“Sheriff Alex Villanueva was elected the 33rd Sheriff of Los Angeles County in 2018; the first challenger to unseat an incumbent in more than a century.” This sentence opens our current sheriff’s staff bio on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department website.
While true — Villanueva unseated Jim McDonnell, breaking the 116-year streak of incumbency in 2018 — it feels like a strange way to introduce a 34-year LASD veteran now in charge of the largest and (and one of the deadliest) sheriff’s departments in the country.
He is described as a “challenger,” which feels like a purposeful nod to the co-opted progressive jargon he used while campaigning for office the first time around. The choice reveals exactly how Villanueva likes to present himself: a no-nonsense guy who just calls ’em as he sees ’em, even if it ruffles some feathers. And whose feathers, exactly, don’t seem to matter, as long as it ultimately serves his PR agenda.
As the 2022 primaries rapidly approach, Villanueva has cranked up his PR machine to 11 — and potentially broken campaign laws while doing so.
Villanueva probably hired secret police using LA County tax dollars to track his political opponents
The LASD’s misappropriation of County funds is almost as notorious as the department’s deputy gangs. Over the past 30 years, the department has cost the county just over $100 million defending known associates of LASD gangs alone. Sheriff’s deputies in LA County take home an average of $174,686 a year. Some deputies even take home more than $100,000 in overtime annually. In February, Villanueva was accused of overcharging West Hollywood for LASD’s services up to 50% above average costs, with $75,000 unaccounted for that WeHo pays per deputy.
To those who support the sheriff and his bloated department, these astronomical costs are the price we pay for safe streets.
But even the most staunch of those proudly supporting both the boys in blue and the Punisher decal industry are having a harder time defending the expenses of the Civil Rights and Public Integrity Detail, a unit that has been dubbed Villanueva’s secret police.
There is no official, front-facing description for the reason behind the formation of this group of nine deputies who report directly to one of Villanueva’s top aides. Not many in the department are aware of the group’s purpose, either. The day before the Los Angeles Times published an in-depth report on the Civil Rights and Public Integrity Detail, Villanueva released a public statement in an attempt to steer the narrative:
In the article, the reporter will push the narrative that I created this team to attack my political opponents and their appointees. This is false. The sole responsibility of the Sheriff’s Department is to investigate allegations of criminal conduct as they are discovered, regardless of how inconvenient it may be to the subject of the investigation. The unit is supervised by the Undersheriff, and I have recused myself from all decision making to avoid any potential conflict of interest.
He closed out the press release with the hashtag “#FactsMatter.”
Commander Eli Vera, who is running against the incumbent sheriff, told the Times that Villaneuva “hand-selected” the team members, one of whom is a retired homicide detective with a history of threatening witnesses and posing as a deputy in a jail. Another, Sergeant Max Fernandez, told someone being investigated that he was a “sex crimes investigator.”
What the rest of the unit actually does is still unclear. Here’s what we do know: all of the people and organizations being investigated, from the county inspector general to an executive of a seemingly random nonprofit, have butted heads with Villanueva.
County Inspector General Max Huntsman
In 2019, LASD launched a criminal investigation into the county’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The sheriff’s department claimed that Inspector General Max Huntsman, along with some former members of LASD, had conspired to download private data of deputies and do, well, something with them. The drawn-out investigation was reinvigorated after Huntsman advised against Villanueva’s rehiring of Caren “Carl” Mandoyan, who was fired from the department after stalking and harassing an ex-girlfriend, another deputy.
Since then, Huntsman has not backed down and has repeatedly challenged the sheriff and his department’s refusal to meet with the LA County Board of Supervisors or provide any requested information.
And, as Huntsman noted when this intimidation tactic first began in 2019, requesting documents — including confidential personnel records — is perfectly legal and part of his job. According to County of Los Angeles Municipal Code 6.44.190, “the OIG shall have access to all Departments’ information; documents; materials; facilities; and meetings, reviews, and other proceedings necessary to carry out the OIG’s duties.”
