Official accuses Sheriff’s Dept. of blocking investigations

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department consistently obstructs investigations into its conduct and fails to follow the law, according to a report released Dec. 14 by the watchdog agency that oversees the department.

In a report that breaks little new ground, Inspector General Max Huntsman details an impressively long list of complaints and potential violations ranging from allegedly threatening other county officials to failing to disclose the names of deputies involved in shootings.

The Sheriff’s Department has gone to great lengths to keep its conduct secret,” the report concludes. “The unlawful acts and potentially unlawful acts enumerated above show a pattern and practice of the repudiation of oversight by the Office of Inspector General, the Civilian Oversight Commission, the Board (of Supervisors) and the public.”

Huntsman’s letter, titled “Report Back on Unlawful Conduct of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” was issued at the request of the Civilian Oversight Commission. Whether Huntsman or the Board of Supervisors is gearing up for further action was not immediately clear.

Last month, the board voted 3-2 to look at options for removing elected Sheriff Alex Villanueva as the county’s top lawman, rather than waiting to see if voters will do so in 2022. Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn dissented, saying the matter should be left in the hands of voters.

In this latest report, Huntsman countered Villanueva’s contention that his power comes directly from the California Constitution and cannot be limited by charter, statute or ordinance. Huntsman contends that state law makes clear that the Board of Supervisors supervises all county officers, including the sheriff, despite the fact that he is elected rather than appointed.

Villanueva has accused Huntsman of fighting a proxy war to discredit him on behalf of the board.

Attorneys, particularly those that work for the county, their obligation is to spin everything they can to the advantage of their client, which is the Board of Supervisors,” the sheriff said during an online briefing in October.

He has pointed to his public posts of policies and documents on the department’s website as evidence of his commitment to public transparency, although Huntsman has criticized some of the information as incomplete and out of date.

The Office of Inspector General report, dated Dec. 14, details recent court rulings on the sheriff’s authority.

In a September ruling about Villanueva’s unilateral rehiring of a deputy fired after being accused of domestic violence and lying to investigators, a judge found that the sheriff and his department don’t function independently when it comes to hiring procedures, qualification for employment and the conduct of civil litigation. Despite that ruling, Huntsman said the department has not complied with related document requests.

The lack of cooperation is not surprising, as the department has opened a criminal investigation into Huntsman for what it called potentially illegal access to confidential files for purposes unrelated to oversight. The Office of Inspector General said it was authorized by Villanueva’s predecessor to pull the relevant records.

The oversight agency and county lawyers have also been shut out of departmental planning meetings its members once regularly attended, according to the report.

In October, a court vacated an earlier court order not to release autopsy results in the deputy shooting of 18-year-old Andres Guardado near Gardena. The original order was obtained in secret and without any consultation with the coroner or county attorneys, a move the judge called a “shock to the conscience.”

In November, a judge ruled that Villanueva must appear at a contempt hearing in January for his refusal to honor a subpoena to appear before the Civilian Oversight Commission.

The Office of Inspector General report also referenced threats against former county CEO Sachi Hamai and the board, as well as Huntsman and his staff. It holds the sheriff responsible for threats against Hamai that followed Villanueva’s false accusations that the CEO had refused to pay deputies quarantined during the pandemic and planned to lay off some 2,000 deputies.

Hamai was “reportedly provided full-time private security upon retirement,” according to the report.

What can be verified is that Hamai was paid a $1.5 million settlement as a result of the alleged threats and harassment, a payment decided upon at warp speed when compared with other settlements approved by the county board.

Skip Miller represented both the county and Hamai in the action against the department, which is also unusual.

In comments to the Los Angeles Times, Villanueva called the payment a gift.

There was no investigation. They didn’t follow any procedure. It was a gift of public funds,” the sheriff told The Times.

The arrest of KPCC reporter Josie Huang in September, which came after Huang clearly identified herself as a member of the press and committed no crime, was just one of multiple incidents cited in the report as potential violations of constitutional press protections.

The 17-page report touches on everything from deputy cliques to the destruction of photographs of the helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.

Whatever the county’s next move, the Office of Inspector General believes public opinion supports oversight.

State and local laws require cooperation with oversight bodies and the public has made it abundantly clear that transparency by law enforcement is a paramount concern. The police must follow the law if they are to enforce it.”