Sheriff's officials tried to block testimony of key witness at 'deputy gang' hearing, lawsuit says
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and other department officials tried to prevent a key witness from testifying before an oversight panel about gang-like groups of deputies, according to a new lawsuit.
The directive that Sgt. Jefferson Chow should not appear before the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission despite being subpoenaed to do so was delivered to Chow in a phone call by a lieutenant who works for Undersheriff Tim Murakami, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday by Chow's wife, who is also a sergeant in the department.
During the Aug. 19 call, the lieutenant told Chow that Villanueva had issued an order that he not testify, the lawsuit says. Villanueva instructed the lieutenant to deliver it as he "desperately tried to block Mr. Chow's testimony," the lawsuit claims. The lieutenant, Chris Kusayanagi, also told Chow that unions representing department members supported the idea of him not showing up, according to the lawsuit.
The alleged attempt to stop Chow from testifying was too late, however. Kusayanagi called Chow 18 minutes before he was scheduled to testify, and Chow did not answer, the lawsuit said. When Chow called back after his appearance at the hearing, Kusayanagi was unaware that he had already testified and launched into an explanation of why he shouldn't, the lawsuit says.
Before he had Kusayanagi make the phone call, Villanueva tried to get Chow to agree to be represented by an attorney in an effort to "stonewall" the oversight commission, the lawsuit alleges.
In an email, John Satterfield, Villanueva's chief of staff, called the allegation that the sheriff ordered Chow not to testify "100% FALSE."
Inspector General Max Huntsman, who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors as a watchdog for the Sheriff's Department, said he was aware of the allegations, and his office is investigating whether there was an attempt to tamper with a witness, which is a crime under state law. He declined to comment further.
Chow also declined to comment.
When reached by phone Tuesday, Kusayanagi denied that Chow had been instructed not to testify, saying, "There was no order given." Declining to elaborate, he said he would call back with details but had not as of Tuesday afternoon.
Chow's allegations and the department's denials are unfolding amid a legal skirmish over the Civilian Oversight Commission's authority to subpoena sheriff's employees.
In 2020, the two unions that represent rank-and-file deputies, sergeants and others filed a complaint with the county Employee Relations Commission over the subpoena power of department watchdogs. Derek Hsieh, executive director of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said that union's position is that testifying is "negotiable and requires careful coordination."
The union, Hsieh said, believes that "until that's worked out, deputies should not go" to testify.
On Aug. 18, the day before Chow testified, a hearing officer in the case found that the county had failed to negotiate with the unions over the impact of giving oversight officials subpoena power and recommended that it stop enforcing subpoenas. The officer's findings are advisory, and the Employee Relations Commission has yet to make the final decision in the case.
Meanwhile, the Civilian Oversight Commission has pressed ahead with its probe into so-called deputy gangs. The Sheriff's Department has long struggled with groups of deputies, who have matching tattoos, running amok at sheriff’s stations and in county jails, wielding control over other deputies and glorifying violence. The oversight commission announced plans to launch an independent effort to scrutinize the groups earlier this year and has held several days of hearings in which deputies and others have been called to testify.
Both Villanueva and Murakami have refused to comply with subpoenas ordering them to appear before the commission. Villanueva has said the commission's efforts amount to a "fake court hearing" and "fake trial" designed to hurt his chances at reelection in November.
As the investigator who led a high-profile criminal investigation into an alleged assault in 2018 by deputies suspected of belonging to the Banditos, a group at the East L.A. sheriff's station, Chow was an important witness in the commission's probe. Two deputies who were not Banditos members were knocked unconscious at a department party.
In a log he kept of his investigative activities, Chow wrote that after Villanueva took office in late 2018, he was instructed not to ask questions about "subculture groups" when interviewing deputies about the assault. Portions of the log were made public by the commission in May.
At the Aug. 19 hearing, Chow confirmed under oath that he authored the log and was ordered not to ask questions about the Banditos. He testified that while those questions were crucial to determining a motive for the attack, he followed the order because he feared being disciplined or fired for insubordination if he did not.
The order not to ask questions about the Banditos came down from Matt Burson, a chief in the department who has since retired. Burson testified in front of the commission at a hearing in July and, under oath, said that he, in turn, had been directed by Villanueva’s chief of staff, on behalf of the sheriff, to steer the investigation away from the Banditos.
“Don’t look into the Bandito aspect of the case,” Burson said he was told. “Just focus on the alcohol and the fight.”
It didn’t occur to him then, Burson said, but he now feels he was unwittingly used to help cover up the Banditos’ involvement in the incident.
Larry Del Mese, Villanueva’s former chief of staff, also testified, saying he did not recall instructing Burson not to ask questions about the Banditos or ever having a conversation with Villanueva about the group.
In a social media broadcast a few weeks later, Villanueva challenged Burson's version of events. The sheriff said he was not concerned with the East L.A. fight investigation when he took office because he was busy with other matters, such as issuing body-worn cameras to deputies and removing federal immigration authorities from county jails.
"When I took office December of 2018, other than hearing about a Bandito tattoo, that's about the extent of what I knew about Bandito, the subgroup," he said. "You think for a nanosecond that I gave a darn about that investigation? Other than the fact that it was going to go on and let them do their job, which is exactly what they did."
But Villanueva has stated many times that one of his first acts in office was to remove the captain of the East L.A. station, where Banditos ran roughshod and dictated where deputies would be assigned. Villanueva also said he transferred problematic employees to quell the problem. Body cameras, meanwhile, were not rolled out until the fall of 2020.
Villanueva also downplayed the significance of the Banditos' role in the 2018 fight.
"When you have a drunk fest that devolves into a fight, and there's mutual combatants, and there's people exchanging blows on both sides, and everyone is drunk, no ... there's not going to be a grand inquisition into motive on that," Villanueva said.
In that same broadcast, Villanueva suggested that Chow's log had been doctored.
"The best they got is a doctored log?" Villanueva said.
In his log, Chow wrote that before Villanueva took office, he was instructed by a lieutenant and Burson, his captain at the time, to question witnesses about the deputy groups.
Within a few weeks, though, just days after Villanueva took office, that instruction changed, Chow claims. The sergeant wrote in the log that Burson told him that questions about the Banditos or other groups didn’t need to be part of his investigation. Burson was promoted by Villanueva from captain to chief.
Satterfield, the sheriff's chief of staff, claimed that the log was doctored because in it, Chow referred to Burson as "captain/chief" on Nov. 27, 2018, before Burson had been promoted. Chow addressed the allegation in his testimony, saying he had been aware that Burson was up for the promotion to chief well before it was made official.
The lawsuit filed by Chow's wife, Vanessa Chow, alleges that the sheriff and his wife, a retired deputy, run the agency like "their own personal fiefdom." She alleges that she spoke out about illegal conduct and faced retaliation, including having a score on an exam she took manually altered to block her from getting a promotion.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.