On March 20, Huntsman sent an official letter to the sheriff, once again requesting documents to investigate LASD’s gangs. He compiled a partial list of LASD deputy gang members that includes 11 unnamed deputies allegedly part of the Banditos. Huntsman’s letter also includes 30 deputies allegedly part of the Executioners, also unnamed.
“Once again, we have received unproven allegations alleging ‘deputy gangs’ by Inspector General Max-Gustav Huntsman. Sheriff Alex Villanueva remains committed to transparency and accountability,” Villanueva tweeted two days later. It is not clear how Villanueva reconciles his penchant for withholding documents with his self-proclaimed dedication to transparency.
The Board of Supervisors’ Sheila Kuehl and Patti Giggans, member of the Civilian Oversight Commission
Villanueva’s public corruption unit also opened an investigation on Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit “dedicated to building healthy relationships, families and communities free from sexual, domestic and interpersonal violence.”
Ostensibly, the criminal inquiry regards permits with LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as the organization runs a hotline for reporting sexual harassment on public transit. Most of the intel that helped launch the inquiry came from a disgruntled Metro employee, who happens to be married to an acquaintance of Villanueva’s.
Let’s play a little more six degrees. Patti Giggans is Peace Over Violence’s executive director. Giggans is also a member of the Civilian Oversight Commission, and has called for Villanueva’s resignation. She is friends with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who has also called for the sheriff’s resignation. When Villanueva’s team served a search warrant, they wanted all records of communication with a number of county officials, including Kuehl.
Villanueva’s attacks on the Civilian Oversight Commission don’t stop at Giggans, either. He has repeatedly refused to meet with the commission, who have issued subpoenas to the sheriff concerning his department’s unsafe COVID-19 procedures in LA County jails, the deputy gangs in the LASD, and Villanueva’s secret police unit that is investigating his political opponents.
Villanueva supported the Recall Gascón efforts shortly after the DA declined to help with his secret police team
George Gascón told the Times that Villanueva approached him about joining forces to create a unit to collaborate on these public “corruption” investigations.
“He’s only targeting political enemies. It was obvious that was not the kind of work I wanted to engage in, so we declined.”
Villanueva demoted political opponent Eli Vera from a chief to a commander
Commander Eli Vera used to be a chief, a position that earned him a seat at the table of weekly executive staff meetings with Sheriff Villanueva. Vera announced that he would be running for sheriff in April 2021. On August 30, 2021, he received a short letter from Vilanueva notifying him that he was demoted to commander, effective September 5. The brief letter did not include any reason for Vera’s demotion.
“The law is firmly established that … those who serve as confidential advisors to an elected leader, cannot oppose him/her politically and keep their post,” Captain John Satterfield wrote in response to questions from the Los Angeles Times after news of the demotion hit. “Who has ever heard of a cabinet secretary running against the president who appointed them?”
Satterfield is insinuating that it is illegal for Vera to run against Villanueva if Vera is acting as one of his “confidential advisors.” This is technically false.
It’s not that any law forbids Vera from opposing Villanueva politically so much as Villanueva’s action could technically avoid the department definition of retaliation.
According to the policy and ethics volume of LASD’s Manual of Policy and Procedures, claims of retaliation are valid if the employee was engaged in a protected activity, such as giving testimony or assistance in investigations.
The section on retaliation lays out a few more examples of protected activities before closing with, “No retaliation is established if the alleged adverse employment action was taken for legitimate business reasons,” which, arguably, is what Villanueva did.
In the same volume, Section 3-01/060.15 — Assignment and Deployment — it states that “assignments shall not be influenced by personal matters or by race, color or creed.” It is unclear how “legitimate business reasons” are not also “personal matters.”
Vera called Villanueva out, saying the demotion had “clear political” motivation. “What the sheriff did today is not only wrong, but it goes against every procedure and rule laid out in our department and across the county,” Vera said during a press conference outside the Hall of Justice at the time.
“What he’s trying to do is harm my campaign. It’s a message to the rest of the department: Fall in line or else,” Vera said.
