Sheriff Robert Luna backtracks, says fraud investigation was handed over to FBI
Days after Sheriff Robert Luna confirmed turning an investigation into suspected gun permitting fraud over to state prosecutors, the department on Thursday walked back that statement and said the matter had instead been turned over to federal authorities.
During an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Monday, Luna said it would have been a “conflict of interest” for the Sheriff’s Department to handle the case, and that once he took office he’d make sure to send the matter elsewhere, just as he’d suggested on the campaign trail.
“When I got here, we did turn it over to the state attorney general’s office,” he said during an interview at the Hall of Justice. “That had no business being in this building.”
After The Times published a story Thursday morning about the case, Jason Skeen — Luna’s chief of staff — reached out to say the sheriff had misspoken, and, in fact, the matter had not been referred to state prosecutors.
“Investigators met with the FBI,” Skeen said. “That was toward the end of January.”
An FBI spokeswoman would not confirm or deny the meeting, or the investigation. But after initially deferring to local authorities, a spokesperson for the California attorney general confirmed Thursday that the Sheriff’s Department did not hand off the case to that office.
News of the investigation first became public last year, when two deputies were relieved of duty and a Monterey Park gun store was raided. The actions were part of a probe that officials said stemmed from the discovery of “irregularities” in the process for issuing licenses to carry concealed weapons, also known as CCW permits.
Then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva put his often-criticized Public Corruption Unit in charge of the investigation, which he said had begun in late 2021.
In a news release in September, the department said detectives had served warrants at “multiple locations regarding weapon law violations” and, in the process, seized evidence involving “individuals who appear to have been involved in a possible long-term scheme to defraud the citizens of Los Angeles County.”
The release included few details about the specific allegations. But, a few weeks later, The Times published an investigation into the department’s handling of concealed carry permits. The Times found that among the thousands who received such permits were dozens of Villanueva donors and other people linked to him. Several gave questionable reasons for needing to be armed, received their permits more quickly than average or were assisted by two deputies who worked directly for Villanueva.
Those deputies — Gisel Del Real and Carrie Robles — were each relieved of duty in September, and detectives showed up at Del Real’s home to ask her questions and seize evidence.
Three months later, Del Real and Robles filed a lawsuit in state court, alleging that they’d been sexually harassed at work as early as 2020 and that they’d only been put under criminal investigation in retaliation for reporting the harassment.
On the campaign trail, Luna criticized Villanueva’s handling of the case, saying “the sheriff should not, and cannot investigate himself.”
In emails this week, Villanueva said that was never the case, and that he was “deliberately walled off from any involvement and decision making” regarding Public Corruption Unit investigations.
That unit, he said, had contacted “both state and federal law enforcement agencies for assistance” before the department’s Internal Criminal Investigation Bureau took charge of the case.
Then in January, after Luna took office, sheriff’s investigators started talking with the FBI. According to Skeen, those conversations eventually led to a meeting, and the Sheriff’s Department handed off the case.
Following this week’s interview when the sheriff mistakenly said the matter had been forwarded to the state attorney general, Skeen said he and the sheriff spoke briefly about the case Wednesday and decided to double-check their facts internally.
The two later realized that it had in fact been handed over to the FBI.
The U.S. attorney’s office did not immediately comment on whether federal prosecutors have become involved.
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