Raid of County Supervisor’s Home Is Abhorrent, On-Brand for Sheriff Alex Villanueva

Cityside Column: The mercurial sheriff, facing an Election Day reckoning, pulls his latest stunt at the Santa Monica home of County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl
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Absolutely everything you need to know about Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his reputation in L.A. was encapsulated by the wackadoodle events that unfolded Wednesday morning as sheriff’s deputies pounded on the door of County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s Santa Monica home at 7 a.m., and made the octogenarian walk outside—barefoot—so they could search her home. The general reaction was less, “What did Sheila do?” and more, “What the hell did Alex do this time?”

So, what did Villanueva do? Something so stunning, caustic, ostentatious and downright rude—an unjustified, vindictive, and politically motivated attempt to shower a perceived enemy with bad press using the power the public has entrusted to him. And this sort of behavior is entirely on-brand for our carnival ride of a county lawman.

I would say I’m shocked by what happened in Santa Monica on Wednesday, but after nearly four years of Villanueva running the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, you could tell me news of literally any stunt this man was pulling and I would not dismiss it. In fact, the crazier the suggestion, the more believable it would become—you could say he has put together a committee to run for governor; you could report that he has either made or lost a fortune in crypto while serving as sheriff; he’s planning to get into the ring with Mike Tyson in an exhibition match to raise money for a mountain lion sanctuary? Sure. He’s quitting the department to operate a cannabis farm? Why not? There’s a video of him dressed like a goat, butting heads with an actual goat? Entirely possible.

As almost every observer noted Wednesday morning, the searches occurred less than two months before an election in which Villanueva seems destined to be shellacked. Again, it says so much about the sheriff and his tenure that the immediate discussion focused less on alleged law-breaking by Kuehl, and more on how the sheriff could think that this will persuade voters to rally around him instead of his challenger, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.

After deputies served the warrant, Kuehl called the proceedings “a bogus non-investigation.” Her colleague Hilda Solis, in a seven-tweet thread, ripped into Villanueva, stating in part, “This Sheriff has a history of vindictiveness, harassment, and intimidation.” An L.A. Times editorial labeled him “a loose, dangerous, misfiring cannon”— then stopped being polite and got into the really critical stuff.

Supreme fishiness abounds in this case. And while one should guffaw at Villanueva’s tactics, it is important to consider the allegations against Kuehl. After all, Superior Court Judge Craig Richman signed off on a warrant allowing sheriff’s investigators to search her residence, and while TV viewers may think that judges hand out warrants like parents dispense Starbursts on Halloween, in reality, the law must—or at least should have to—clear a high bar if deputies are to paw through an elected official’s home. That wasn’t the only place deputies searched, as there were also warrants granted to search Kuehl’s office, the home and office of her friend, Patti Giggans, who sits on the civilian panel overseeing the Sheriff’s Department, and the headquarters of Metro—though a halt on searching certain computers seized from the transit agency was halted by another judge.

The Sheriff’s Department’s take is that Kuehl was involved in a corrupt scheme that gave Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit run by Giggans, a series of no-bid contracts to set up a hotline to field sexual harassment complaints on Metro buses and trains. Alarms have been rung before in this possible boondoggle; in 2020, a 10-minute FOX 11 News report cited a whistleblower and asserted that the hotline was little used and was costing taxpayers up to $8,000 a call.

The assertions are eyebrow-raising, but also not anything new. Media reports after Wednesday’s searches pointed out that when LASD investigators brought the matter to District Attorney George Gascón in 2021, he declined to move forward. California Attorney General Rob Bonta has displayed no inclination to prosecute; nor has the U.S. Department of Justice, which as everyone knows, loves to take on public corruption in Los Angeles. If prosecutors up and down the dial don’t want a case, there’s a reason for that.

Villanueva has stated he has recused himself from the investigation and that Undersheriff Tim Murakami is running the shebang. To which the only appropriate response is an elongated, “Okayyyyyyy….” Even if one believes that the sheriff has nothing to do with the proceedings, do we really expect his No. 2 to tread lightly on Kuehl and Giggans—both of whom have called for Villanueva to resign?

Rather, going to war on a whim is what Villanueva does naturally. He was elected in 2018, and almost immediately ignited fireworks for trying to hire an aide whom the previous sheriff had fired following a sexual harassment and intimidation investigation. Villanueva regularly thumbs his nose at the supervisors and time and again has displayed a tendency to steer the squad car out of his lane and into the jurisdiction of others. He harrumphed about plans to clear tent encampments on the Venice Boardwalk even though that’s the bailiwick of the Los Angeles Police Department. He tangled with the county coroner’s office—an autonomous entity—over its plans to release autopsy reports. That’s including that of Andres Guardado, who was shot in the back killed by a sheriff’s deputy in June 2020.

Villanueva, who won office after convincing voters he was a progressive reformer, has instead been compared to former President Donald Trump as he’s drawn four years of bad press. That all built up to the June primary, where he pulled just 30.7 percent of the vote, an abysmal result for an incumbent. Luna, despite having little money and a low name ID, garnered 25.9 percent. All five supervisors have now endorsed Luna in the Nov. 8 runoff, as has the L.A. County Democratic Party. Essentially, it looks like Villanueva is toast.

It is against this background—three weeks before mail-in ballots arrive at homes—that investigators from Villanueva’s office decided this was an appropriate and, ahem, non-politically motivated moment to dig through the belongings of an enemy.

It’s abhorrent, jaw-dropping, and unbelievable. Or, in a phrase, “very Villanueva.”

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