LASD uploaded three documents detailing sheriff candidate Cecil Rhambo’s ‘shooting incidents’ while employed by LASD
Requesting any sort of public record accessible through the California Public Records Act (CPRA) is typically an exercise in persistence. Anyone can request nearly any type of identifiable record, be it damning emails between the mayor’s staff or an inquiry as to why a flag associated with a police gang was hoisted over LAPD’s 77th Street Station.
Depending on the request, you are legally required to receive your requested document or a response somewhere between 10 to 24 days. That rarely happens. There is a slew of bureaucratic horseshit to wade through to get access to the records, including fees for printing anything over 10 pages (19 cents per additional page), clarification requests, and the vague responses of “we’ll keep looking,” that stop coming as soon as you stop following up. Sometimes they say the records are only available at certain locations, or that there are no locatable digital files on the topic.
This did not happen when Knock LA reporter Cerise Castle requested records on Cecil Rhambo, a former deputy who is running for sheriff. Castle sent an email on November 29, 2021, requesting “information and/or documents related to deputy-involved shootings by LASD deputy Cecil Rhambo.” The next day, LASD uploaded documents detailing Rhambo’s three shootings over three years to the public police accountability database. It’s possible this is a coincidence, like how Senator Diane Feinstein’s husband just happened to make all that money in biotech stocks right before the national COVID lockdown.
Villanueva disparages journalists and news outlets that report on the LASD unfavorably – unless it favors him
Villanueva’s relationship with the media isn’t complicated. If an outlet says good things about him, that’s real news. Any outlet featuring reporting critical of LASD, no matter how based in fact, is fake news. Unless that outlet also features reporting that you can use to unfavorably frame a political opponent.
On March 6, Villanueva dedicated half of his two-hour radio show, Live and Unscripted with L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, to disparaging Castle’s reporting on deputy gangs in the LASD.
A day after Villanueva’s tirade, one of his political consultants, Javier Gonzalez, posted a meme of an exchange between Cecil Rhambo and an unnamed “reporter.” The meme directly quoted Castle’s interview with Rhambo, which, if you recall, LASD was all too eager to make sure got out in the open.
So Castle’s reporting is bad, unless it’s about someone in Villanueva’s way. Then it’s good (and uncredited).
Villanueva’s radio show also drew ire from Vera and retired Sheriff’s Captain Matt Rodriguez, two candidates for sheriff who say his air time violates election and broadcasting laws. They have filed official complaints at both the state and federal level.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds with his contradictions, and like any other politician that talks in circles and uses emotionally loaded jargon to try to tie up loose ends, that is what Villanueva’s counting on.
There are some outlets Villanueva appears to trust wholeheartedly, namely conservative outlets that champion increasing police budgets and decry “woke culture.” He has given multiple quotes to the Washington Examiner, which is of particular interest given the outlet’s ultimate owner (the Examiner is nested in LLCs and subsidiaries), billionaire businessman Philip Anschutz.
Like any reclusive billionaire, Anschutz has his hand in every industry, including entertainment. He owns the LA Galaxy soccer team and the LA Kings, along with entertainment company AEG, which built the Crypto.com Arena and LA Live Entertainment Complex. AEG is also behind a slew of live music festivals, including Coachella. All of these events often dedicated a substantial amount of the budget to increased policing and surveillance. There’s a narrative to maintain.
Villanueva has also appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight and Newsmax. He’s written op-eds full of runaround language about why he wasn’t enforcing the vaccine mandate for his employees, and how seriously scary the streets of LA will become if we don’t “democratize Los Angeles County government.” To Villanueva, this means weaponizing identity politics and unabashedly red-baiting to discredit his detractors, namely the Board of Supervisors and other nondescript woke lefties like “out of state woke influencers” who are hurting hard-working “Latinos” like him.
“Beware of coalitions masquerading as ‘reform’ groups. In reality, many are simply part of coordinated attacks on a Latino Sheriff who leads a predominantly Latino department,” he tweeted.
LASD deputies still torment the family of Anthony Vargas, a 20-year-old who died after deputies shot him 16 times. His family wears body cameras in public for safety purposes.
Knock LA is a journalism project paid for by Ground Game LA, which has endorsed Eunisses Hernandez for City Council. This article was not authorized or paid for by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.