Sheriff ordered to halt search of some computers linked to Supervisor Kuehl investigation
A Superior Court judge late Thursday ordered Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials to stop searching certain computers seized as part of sprawling raids tied to an investigation into county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and a domestic violence nonprofit.
The order from Judge William Ryan applies solely to computers sheriff’s investigators took from Metro’s Office of Inspector General, whose attorney filed papers Thursday asking the judge to toss the search warrant used to seize the equipment.
The attorney argued that the warrant served this week was illegal. He said it failed to comply with a ruling made by a different judge regarding “an identical warrant” served last year in the same case, which has generated criticism that Sheriff Alex Villanueva is targeting his critics.
L.A. County sheriff’s investigators arrived at County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s home early Wednesday with a search warrant.
“The LASD thus flagrantly ignored a ruling by another Los Angeles Superior Court judge and took matters into its own hands by obtaining the second warrant while intentionally omitting from its affidavit” the judge’s ruling, Harvinder Anand said in the filing.
A sheriff’s spokesperson complained in a statement that the county was not providing a lawyer to respond to the challenge on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department.
“This is exactly the type of obstruction, interference, and political shenanigans which Sheriff Alex Villanueva fights against daily,” said Capt. Lorena Rodriguez. “We are now forced into a position of being unrepresented with no County authorization to pay for legal representation and reduced to solicit pro bono representation in this matter.”
Ryan’s order does not apply to materials seized this week from the homes and offices of Kuehl and Patti Giggans, the head of the nonprofit Peace Over Violence who is also a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and a close friend to Kuehl.
Neither has challenged the warrants in court — an attorney for Kuehl declined to comment on whether she would do so, while an attorney for Giggans said that he planned to do so next week. Both Kuehl and Giggans have denied any wrongdoing.
Kuehl said in a statement Friday that she was gratified by the judge’s order and “hopeful that, if and when the warrant on my home is reviewed, a judge will recognize how equally baseless it is. I am eager to see this intrusive and retaliatory vendetta brought to an end.”
Rodriguez, the sheriff’s captain, said in the statement: “If Supervisor Shelia Kuehl, Commissioner [Patti Giggans], The Board of Supervisors, County Counsel, and the Office of the Inspector General are as committed to transparency and accountability as they continuously state, then why are they scared for these electronic devices to be examined and fighting the search warrant?”
Ryan ordered sheriff’s investigators, including Dets. Mark Lillienfeld and Max Fernandez, to “cease searching any and all computers seized” from the Metro inspector general’s office until further instruction. Both are members of the sheriff’s secretive public corruption unit that critics say target Villanueva’s political enemies and others who have crossed him.
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.
The judge set a hearing for next week, demanding answers to a list of questions about how and why the warrant was secured, and why key details were kept from the judge, Craig Richman, who signed it.
Ryan asked in his order how it was determined — and by whom — that the warrant application would be presented to Richman. Richman and Lillienfeld have a decades-long relationship.
They have known each other since at least 1996, when Richman was a prosecutor handling an attempted murder case Lillienfeld investigated. The detective would later visit the judge’s home to get warrants signed. Lillienfeld’s wife worked in Richman’s courtroom, transcribing hearings as an official court reporter.
Their relationship came under scrutiny several years ago when there was an internal Sheriff’s Department inquiry into whether Lillienfeld tried to help Richman out of legal trouble.
Ryan also asked why sheriff’s investigators withheld from Richman the fact that the other judge, Eleanor Hunter, had decided just two weeks ago to appoint a special master to oversee the search of the inspector general’s computers. Hunter said at a Sept. 1 hearing that she was appointing a special master to make sure materials that could be privileged under the attorney-client privilege are sealed.
“Why, after Judge Hunter was going to require a Special Master, did the Sheriff immediately seek a warrant from a different judge, and who made that decision?” Ryan asked in his order.
The statement investigators presented to Richman made clear they were focused on a series of contracts worth more than $800,000 that Metro awarded to the nonprofit from 2014 to 2020 to operate a hotline for reporting sexual harassment on public transit. The statement says that the hotline was a “complete failure” but that the contract was still extended without a competitive bid or analysis.
Both Kuehl and Giggans, who runs the nonprofit, have clashed fiercely with Villanueva and have called for his resignation. Villanueva has claimed he has recused himself from the investigation in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
According to the statement, a whistleblower, whose name was redacted, told sheriff’s investigators that the contract was pushed forward by Metro Chief Executive Phillip Washington “in order to remain ‘in good graces’ with” Kuehl.
It also details campaign contributions Kuehl received from Giggans and others associated with the nonprofit, alleging that “the donations can be seen as having been given for payment in return for the future awarding of the” hotline contracts.
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