The state Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday seized control of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigation into allegations of political corruption against the LA Metro and county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl over contracts awarded to a nonprofit organization run by one of Kuehl’s closest friends.
The move by Attorney General Rob Bonta was confirmed in a letter sent to the Sheriff’s Department obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Bonta’s letter ordered the Sheriff’s Department to “cease its investigative activity and refrain from any actions in furtherance of these investigations, including public statements or court filings related to the investigations.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva had reached out to the Attorney General’s Office last week asking it to investigate allegations that county Inspector General Max Huntsman and the County Counsel’s Office had tipped off Kuehl to a planned search of her home by sheriff’s deputies.
oveIn Tuesday’s letter responding to that request, Bonta wrote that his office would look into those allegations, but he said since that matter is directly tied to the underlying investigation into Kuehl, Metro, Kuehl’s close friend Patricia Giggans and Giggans’ nonprofit group Peace Over Violence, he would take over that probe as well.
“Given that Sheriff Villanueva has recused himself from the underlying investigation of Peace Over Violence and Patricia Giggans, and by seeking our assistance he recognizes that he should be recused from any related matters, I believe that the handling of all these matters by DOJ (Department of Justice) will be in the public interest,” Bonta wrote. “Therefore, we will assume all responsibility for the underlying investigation of Peace Over Violence, Patricia Giggans, et al.”
The sheriff’s investigation grabbed headlines last week when deputies searched Kuehl’s home and office, along with offices at Metro, the Metro Office of Inspector General and Giggans’ home and office. The probe stems from allegations that Metro steered a series of no-bid contracts worth a total of more than $800,000 to Peace Over Violence to operate a sex-harassment hotline for Metro riders and employees.
A Metro whistleblower, Jennifer Loew, sparked the investigation with allegations that Kuehl helped push the contracts toward Giggans and Peace Over Violence, an allegation Kuehl has strongly denied. Kuehl said she had no involvement in the contracts and did not vote on them as a member of the Metro Board of Directors. Loew also has alleged that former Metro CEO Phillip Washington ignored alleged billing improprieties involving Peace Over Violence because he wanted to remain in “good graces” with Kuehl.
Villanueva, despite saying he has recused himself from any involvement in the investigation by his department’s Public Corruption Unit, defended the probe, saying it originated with a legitimate allegation of criminal activity.
Kuehl has blasted the probe as a retaliatory action by Villaneuva, who has repeatedly clashed with the Board of Supervisors over budget and policy issues, while rebuffing subpoenas to appear before the county’s Civilian Oversight Commission, of which Giggans is a member. The commission is in the midst of a series of hearings investigating activities of alleged deputy gangs within the department.
Shortly before Bonta’s letter to the Sheriff’s Department assuming control of the investigation became public, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a ruling blocking sheriff’s investigators from searching any computers seized from Kuehl or Metro during last week’s raids. The ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan mirrored one he issued last week blocking any search of computers taken from the Metro OIG’s office.
Ryan declined to quash the warrants or order the return of seized equipment, but he ordered the Sheriff’s Department to refrain from copying any information on any of the seized computers, and disclose if any such copies have already been made.
Attorneys for the Metro OIG and Kuehl challenged the legality of the warrants. Metro attorneys argued that a separate judge had previously determined that a special master should be appointed to review materials seized from the transit agency in any investigation. Ryan scheduled another hearing for Thursday, asking a series of questions — including why the sheriff ignored the previous ruling and went to a different judge to get the search warrants signed after the initial judge reviewing the matter called for a special master in the case.
Kuehl has suggested that the judge who signed off on the search warrants served last week, Craig Richman, is a longtime associate of one of the sheriff’s lead investigators in the case, Detective Mark Lillienfeld.
In her filing, Kuehl’s attorney, Cheryl O’Connor, called the items seized from the supervisor’s home “shockingly overbroad,” noting deputies took recordings of “Broadside,” a television show Kuehl starred in during the 1960s, and materials related to a UCLA camp where the supervisor served as a student counselor.
“Simply put, this search warrant should be seen for what it is: a flagrant abuse of power and an offense to the rule of law,” O’Connor wrote in the emergency application.
Kuehl’s attorney stated the seized computers could contain privileged information, including communications that pertain to Villanueva.
“As Sheriff Villaneuva and the LASD are undoubtedly aware, in the ordinary course of her official duties, Supervisor Kuehl sends and receives attorney-client privileged communications to and from both County Counsel and the LASD Office of Inspector General, including privileged communications about ongoing investigations into both Sheriff Villanueva himself and the LASD,” O’Connor wrote. “Yet the search warrant contains no protocol to protect against invasion of attorney-client privilege, such as a request for a special master or use of a filter team to review items seized from Supervisor Kuehl’s home or office.”
Undersheriff Tim Murakami, who leads the department’s Public Corruption Unit, had said the searches would help investigators “prove or disprove” allegations against Kuehl and Giggans.
Kuehl has described Loew, the Metro whistleblower, as a “disgruntled” former employee and accused the sheriff of using the investigation as a “thuggish attempt to intimidate and silence” two of his most vocal critics. Kuehl and Giggans had previously called for Villanueva’s resignation.
Peace Over Violence did not respond to a request for comment.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which typically handles public corruption cases, declined to prosecute this case when the Sheriff’s Department presented it last year. Prosecutors publicly stated they would not defend the search warrants if they were challenged.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department has accused county counsel of firing its attorney ahead of the legal challenges to the search warrants and leaving the law enforcement agency without the means to hire its own counsel.