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‘Do Not Rehire’: Panel finds Villanueva violated county discrimination, harassment policies

 Alex Villanueva speaks at a lectern
Then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in 2020.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)
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An oversight panel has recommended that former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva be deemed ineligible for rehire after officials found he discriminated against Inspector General Max Huntsman, according to records obtained by The Times.

In the initial complaint filed in March 2022, Huntsman accused Villanueva of “dog whistling to the extremists he caters to” when he repeatedly referred to the inspector general by his foreign-sounding birth name, Max-Gustaf. In an interview with The Times editorial board a few weeks later, Villanueva — without any evidence — accused Huntsman of being a Holocaust denier.

“You do realize that Max Huntsman, one, he’s a Holocaust denier,” Villanueva told the board. “I don’t know if you’re aware of that. I have it from two separate sources.”

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At the time, Villanueva refused to identify the sources. This week, he did not address emailed questions about them.

Records show that after the department investigated the allegations, the County Equity Oversight Panel met in 2023 and found that Villanueva had violated several policies against discrimination and harassment. By that point, Villanueva was no longer sheriff, and the panel recommended that he “should receive a ‘Do Not Rehire’ notation” in his personnel file.

Villanueva is currently running for county supervisor, and it’s not clear how the finding could affect his campaign.

“This is but another brazen attempt by the Board of Supervisors to engage in electioneering to influence the outcome of the race for 4th District supervisor,” he wrote in an emailed statement to The Times. “Much like the special hearings of the Civilian Oversight Commission, this unprecedented effort by the county is neither supported by fact or the rule of law.”

The move came in response to a Times report about a violent incident involving a group of off-duty deputies, some of whom allegedly belonged to a previously unreported gang at the City of Industry sheriff’s station.

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On Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Department confirmed to The Times that it upheld the panel’s recommendation. Meanwhile, Huntsman said he was “happy” with the finding.

“I’m glad that Villanueva is no longer the sheriff and, now that he is gone, the facts have been treated in a more fair and objective way,” he told The Times. “But it doesn’t undo the damage that is done when an agency is allowed to operate above the law.”

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Throughout his time in office, Villanueva repeatedly sparred with Huntsman, who was one of the department’s top critics as well as the chief watchdog tasked with its oversight.

Villanueva leveled personal attacks against Huntsman and eventually banned him from the department’s facilities and databases, saying he was “a suspect” in two criminal cases.

Huntsman issued subpoenas aimed at forcing the sheriff’s cooperation and at one point launched an investigation into whether Villanueva lied about a violent incident involving an inmate.

Amid that tension, on March 9, 2022, Huntsman filed a complaint — which he told The Times this week he was required to do under county policy — accusing Villanueva of sending an email “throughout the Sheriff’s Department that was a racially biased attack.” In the email, Villanueva allegedly referred to Huntsman by his full name. Around the same time, during an interview on KFI-AM radio, the sheriff raised the issue again, adding, “He’s dropped the Gustaf for some reason, and there might be a story behind that.”

When Villanueva found out about Huntsman’s complaint, he in turn told The Times editorial board about it, adding in the new claim about Huntsman’s supposed denial of the Holocaust.

The editorial board functions independently of The Times’ newsroom, and the interview — during Villanueva’s reelection campaign — came as part of the board’s usual endorsement process in the 2022 election cycle.

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At the time, Huntsman wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors, alerting them to the sheriff’s allegations and offering a response. He wrote that Villanueva was “dog whistling to his more extreme supporters that I am German and/or Jewish and hence un-American.”

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Huntsman explained his family’s history, saying his German grandfather had been conscripted into the Nazi army, but was not allowed to carry a rifle because he had previously employed Jews. Growing up during the Holocaust, he said, his father had developed a deep distrust of authority. Huntsman’s father left Europe for North America after the war ended but abandoned the family shortly after his son was born. “He gave me the name Max-Gustaf and so I do not use it,” Huntsman wrote. “I would never deny that the Holocaust happened.”

During his internal affairs interview about his complaint, records show, Huntsman added that his father was a “piece of work — as a result of the Holocaust.” He said that the “way the Nazis functioned” did great damage to his family.

“I don’t claim that’s as bad as the Holocaust, but it had a direct impact on me,” he said, according to a transcript of the summer 2022 interview. “So the idea that I would deny the Holocaust is crazy. I have no love for Nazi Germany; quite the opposite.”

When Villanueva began using the inspector general’s birth name, Huntsman said he believed it was an effort to say: “This guy’s a foreigner; he’s either German or Jewish or both.”

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During his internal affairs interview — conducted by an independent investigator hired by the county — Huntsman also detailed the genesis of his tensions with the former sheriff, which he said dated to at least 2019 when the Office of Inspector General began investigating Villanueva’s controversial decision to rehire a deputy who’d been fired for domestic violence and dishonesty.

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When Huntsman’s office prepared to issue a report on the matter, he said, he gave a draft to the Sheriff’s Department.

“When I did that he shut off our computer access and I was asked by people in the county to try to convince him to change his mind,” Huntsman said, according to the internal affairs transcript. “In that context he said to me, ‘If you issue this report, there’ll be consequences.’”

Not long after that, Huntsman said, Villanueva announced that the inspector general was the target of a criminal investigation, and sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors requesting that Huntsman be relieved of duty.

Huntsman stayed on the job, and his tensions with Villanueva continued.

Though heavily redacted Internal Affairs Bureau records show Huntsman was interviewed by an investigator in summer 2022, it wasn’t until October 2023 that the county oversight panel met to discuss the case and issue its recommendation.

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