The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has opened a criminal investigation into whether Sheriff Alex Villanueva violated state law when he solicited campaign donations from deputies, a spokesman for the office said Tuesday.
Last week, as Villanueva and his challenger, Robert Luna, were in the final days of their race for sheriff, a video was sent to members of the Sheriff's Department, in which Villanueva made a plea.
"This message is for deputies," he said, speaking into the camera while dressed in civilian clothes. He went on to explain that the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents rank-and-file deputies, had left its members "high and dry" by refusing to spend money to support his bid for reelection.
In 2018, the union played a major role in securing Villanueva's unexpected victory by pouring more than $1 million into the race on his behalf. This year, it contributed only $1,500 to his campaign.
Villanueva continued: "It's up to each and every one of you who you want to be as sheriff. We're gonna win this thing, and Lord willing, and if you want to help, anything will help us get our message out there, get our ads online and on TV and our texting going on.
"So I'll leave it up to you. Any donation is great — 20 bucks, all the way up to 1,500 bucks — your choice," he said.
State law prohibits an employee of a local agency from directly or indirectly soliciting political contributions from an "officer or employee of that agency, or from a person on an employment list of that agency, with knowledge that the person from whom the contribution is solicited is an officer or employee of that agency." The Sheriff's Department has a similar policy barring such solicitations.
Violations of the law are misdemeanors.
The video has also led to an allegation of antisemitism against Villanueva.
In the video, he told deputies the union has left "me to the fate of fighting George Soros and Jeff Katzenberg all by myself."
Katzenberg, a co-founder of DreamWorks and a longtime Democratic donor, contributed at least half a million dollars to a campaign committee supporting Luna.
But Soros, a prominent New York philanthropist who funds progressive causes, did not contribute money in the sheriff's race, a spokesperson for his philanthropic organization, the Open Society Foundations, said. Soros, who is Jewish, has long been a target of conspiracy theories put forth by far-right groups based on antisemitic tropes that allege Jewish people secretly control financial markets, governments and the media.
Alan Romero, an attorney who represents several deputies suing the Sheriff’s Department, said he filed a complaint to the Anti-Defamation League about what he described as an “antisemitic dog whistle” in Villanueva’s video.
"I stated that in the L.A. County sheriff election, that the sheriff had engaged in vitriolic attacks on Jewish residents of L.A. County by falsely stating that George Soros was involved in the campaign against him," he said.
It's unclear how many deputies received the message and who was disseminating it. A text message received by a deputy that was reviewed by The Times included the video, a message imploring the deputy to donate and a link to a fundraising site. The phone number from which the message was sent was not given to The Times.
A representative for the deputy's union said it had received complaints that members' personal information had been used by whoever was behind the solicitation.
Asked how the sheriff's campaign was able to target deputies specifically with the video message, Villanueva's campaign manager, Javier Gonzalez, said: "I got skills." He refused to elaborate.
On Wednesday, he said: "Our campaign team has worked diligently to run an effective campaign in compliance with all applicable laws. To date, we have no official communication from the D.A. We will work with the D.A.’s office to address any concerns they may have."
In a brief interview at his election night party, Villanueva told The Times that Dist. Atty. George Gascón should recuse himself from the investigation.
“I suggest the D.A. then recuse himself," Villanueva said. "We did not violate any laws. That is nonsense."
It was not clear on what grounds, if any, Gascón would need to recuse himself. Villanueva was one of the most outspoken advocates of a failed attempt to recall the progressive district attorney from office and has made no secret of his dislike for him. But other than trading insults, Gascón has not taken any political or personal actions against Villanueva.
Tiffiny Blacknell, a spokeswoman with the district attorney's office, said Monday that the office was aware of the video.
"We take these matters seriously and it is currently under review," she said. She said the district attorney's Public Integrity Division had opened a formal investigation and declined to comment further. It's unclear how the office became aware of the video.
Villanueva appeared vulnerable Wednesday morning to losing his bid for reelection as early results showed his opponent, Luna, taking a significant lead.
With more than 1.2 million ballots counted, Luna had won 56.78% of the votes to Villanueva’s 43.22%. The early returns also showed overwhelming support for Measure A, the ballot measure that would give the county’s Board of Supervisors the power to fire a sitting sheriff, with 70% voting in favor.
In another blow to Villanueva this week, Superior Court Judge Elaine Lu on Monday ordered the sheriff to show why he should not be held in contempt for refusing to comply with three watchdog subpoenas calling on him to testify under oath about various issues in the department.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.