Alex Villanueva Demoted a Chief Who’s Challenging Him in the Race for Sheriff

Following a sudden demotion to commander, 30-year department vet Eli Vera says he believes Sheriff Villanueva is retaliating against him for political reasons

A few months after launching his campaign to replace his boss as Los Angeles County Sheriff, Eli Vera has been demoted from his high-ranking position.

Vera, who launched his bid for the 2022 election in April, was notified last week via a brief but forthright letter from his boss, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, that he was being demoted from a chief to a commander. A sheriff’s department spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that it was an “unapologetic move” made to keep his competitor out of confidential meetings that the sheriff regularly holds with senior staff.

“What the sheriff did today is not only wrong, but it goes against every procedure and rule laid out in our department and across the county,” Vera said during a news conference on Tuesday outside of the Hall of Justice, Los Angeles Daily News reports.

“Alex decided to do something unprecedented for what are clear political reasons,” Vera added. “This is unfortunate.”

Vera, who has been with LASD since 1988, will also be transferred from his former position overseeing the department’s Technology and Support Division to a lower assignment in the Court Services Division as part of the demotion, the Times reports. He will no longer be able to attend weekly executive meetings with Villanueva and other senior staff.

“The law is firmly established that … those who serve as confidential advisors to an elected leader, cannot oppose him/her politically and keep their post,” Capt. John Satterfield told the Times. “Who has ever heard of a cabinet secretary running against the president who appointed them?”

The August 30 letter did not indicate a reason for Vera’s reassignment, which went into effect on September 5, but Vera says he believes the move constitutes retaliation.

“The Undersheriff [Tim Murakami] made it perfectly clear that the incumbent Sheriff doesn’t feel that he could have a division chief running against him and holding that position at the same time,” Vera told the Times. “So it’s clearly politically driven, I don’t think there’s any question whatsoever.”

Vera added, “What he’s trying to do is harm my campaign. It’s a message to the rest of the department: Fall in line or else.”

Satterfield told the Times that Vera’s allegations of retaliation “lack merit.”

Vera has openly criticized controversy-prone Villanueva—who has a tumultuous relationship with the county’s Board of Supervisors—for how he’s handled disagreements since being elected in 2018.

“I believe as law enforcement officers our mission is to bring calmness and civility and peace to very difficult situations,” Vera said when he announced his candidacy in April. “And what we’ve witnessed from the current sheriff is someone that when someone disagrees with him, we see nothing but utter disdain and contempt.”

In response to Vera’s candidacy announcement, Villanueva also raised concerns about potential conflicts, the Times reports. A May 10 letter written on behalf of the Sheriff by Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon stated: “With an active duty chief and an incumbent Sheriff both running in the same election, there will undoubtedly be unique challenges in this historically unprecedented situation. In an effort to maintain the Sheriff’s ability to manage an efficient operation without disruption, the sheriff requests you provide a plan on how to navigate your executive role and communications with him in the coming months.”

According to the Times, Villanueva also requested for Vera and other high-ranking officials to sign a confidentiality agreement that those who disclose confidential information are “subject to immediate dismissal and may be subject to civil, criminal or administrative penalties.”

Vera told The Times that the agreement was an effort to keep him quiet. According to L.A. Daily News, Vera also said that in his three decades on the force, he’d never previously been suspended or demoted.

Vera is one of several hopefuls vying for Villanueva’s position in the 2022 election, among them Cecil Rhambo, who is chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police, and former Sheriff’s Captain Matt Rodriguez.

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