As promised, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva defied a subpoena to appear at Thursday’s meeting of the county Civilian Oversight Commission, prompting the panel’s vote to challenge that move in court.
The commission also voted to issue a second subpoena for information on how the sheriff and his command staff handled photographs taken by deputies at the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other people.
Inspector General Max Huntsman said his staff have been allowed to review redacted documents about the crash photos in meetings with the department’s internal investigators. However, investigators were not particularly forthcoming and shed little light on the sheriff’s own role in managing the incident, he said.
“The sheriff is reported to have directed the destruction of evidence,” Huntsman said. “If we were to ask the sheriff to investigate himself, there would be an obvious conflict of interest.”
The draft subpoena includes a full page of requested information, including the identity of all county employees and civilians at the crash scene and command post, as well as those present when orders were given to delete the photos. It also calls on the department to turn over cell phone records, radio traffic recordings and the major incident log and related reports.
Huntsman, anticipating a challenge from the sheriff’s department, said the information was requested as part of an inquiry, rather than an investigation. That distinction means the work would be entirely separate from any department discipline or internal affairs investigation, according to the inspector general.
The IG said he had been surprised to hear through the rumor mill, rather than investigators, that the department was close to wrapping up an investigation that “does not include a robust investigation” of Villanueva himself.
The OIG team’s meetings with the department give “the sense that you’re being played,” Huntsman said. “I’m not saying that’s happening.”
However, he said the inquiry into the crash photos could potentially uncover evidence of a more systemic effort to avoid oversight and evade accountability.
Villanueva told reporters Wednesday he had no intention of attending the commission’s meeting.
“Regarding the commission’s subpoena, you have to understand … the subpoena, Measure R, the ordinance enacted by the Board of Supervisors, all these things were generated without any oversight, without any third-party independent legal analysis of its constitutionality,” Villanueva said. “That still remains in doubt, and until that issue is resolved I will not be adhering to any subpoena issued by either entity — be it the inspector general or the Oversight Commission.”
As promised by the sheriff, his department was represented at Thursday’s meeting by Assistant Sheriff Bruce Chase, who Villanueva said “volunteered his time to go and testify to the commission and give them an update on all the COVID-19 efforts we are engaged in.”
Chase promised the watchdog agency his cooperation on behalf of the department going forward and said he would appear at the next meeting.
“It’s important for us to keep you posted and keep you advised,” Chase said.
Commission Chair Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, said Villanueva was challenging the legality of Measure R, which grants subpoena power to the commission and was approved by voters in March. Subpoena power was first granted to the commission by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors earlier this year.
Commissioner Robert Bonner, a former U.S. attorney, made a motion to take all legal action necessary to compel the sheriff to comply with the subpoena and made clear that his failure to do so could be punishable by contempt.
“We need to move forward promptly,” Bonner said. “We can’t just allow the status quo to stand.”
The commission’s vote on the motion was unanimous.
Villanueva said Wednesday his department is committed to being as transparent as possible with the commission and the public, with information from the agency shared through the Transparency Project online resource.
“All the information that can legally be provided to the commission, to anybody, is always going to be available online. I want people to decide for themselves without any interference or middlemen,” the sheriff said.
Villanueva questioned the motives behind the subpoena.
“If the transparency is being provided and the information is provided, what exactly is the purpose of the subpoena?” he asked. “If they are engaged in a public shaming endeavor, which it looks like at face value, well they are sadly mistaken. We are not going to be participating in that. If it is an issue about providing information so the Oversight Commission can do their job, by all means we will give them all the information we can legally give them.”
The commission used its newly granted subpoena power for the first time after Villanueva did not attend or send a representative to a third consecutive meeting. The subpoena ordered Villanueva and his representatives to attend the commission’s Thursday meeting.
“We’re not doing it frivolously,” Giggans said Thursday.
Giggans had said earlier that the sheriff’s participation was even more important during the coronavirus crisis.
“The meetings now conducted virtually twice a month due to the critical COVID-19 crisis are very well attended by the public. We are in a pandemic which calls for more oversight, more collaboration, more input into policy, not less. The role of the sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission is a public mandate and one that every commissioner takes seriously.”
Commissioners had hoped to question Villanueva Thursday and during their last meeting about how his department was handling coronavirus cases in the county jail system, issues that were addressed by Chase.
After the last meeting, Brian K. Williams, executive director of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said the sheriff’s absence was a rebuke to more than the commissioners.
“This is the third meeting in a row where the sheriff’s department has not been represented, this is unfair to the commission, the community and the men and women of the sheriff’s department whose voice we also need to hear,” Williams said.
Critics of the sheriff said he should face civil and criminal penalties.
“The sheriff has said he answers to the voters. But on March 3rd, after witnessing two years of failed promises, voters overwhelmingly supported Measure R which allows the Civilian Oversight Commission to demand transparency and oversight over the morally bankrupt sheriff’s department,” said Mariela Alburges of Reform LA Jails. “Sheriff Villanueva should be held in contempt and should face civil and criminal penalties — like any other member of the public if they violated the law.”
Patrisse Cullors, the chair of Reform LA Jails and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, commended the COC’s action.
“Let’s be clear, a subpoena could have been avoided if Sheriff Villanueva voluntarily attended commission meetings to clarify glaring gaps and dangerous inconsistencies in the COVID-19 response in the jails,” Cullors said in a statement released after the meeting. “A subpoena was necessary because the sheriff systematically avoided transparency and was unwilling to speak to L.A. residents about their concerns.”