Editorial: Alex Villanueva, L.A.'s loosest cannon and pettiest cop

·5 min read
SANTA MONICA, CA - SEPTEMBER 14, 2022 - - Los Angeles Supervisor Shelia Kuehl's stands in front of her home after being escorted out by Los Angeles County sheriffs who served her with a search warrant in Santa Monica on September 14, 2022. This was part of a criminal investigation into a county contract awarded to a nonprofit organization. Sheriff's investigators also searched Patti Giggans' house, her nonprofit's offices, officers at the L.A. County Hall of Administration and the headquarters of the county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which awarded a contract to Giggans' Peace Over Violence." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Supervisor Sheila Kuehl stands in front of her Santa Monica home Wednesday after being escorted out by deputies who served her with a search warrant. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The potential evidence that armed Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies confiscated from the home of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl on Wednesday included her mobile phone, personal computer — and videotapes of the TV show she starred in 60 years ago, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." Maybe that’s an indication of how deep L.A.’s sheriff thinks this suspected conspiracy goes — Kuehl, and her alleged co-conspirator, activist Patti Giggans, might have been planning to collude on a no-bid contract since the 1950s.

More likely it's an indication of just how unhinged Sheriff Alex Villanueva has become in the weeks before voters decide if he deserves another term.

No prosecutor seems to be able to see the crime that Villanueva sees in the awarding of a Metro contract to the nonprofit organization Giggans runs, Peace Over Violence, for a sexual harassment hotline. (The warrant served on Kuehl indicates that they were looking for documents that suggested bribery or other crimes related to the contract's acquisition.) The district attorney rebuffed the Sheriff’s Department a year ago because the evidence it had compiled didn’t amount to anything. The D.A. said, in essence, there’s no “there” there.

But the sheriff has a ready explanation for that: The D.A. is George Gascón, whom Villanueva blames (instead of himself) for chaos in L.A. and against whom he campaigned (unsuccessfully) to recall. Besides, Villanueva noted in a television interview (conducted as he sat in a bar), a majority of the Board of Supervisors endorsed Gascón. And all of them have endorsed Villanueva’s opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Robert Luna. So there you are. They’re all in on the corruption that Villanueva asserts.

But at least federal prosecutors are on board with him, right? Wrong. The Sheriff’s Department asserts that the feds are “monitoring” his investigation, but they really seem to be telling the sheriff, “No thanks, but feel free to send us a note every now and then to let us know how things are going.” There has been no official public statement from the U.S. attorney's office or the FBI. Maybe they’re in on it too.

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta has yet to sign on to the investigation. Is he also in on this grand conspiracy?

It’s odd, though, that Villanueva held forth on the probe in that TV interview Wednesday, given the fact that he claims to have recused himself from the whole matter and left it to his undersheriff, Tim Murakami.

The self-recusal didn’t stop the sheriff from comparing the searches of Kuehl’s and Giggans’ homes, plus offices at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration, to the FBI search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. Maybe those "Dobie Gillis" tapes were classified.

The warrant is based in part on the implication that there was no legitimate reason for Kuehl to have appointed Giggans to the commission that oversees the sheriff. It claims that Giggans’ only qualification is a black belt in karate. (Seriously. We are not making this up.) What possible law enforcement oversight role could there be, it asks, for a person such as Giggans, who has spent her entire career advocating for and advancing the reduction of violence?

Perhaps what the warrant should have asked instead is whether Villanueva targets his political enemies and wanders at will outside his own jurisdiction and the bounds of the law, such as when he proposed sending deputies door to door during the 2020 lockdowns because he was concerned that child abuse reports had decreased, or when he substituted his own legal opinion for county lawyers’ on whether gun stores weren’t, then were, essential businesses (and then reversed himself on the topic). Or when he sent his deputies into Venice Beach, in the city of L.A., supposedly to crack down on homelessness, or when he overrode a county public health order that people wear masks in public to prevent the spread of disease.

Villanueva has a history of making specious allegations against people he considers his enemies. In 2020 he falsely accused Sachi Hamai, then the chief executive officer of L.A. County, of a crime for having a financial interest in United Way when her office vetted a ballot measure proposed by the nonprofit. The shocking similarity between that bogus assertion and the one he’s now making against Kuehl, who was on the advisory board of Giggans’ nonprofit, shows a pattern of vindictiveness and inept legal analysis.

It's extremely dangerous for the county sheriff to launch criminal investigations that no prosecutor will join, against public officials who happen to be his political opponents. Those repeated practices raise serious concerns that the same Keystone Cops level of criminal investigation is employed every day in the field against suspects less able to defend themselves against armed law enforcement officers.

All of this drives home the point that Villanueva is a loose, dangerous, misfiring cannon aimed at his perceived enemies, as well as a miserable law enforcement official who costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars because of his mismanagement. He’s a petty man in a powerful position — the type of person against whom the law and the Constitution were intended to protect us.

Even if we suppose for a moment that there is crime afoot that only Villanueva can see, he is unfit to pursue it. Every day, deputies must choose whether to follow his crazy directives or defy him and sacrifice their jobs. The one job that should be sacrificed is his.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.