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Opinion

Editorial: L.A. County thought it was getting a progressive sheriff. Instead, like Trump, Alex Villanueva is painting his political adversaries as criminals

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has recused himself from a criminal probe of Inspector General Max Hunstman and others in and outside his department.
(Los Angeles Times)

As a candidate for Los Angeles County sheriff, and continuing after his election late last year, Alex Villanueva repeatedly accused prior Sheriff’s Department officials of committing crimes.

He claimed (without evidence) that previous Sheriff Jim McDonnell wanted to fire lots of deputies just to show the press and the public that he had a high “body count” and would be considered a reformer. He claimed (without evidence) that McDonnell’s administration routinely trumped up charges against innocent deputies, then ordered investigators to invent facts to support the allegations and ignore facts that refuted them. He claimed (without evidence) that McDonnell and especially one of his constitutional policing advisors, attorney Diana Teran, undermined the discipline appeals process by selectively blocking evidence that came before the Civil Service Commission on appeal. He claimed (without evidence) that McDonnell “outsourced” his entire discipline system to Teran, who he said then went on a vendetta against deputies she didn’t like.

Those supposedly unfairly treated deputies included his campaign aide Caren Carl Mandoyan, whose termination for cause — including allegations of domestic abuse — was upheld by the Civil Service Commission. Villanueva notoriously reinstated Mandoyan and a handful of other fired deputies earlier this year.

Villanueva has made his odd and often rambling corruption allegations in various forums, including at a meeting this year of the Civilian Oversight Commission — the nine-member panel created by the Board of Supervisors to provide some level of public review of sheriff actions. Commission members were skeptical.

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“When you say there are a lot of disciplinary cases that have been internally compromised, I’d like to see the evidence of that,” Commissioner Rob Bonner said. No evidence was provided.

It’s not surprising. A whole bevy of Villanueva’s Trumpian assertions have been groundless. He claimed, for example, that rules put in place to prevent the kinds of vicious beatings of jail inmates by deputies that took place under Sheriff Lee Baca had actually increased jail violence. He accused previous jails chief Terri McDonald (who is currently the county’s chief probation officer) of misrepresenting data provided to the U.S. Department of Justice — again, without evidence.

He brought with him into office and continues to nurture the point of view of a disgruntled employee rather than a leader. His allegations repeat the sort of statements bandied about on sheriff’s deputies’ private message boards: Discipline is unfair, outsiders don’t understand, the deck is stacked against them, and the Board of Supervisors, the public, the media are all out to get them.

The sheriff continually tries to deflect criticism by claiming that his critics didn’t endorse him and therefore will never support him. But that doesn’t explain why even many who did endorse him now express serious concern about his statements and actions.

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That’s the proper context in which to view the startling revelation, first reported by ABC-TV Channel 7, that the department is now conducting a criminal investigation of Inspector General Max Huntsman, Teran and others for supposedly accessing personnel data — which is, of course, part of their job. Teran joined Hunstman’s team when Villanueva took office and fired her; she has since moved to the public defender’s office.

According to an Aug. 12 letter to members of the Board of Supervisors from Undersheriff Timothy K. Murakami, Villanueva has recused himself from any role in the probe into allegations of “Conspiracy, Theft of Government Property, Unauthorized Computer Access, Theft of Confidential Files, Unlawful Dissemination of Confidential Files, Potential Civil Rights Violations, and Burglary.”

To be sure, the Sheriff’s Department has a history of cronysim and unfair treatment of deputies, and the problems reached their apex when Undersheriff Paul Tanaka virtually ran the department under the nose of Sheriff Lee Baca. Both have since been sentenced to federal prison, although not for their mistreatment of deputies. Some measure of lingering mistrust among the rank-and-file is to be expected.

But Villanueva is now sheriff, and his broad, irresponsible and unsupported allegations of criminality aren’t aired on private message boards. His statements are public. They are amateurish and undignified — and again, unsupported — and they diminish public confidence in the department.

If there is a dispute over the proper interpretation of county ordinances that grant the inspector general access to personnel files, the proper response is to file a lawsuit, not to launch a criminal probe of the civilian authorities that oversee the department.

It is no wonder that the county Democratic Party and others who endorsed Villanueva now have buyer’s remorse. They thought they were getting a progressive sheriff. What they got instead was the opposite: an advocate for deputies who resent stricter standards of conduct.


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