received from the City of Industry through a public records request that in March 2019 Am-Tec had done another small job for the Industry station. And I knew Murakami had been involved in the matter even though he’d already left the station after being promoted by Villanueva.
Three days before Murakami was named undersheriff, Am-Tec sent an invoice directly to him for $2,055 — a bill for additional cameras the company installed across the street from the sheriff’s station. The documents from Industry, which pays the Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services, included a copy of the invoice and related emails.
The records showed how Murakami had forwarded the invoice to the city manager of Industry, who later agreed to pick up the bill.
Martinez and others at the information bureau repeatedly refused to answer questions about the scope and cost of work the company has done for the station. (Meanwhile, the agency is listed as a client on Am-Tec’s website.)
“I already answer your questions,” Martinez wrote. “You can contact the County as they are the ones who did the work. The Department did not contract with this company.”
Before signing his name, he added: “Final statement.”
I called the younger Murakami. He told me the work the company did with his dad occurred before he was hired in 2015. According to his LinkedIn profile, he’s worked in various roles, including equipment installation, sales and project management.
“The honest truth is any work that was done was before I even started working at the company,” he said. When pressed, he said there may have been small service projects done since, but he wasn’t involved in them.
A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.
He agreed to send me records backing up his claim, but never did. My multiple follow-up emails and phone calls to him went unanswered.
The older Murakami could have funneled work to a company that employed his son or funneled work to a company in hopes of helping his son get a job, or perhaps there was a completely benign explanation for the arrangement. Just the appearance of a conflict of interest like this by a high-ranking public official meant I had to keep asking questions.
I submitted a public records request to a separate office in the county’s massive bureaucracy for documents related to Am-Tec’s work for the county.
A couple of weeks later, I received in response about 100 pages of documents — mostly purchase orders for Am-Tec’s work for a rehab center in Downey. Four pages at the end were related to the Industry sheriff’s station.
They showed the company had billed $4,300 for a job installing parking lot cameras in 2017 and roughly $1,000 for a new camera and repairs in 2018. I sent questions to the Sheriff’s Department, asking to know if these were the only jobs Am-Tec had done at the station. There was no response.
The full scope and cost of the work — and whether any special treatment played into it — remains unclear. I’ll keep reporting .
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