Slim Evidence of LA Burger Magnate Fraud in Villanueva Campaign: D.A.

A memo obtained by lays out the (sometimes confounding) details of the investigation that took the office four years to complete.

Insufficient evidence exists to prove that a vast conspiracy of straw donors was orchestrated by a local burger magnate to usher Alex Villanueva into the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office, according to a district attorney’s office memo that details the four-year inquiry into possible illegal funding of the embattled sheriff’s 2018 campaign. 

The Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office launched the probe in 2018 after it received a tip from the campaign of then-sitting Sheriff Jim McDonnell. It was floated that local businessman Chris Vovos, owner of Compton favorite Tam’s Burgers, had reimbursed some of his staffers for contributions he’d asked them to make to the Villanueva for Sheriff campaign. Records show that Villanueva’s campaign received an eyebrow-raising $19,500 in individual donations; incidentally, by the end of 2021, he’d also left his opponents in the dust, having more than quadrupled their overall fundraising.

Such straw donor shenanigans are a violation of campaign finance laws that forbid the concealment of the identities of donors; the conspiracy, if true, would bring about a felony charge. To be clear, Villanueva was not the subject of the inquiry, as D.A.’s office spokesperson Greg Risling made clear in 2018 when it was announced—the probe was focused on the leadership at Tam’s Burgers.

The April 19 memo, obtained by Los Angeles magazine and first reported on by Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian, details the findings of the Public Integrity Division’s inquiry. But many of these particulars only raise more questions about Vovos, his burger shop manager and these $1500 donations made in the three months before election day. Now, it’s unclear if any of these questions will ever be answered—or if the fog around these dubious campaign funds will clear up after years of work on the inquiry, which included a dozen interviews and the search of 22 bank accounts, turned up what the D.A. says is insufficient proof of a crime.

The inquiry did find this: Manuel Gomez, manager at Tam’s, had encouraged staff to donate to Villaneuva’s campaign and several obliged. He also handed $1500 to a local couple from his church, who told investigators that Gomez had asked them to donate that money to the Villanueva campaign. Later, while executing a search of Gomez’s home, materials related to the sheriff’s campaign were discovered—but were deemed non-incriminating. 

Meanwhile, the probe into the bank accounts of these suspicious donors—the cooks, waiters and floor staff at Tam’s and other Vovos-owned burger joints—showed that large cash deposits had been made just ahead of the dates those $1500 donations were given to Villanueva For Sheriff. These donors, whose bank records were among the 22 viewed in the inquiry, earn in the neighborhood of $35,000 per year, the memo says.

More fishy details pepper the memo and raise big questions. Like, why did some donors say they did not fill out the “to” or “memo” field in their checks that went to Villanueva’s campaign? Why does some of the handwriting match on all of the checks? How come Gomez collected the checks from the generous staffers (all of whom, for the record, said they were not reimbursed)? Why were all of these restaurant workers giving their money to a cop? And of course, why was Villanueva so certain around the time of its inception that the D.A. inquiry would be fruitless, telling the Times he‘s “confident everyone who donated did so legally.”

The concluding memo from the D.A.’s office nods to (some of) these confounding questions by stating that there just wasn’t enough evidence there to prove the accusations were true. Had Gomez violated a Los Angeles code by bundling campaign contributions? Well, he did pay back that couple from his church, which, added to his own $1500 donation, is over the $1500 maximum allowed by an individual—but it’s well below the $5000 threshold that would see him handed a misdemeanor charge. But at this point, it wouldn’t matter: the one-year statute of limitations on that particular code violation was up in November 2019.

As for the whole vast conspiracy to funnel money to the man who would win the election for sheriff? Not enough evidence here, too, per the memo. And that potential felony has a three-year statute of limitations, which passed last year, anyhow. 

“Based on the totality of the evidence, there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gomez or any of the donors committed any crime,” the memo concludes. 

Since winning the 2018 election, Sheriff Villanueva has been plagued with scandal after scandal—from accusations of stonewalling investigations into his department and covering up its misdeeds to threatening members of the press. Just this week, a lawsuit was filed by a third now-former LASD staffer who says he (not them, as he has said) is the man guilty of covering up an incident in which a deputy was seen on video kneeling on an inmate’s neck—just the latest blow to the sheriff’s reputation as he carries on his reelection bid.

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