Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his second in command on Thursday defied subpoenas requiring them to testify before an oversight commission about ganglike groups of deputies and an investigative unit that has targeted the sheriff’s critics.
The snub is the latest ploy in an increasingly hostile power struggle between Villanueva and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.
Much of the recent controversy has revolved around the commission’s authority to issue subpoenas that compel the sheriff and members of his staff to answer their questions under oath.
Villanueva has called the commission’s demand for him to do so an “abuse of power.” Members of the commission, meanwhile, have said his recalcitrance is an attempt to flout the body’s oversight powers.
“Why on earth would the top law enforcement officer of L.A. County have a problem complying with a lawful subpoena to give testimony about the presence of deputy gangs within the department and allegations that he has secret police who are intimidating oversight officials?” said Sean Kennedy, a Loyola Law School professor who sits on the commission. “He should proudly come to answer our questions and testify under oath.”
Villanueva said in a statement Wednesday night that the commission exists “to offer advice, not interrogate.”
“I have freely answered questions in the past, so why now do they want to interrogate me under oath in an adversarial setting?” he said.
Commission Chair Priscilla Ocen said Thursday that when the sheriff does voluntarily appear, he “often engages in long-winded nonresponses” to the panel’s queries.
The county’s Board of Supervisors granted the commission subpoena authority last year, and soon after, voters overwhelmingly reaffirmed that right by approving Measure R. Gov. Gavin Newsom then gave subpoena power to oversight bodies statewide when he signed Assembly Bill 1185 into law.
Despite those laws, the sheriff has remained defiant, while so far avoiding a showdown in court, where a judge could order him to comply and testify before the commission or face punishment that could include a fine or imprisonment. A judge could also throw out a subpoena.
A Superior Court judge ruled last year that the commission was was well within its power when it authorized a subpoena for the sheriff’s testimony about his response to COVID-19 inside the jails. When Villanueva relented and agreed to answer the commission’s questions voluntarily, lawyers for the county dropped the case, sparing the sheriff from a court hearing over whether he should be found in contempt.
Each time Villanueva or one of his staff refuses to honor a subpoena, attorneys for the county must go back to court if they want to try to compel the sheriff to comply.
The latest subpoenas called for Villanueva and Undersheriff Tim Murakami to appear at the commission’s meeting Thursday.
Villanueva was subpoenaed to testify about ganglike groups of deputies following the release of a study L.A. County officials commissioned the Rand Corp. to conduct on the issue.
The study found 16% of the 1,608 deputies and supervisors who anonymously answered survey questions had been invited to join a group, with some invitations having come in the last five years.
Villanueva briefly attended the remote meeting, but left before he was called on to speak. He complained in a social media post after the meeting about the wait time even though he showed up an hour early. The commission refused to allow Villanueva’s chief of staff to read a prepared statement on behalf of the sheriff.
Murakami, the department’s second highest ranking official, was subpoenaed to testify about the Civil Rights and Public Integrity Detail, a unit he oversees that critics have accused of targeting the sheriff’s most vocal critics.
Murakami indicated Wednesday he wouldn’t attend Thursday’s meeting because he has an unspecified “health issue and is busy,” said Brian Williams, the commission’s executive director. He did not attend the meeting.
The unit Murakami oversees has pursued a long-running criminal investigation into allegations made by department officials that Inspector General Max Huntsman and others improperly downloaded confidential personnel records on Villanueva and other sheriff’s employees. A senior sheriff’s official told The Times that Villanueva opted to pursue the case despite sheriff’s officials being told by the FBI and state law enforcement officials that it appeared no crimes had been committed.
The team also has an open criminal inquiry into a nonprofit that is run by a member of a county board that oversees the sheriff and is associated with county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, both of whom have clashed fiercely with Villanueva and called for his resignation.
“These highly publicized criminal investigations have never resulted in charges being filed, suggesting an ulterior motive,” Kennedy said in a 10-page memo that called for an investigation into whether Villanueva is abusing his power.
The commission Thursday voted to issue a subpoena to Deputy Mark Lillienfeld that requires him to testify at its November meeting. Lillienfeld, a key member of the public integrity unit, confronted a witness in a criminal investigation after the witness complained about the pace of the probe.
The witness, Adam Loew, made a recording of the more than hourlong conversation, which The Times listened to. On the recording, Lillienfeld told Loew he was “poking the wrong f—ing bear” and called him a “dumb f—.”