California dispatch: Los Angeles County sheriff’s controversial right turn has made him a villain to many
© WikiMedia (Alek Leckszas)
California dispatch: Los Angeles County sheriff’s controversial right turn has made him a villain to many

JURIST is launching a new series of dispatches from major US states written by JURIST correspondents “on the ground” in those jurisdictions. JURIST Operations Director Ram Eachambadi files this report from Los Angeles.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles County filed a petition in California Superior Court to hold Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in contempt for deliberately and openly ignoring three subpoenas issued by the state Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) last fall.

By now, most of the nation has heard about the 2021 gubernatorial recall elections in America’s most populous state, which sitting Governor Gavin Newsom survived. But far fewer have heard about the Los Angeles County sheriff elections coming up later this year, and perhaps even fewer still have heard about the current incumbent and his so-called Civil Rights and Public Integrity Detail (CRPID) unit.

So who is Alejandro ‘Alex’ Villanueva? Chicago-born Villanueva joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1986 after a 10-year stint in the US military. Specifically, he served in the US Air Force and California Army National Guard between 1983 and 1985 and remained in the military until 1992. Villanueva spent a large part of his childhood in Puerto Rico and is of part Puerto Rican heritage himself. He has even had a teaching stint as adjunct professor of criminal justice at Cal State Long Beach.

Villanueva, a Democrat, announced his campaign for Sheriff of Los Angeles County in June 2017, running on a promise of “reforming the [Sheriff’s Department] around the principles of community policing and ethical standards of conduct.” Villanueva also promised to end the “pipeline to deportation” by cutting off the Sheriff’s Department’s cooperation and financial ties with federal immigration authorities.

In November 2018, Villanueva defeated Jim McDonnell, the incumbent sheriff, a feat that had not been achieved in over a 100 years, and was sworn in the following month, becoming the first Spanish-speaking sheriff in Los Angeles County and inheriting a severely understaffed Sheriff’s Department.

Sure enough, Villanueva delivered on some of his promises starting with his first week in office. To cite an example, he directed the removal of federal immigration agents from county jails, court facilities and patrol stations, and suspended the Sheriff’s Department’s participation in a program whereby it shared a database of inmates without proof of valid immigration status in exchange for federal government funding.

Then came the “180.” Villanueva started shifting to the right with other policies and the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated this shift. He quickly started turning out to be an embarrassment for the California Democratic Party and a headache for the district attorney’s office and the governor himself.

Villanueva has since defiantly refused to enforce vaccine and mask mandates across the county, spread misinformation on homelessness and crime statistics, formed an investigation team to intimidate his critics, regularly and openly ignored subpoenas to testify before the COC, and rehired deputies who had been terminated on allegations of domestic abuse and professional dishonesty.

Let us review some of Villanueva’s actions in more detail. First, Villanueva rehired Caren Mandoyan less than a month after taking office and stationed him in south Los Angeles.

Mandoyan served as a deputy for 10 years until he was terminated in 2016 over stalking and domestic abuse allegations by then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell. A county appeals board heard evidence and upheld the dismissal. As expected, Villanueva’s move was not received well not just due to the mere act of rehiring Mandoyan, but because of the larger concerns it raised regarding the sheriff’s authority. Legal commentators worried that Villanueva actions in reversing Mandoyan’s termination may weaken or throw out some of the reforms implemented following the corruption scandal that brought down former Sheriff Lee Baca and many of his top assistants.

The resignation of Alicia Ault, the former Chief of the Sheriff’s Department’s Professional Standards and Training Division, did not help Villanueva’s cause as she would later reveal that she was pressured by Villanueva’s chosen chief of staff to rehire Mandoyan before he even took office so that it would appear as though Mandoyan was hired by the former Sheriff McDonnell. This revelation was made in a deposition to a lawsuit filed by LA County challenging the Mandoyan rehiring.

The legal experts were right to worry because Villanueva did not stop with rehiring Mandoyan. According to county documents obtained by The LA Times, Villanueva rehired five other deputies discharged for various forms of misconduct—Michael Courtial, Justin Seman, Omar Chavez, Jason Goss and Brian Mayfield. Courtial was terminated for use of excessive force during an arrest but the circumstances behind the discharge of the other four are unknown.

An updated set of documents later obtained by The Times revealed 16 other rehires with information on whether these individuals were previously discharged being redacted. By December 2018, that number exceeded 27 with some being tagged as retirees being rehired and others simply as “rehires.”

Villanueva has vigorously defended the rehiring of all the individuals, arguing that his predecessors inflicted too harsh a punishment on deputies and that he wants to be fairer. For its part, the county challenged the rehiring of Mandoyan and refused to recognize him as an employee or pay him.

