Civilian watchdog to take LA sheriff to court after defying subpoena to testify about jails
Sheriff Alex Villanueva didn't show up to a meeting, despite a subpoena demanding he answer questions about the spread of COVID-19 behind bars
By Josh Cain
LOS ANGELES — The civilian watchdog overseeing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is pressing forward on its subpoena for the sheriff himself to come testify at one of their meetings about his handling of the coronavirus outbreak in his jails.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva didn’t show up to the Civilian Oversight Commission’s meeting Thursday morning, despite the commission’s subpoena issued May 11 demanding he be there to answer their questions about the spread of the virus behind bars.
“The sheriff has decided not to attend this meeting,” said commission Chair Patty Giggans. “He may be in violation of the order … It certainly doesn’t feel good to us that the sheriff doesn’t want to participate in our meeting.”
Villanueva told the media in a press conference on Wednesday that he wasn’t intending to show up. He said he thought the hearing would be “a public shaming endeavor.”
“We’re not going to be participating in that,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Department did participate. Villanueva said his commander in charge of the jails volunteered to go.
For about two hours, Assistant Sheriff Bruce Chase cordially fielded questions from the commissioners about the conditions inmates were experiencing behind bars. Several of the commissioners praised Chase personally for his candor.
Chase’s appearance, however, was not the subject of the commission’s subpoena. They wanted Villanueva himself to show up.
Now the issue is likely headed for the courts. The commission voted unanimously to instruct their staff to pursue the subpoena in superior court and potentially ask a judge to hold Villanueva in contempt of the order, if it comes to that.
Sheriff’s Department officials did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday about the subpoena.
Voters empowered the COC when they voted more than 2-to-1 to approve Measure R in early March. The measure gave the commission the ability to subpoena the Sheriff’s Department for internal documents and also required the department to detail its plan to reduce the county’s overpopulated jails.
Villanueva said Wednesday he believes Measure R was passed “in darkness” and that the entire measure was unconstitutional. He said state law limited the amount of oversight a county agency could have over his department.
He also said Measure R and the commission’s subpoena were “generated without any oversight.”
“The measure was poorly understood. There was no campaign one way or the other,” he said.
More than 1.3 million L.A. County residents voted in support of Measure R, approving it by nearly 73 percent.
“He’s saying all 70 percent of those folks are wrong,” said Brian K. Williams, the COC’s executive director. “We find that interesting.”
The commission issued a second subpoena requested by the county’s Inspector General at the same meeting Thursday.
Inspector General Max Hunstman has been seeking documents related to Villanueva’s handling of deputies who took photos of the site of the helicopter crash in Calabasas in January that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gigi and seven others on their way to a basketball camp.
Hunstman said Thursday he’s been trying for months to obtain documents related to an internal sheriff’s investigation into eight deputies who were involved in the sharing of those photos. The photos allegedly included bodies of some of the victims.
Hunstman said the investigators gave his staff redacted documents concealing the identities of the deputies when they inquired about the internal investigation.
His subpoena on Thursday would ask for documents related to Villanueva’s actions soon after the photo sharing was discovered. By the sheriff’s own admission to NBC4, he directed the deputies to destroy the photos, promising not to harshly punish them for the incident.
Hunstman said the order could amount to destroying evidence. He said a third party needs to investigate the sheriff’s actions.
“That would be an obvious conflict of interest,” he said. “I don’t expect the sheriff to discipline himself or anybody he gave orders to.”
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