What happens when a chief law enforcement officer acts like he’s above the law?
Embattled Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva is refusing to comply with a subpoena from the county’s Civilian Oversight Commission to answer for alleged abuses of power, claiming he’s too “busy” to appear at a hearing this week. In a letter to the commission, obtained by Rolling Stone and embedded below, Villanueva offers no legal justification for flouting the commission, insisting only that he’s “booked for the entire day.”
The COC is seeking to question Villanueva about allegations that LASD has undertaken politically motivated criminal investigations of the sheriff’s critics in local government. The COC is also examining the scandal of alleged violent deputy gangs within LASD, which, according to an official report issued last week, have been actively recruiting on Villanueva’s watch.
The executive director of the COC, attorney Brian K. Williams, blasts the county’s top law enforcement officer for not following the rule of law. “He seems to think that it is optional. That’s not our view,” Williams tells Rolling Stone. “The law gives us the authority to subpoena the sheriff, and we’re going to have to take steps to make him comply.”
The subpoena, served August 26th, demands the sheriff appear before the oversight body at a meeting this Thursday, September 23rd.
Williams insists that Villanueva’s stated reason, that his schedule is full, “is not a valid excuse.” Reached for comment, LASD Captain John Satterfield says Villanueva has a legal justification for his refusal to comply with the subpoena, but would not share it. “Under advice of counsel,” he said, “we are unable to comment further at this time.”
At a press conference Wednesday, Villanueva blasted the Civilian Oversight Commission as a “kangaroo court,” asserting the COC is “conducting a proxy war” on behalf of the Board of Supervisors. “Their goal is not to seek information or to clarify,” he said. “They have only one mission, which is to discredit me. They’re using the subpoena as a tool to do exactly that,” he told reporters. “And you’re buying it hook, line and sinker!”
Elected in 2018 to lead the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, Villanueva took office with promises to “rebuild” and reform LASD around “ethical standards of conduct.” But Villanueva’s tenure has been marred, instead, by scandal and open defiance of government officials tasked with holding the department accountable. In October 2020, the Civilian Oversight Commission issued an extraordinary call for the sheriff’s resignation, writing in a resolution that Villanueva “enables a culture… of deputy impunity, disregards the constitutional rights of Los Angeles County residents, disdains other elected officials and disrespects the will of voters who support robust civilian oversight.”
LASD deputy gangs have been accused of misconduct ranging from violent initiation rituals involving beating up inmates in county custody to harassment against fellow deputies, including withholding backup for non-member deputies in harm’s way.
A defiant Villanueva not only remains in office today, but has allegedly misused his authority in an effort to silence critics. In May, COC commissioner Sean Kennedy, a director at Loyola Law School, called for an investigation into whether Villanueva has been “abusing his power” by launching “highly publicized” criminal investigations into his public detractors, citing nearly half-a-dozen cases.
“The number and similarity of the announcements,” Kennedy writes, “suggest a pattern of targeting oversight officials for investigation.” The lack of criminal charges stemming from these probes, Kennedy adds, “suggests that the motive is to chill oversight of the Department, not to pursue a prosecution.” Kennedy’s legal analysis even suggests that Villanueva’s conduct approaches the legal threshold for “extortion.”
In a heated letter responding to the COC dated July 16th, LASD undersheriff Timothy Murkami called “the wild accusations” of the Kennedy memorandum “completely irresponsible,” blasting extortion claims as “nothing short of outrageous slander.” Captain Satterfield defended his boss to Rolling Stone as “the most transparent sheriff in the history of the office” adding that misconduct claims against Villanueva “are either politically driven or rooted in ignorance.”
A prominent incident cited in Kennedy’s memorandum involves Villanueva’s decision to reinstate “a disgraced former deputy with a Grim Reapers tattoo who had been fired by the previous administration for violating policies regarding domestic violence and dishonesty.” (The Grim Reapers are an alleged deputy gang within LASD.) Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman investigated the case and was preparing to release a report critical of the reinstatement, when Villanueva reportedly warned the IG there would be “consequences” if he proceeded. Undeterred, the IG released the report in July 2019. The next month, LASD trumpeted a “criminal investigation” into Huntsman, alleging he’d improperly accessed confidential files during the investigation and could face charges of “conspiracy, theft of government property, unauthorized computer access, theft of confidential files, unlawful dissemination of confidential files, civil rights violations, and burglary.” The LASD announcement generated headlines, but has not led to any charges. And Villanueva’s move to reinstate the disgraced former deputy has since been overruled by a judge.
The subpoena by the Civilian Oversight Commission is not the first that Villanueva has fought. In March, IG Huntsman subpoenaed Villanueva to answer questions about LASD’s gang scandal. Villanueva refused, arguing the subpoena was too broad and a form of harassment. In July, a judge dismissed the sheriff’s motion to quash the subpoena, although legal wrangling between the Sheriff and the IG continues.
Vincent Miller is a lawyer for a group of LASD deputies who’ve sued the department, claiming abuse and harassment by the Banditos, an alleged LASD gang operating out of the East Los Angeles station. “The Sheriff needs to be asked why he is unwilling to discuss the Banditos under oath,” Miller says. “What is he afraid of?”
Villanueva’s letter announcing he will not abide by the COC’s subpoena, dated September 9th, mounts no substantive argument as to why the Sheriff should not comply with the legal order to appear. It says only that Villanueva has “previous commitments” he is choosing to honor instead of the subpoena. “I am simply not available to attend the COC meeting,” Villanueva writes. “I will be out of the office on two separate speaking engagements, a meeting, and a Town Hall event.”
The sheriff’s office refused to reveal the details of Villanueva’s calendar, claiming secrecy is essential for the Sheriff’s safety: “I’m sure you realize the sensitive and confidential nature of sharing the schedule of an elected official who routinely receives credible threats of violence,” Satterfiled says. Villanueva’s one publicly announced event that day is a “community conversation” to be held at the City of Walnut’s Senior Center.
At its Thursday meeting, the COC will address the sheriff’s absence by voting on a motion for the County Counsel of Los Angeles to “immediately consider all legal remedies” to bring the sheriff in front of the COC. That includes initiating an “Order to Show Cause,” which would force Villanueva to convince a judge why he should not be held in contempt.
Williams, the COC director, insists the oversight commission won’t stop until it gets answers from Villanueva. “We think there are actions by the sheriff and the sheriff’s department that are extrajudicial, that are not constitutional,” he says, “and we want to question him about those actions.”