In October 2020, the California Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff voided Villanueva’s rehiring of Mandoyan stating that it was not approved by the County Board of Supervisors, and that “no statute grants the Sheriff the authority to control litigation or enter into settlement agreements on behalf of the County.” However, the other reinstated individuals appear to remain employed.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Villanueva’s reign as sheriff has been the CRPID, a nine-person team of investigators formed not long after Villanueva assumed office and whose official duties are shrouded in mystery. CRPID, also referred to as the sheriff’s “Secret Police”, unofficially seems to have one goal—target and intimidate the most vocal critics of Villanueva by opening up needless investigations against them.

As an example, CRPID launched a criminal inquiry into a nonprofit run by an LA County board member that oversees the sheriff and is associated with county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Both the board member and Kuehl have clashed fiercely with Villanueva in the past and called for his resignation.

Not surprisingly, none of CRPID’s highly publicized criminal investigations resulted in any charges being filed or yielded any other form of fruitful results and Gascón decided long ago that he wanted nothing to do with the unit when the sheriff’s department proposed a joint task force with the DA’s office to collaborate on public corruption investigations.

When the COC ordered Villanueva to testify regarding CRPID and its activities, Villanueva refused. In response to a subpoena in September, Villanueva referred to his previous appearances on unrelated matters and stated that his “schedule is extremely busy and [his] calendar is usually filled months, if not years, in advance.” After a second subpoena was sent the following month, Villanueva responded through a press release this time stating that neither he nor his Undersheriff Tim Murakami will appear before the COC or agree to be placed under oath. He went further by accusing the COC of abusing its power:

it is an abuse of power to simply use it to demand I show up and then testify under oath. There is no current investigation. They are not a legislative body. They have no authority over a duly elected sheriff, other than oversight. They are there to offer advice, not interrogate.

Villanueva’s disregard of the third subpoena sent in November was “strike three” and the county board had enough. It responded with the above-noted contempt petition earlier this month.

This is not the first time a contempt petition has been filed against Villanueva. After ignoring a subpoena to testify about the effects of COVID in county jails in May 2020, the county filed a contempt petition that was later dropped because Villanueva finally yielded to a show cause order. Even then, he refused to be placed under oath.

Villanueva also filed a petition to squash a February 2021 subpoena issued by the Office of the Inspector General on a different matter, alleging that it was “too broad” and “harassing.” That petition was dismissed by Judge James Chalfant and a request to hold Villanueva in contempt in that matter is still pending.

As if these were not bad enough, Villanueva has consistently refused to enforce mask and vaccine mandates or follow any other health order as it relates to COVID-19 in the county. In November, he announced that he will not enforce an LA County Ordinance requiring proof of full vaccination to enter locations such as theaters, restaurants, gyms, and hair and nail salons. His stated reasons for not enforcing the ordinance is that the mask mandates are not backed by science while the vaccine mandates infringe on a person’s bodily integrity.

Villanueva has also been known to make frequent appearances on Fox News and other social media broadcasts such as Facebook Live together with conservative politicians and personalities dismissing notions of police brutality and expressing support for increasing the number of people permitted to carry concealed firearms in the county. Indeed, Villanueva went on the defensive and became combative after his deputies fired 19 shots and killed Dijon Kizzee, a black man, in South LA even as protests over George Floyd’s murder were ongoing.

California is a deep blue state with all three branches of its government dominated by Democrats. Californians, and Angelenos in particular, are mostly liberals. It would be political suicide for the local GOP to take strong conservative positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Even then-Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger knew that when he contested the recall election against Gray Davis in 2003.

Still, the GOP may have committed political suicide in the state in the most recent recall election. For fear of alienating Trump and his supporters, Newsom’s opponent Larry Elder attempted to appease the Trump base by changing his position from acknowledging President Joe Biden’s win to “there were shenanigans in the 2020 presidential election.” That stunt may have gone well in other parts of the country, but not where it mattered—i.e. California.

So, one might think that the upcoming 2020 sheriff elections are a “no-brainer”. However, Los Angeles County faces the same problem I’ve noted with the recall elections—i.e. low voter turnout. Angelenos do not pay much attention to sheriff elections or even know the mechanics behind them to trouble themselves to vote, and that is a problem. Granted, my worries with the 2021 recall election turned out to be misplaced and Californians came in large numbers to give Newsom a convincing win that made him almost cry.

Still when you spend time talking to folks in the bluest of cities and states about how they are getting tired of mask and vaccine mandates, it gets to you and makes you wonder what might happen. The good news is that Villanueva is not the president or governor and his powers are limited. Thus, whether he gets elected or not, there are “so many” others above him acting as a check and that hopefully will prevent him from doing something more drastic as he completes his shift to the right. The two contempt petitions still pending against Villanueva are proof of that.