A Judge’s Ruling May Force Sheriff Villanueva to Discuss Deputy ‘Cliques’

L.A. County’s sheriff is trying hard to dodge an inspector general subpoena regarding ’deputy secret societies,’ but he’s nearly out of options

A judge ruled Tuesday that Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva does not have the power to summarily quash a subpoena issued against him by the county’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG)—a blow to Villanueva’s bid to avoid answering further questions about “deputy secret societies” within his department, which critics say have operated like illegal street gangs.

At issue is a February 25 subpoena issued for Villanueva by Inspector General Max Huntsman after Villanueva rejected a less formal January request to schedule an interview about deputy gangs, claiming the request didn’t give him enough notice. The ensuing subpoena directed the sheriff to sit for a 90-minute interview on the subject. In a responding petition, Villanueva claimed the order was “too broad [and] harassing,” that he is not subject to depositions, and that, in any case, his duties as an elected official don’t leave him time to submit to such inquiries, Courthouse News reports.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant begged to differ, stating in his tentative ruling, “Contrary to the sheriff’s claim that an appearance before the inspector general would ‘tak[e] the sheriff away from his duties’, one of the sheriff’s responsibilities is to submit to the OIG’s oversight.”

Chalfant further found that “the sheriff is not permitted to thwart the inspector general’s mandate by directing the manner in which the OIG conducts oversight. A contrary rule would permit the sheriff to evade interview and obstruct oversight by demanding written questions or by requiring an interview of a lower-level official he designates.”

Villanueva already tried both tactics, with his lawyer writing in Villanueva’s March 22 petition, “Rather than use a less intrusive means of obtaining information, such as a series of questions or interviewing lower legal sheriff personnel who are involved in the day-to-day implementation of the policies and practices of the sheriff’s department, the inspector general is leap-frogging right to the top.”

Villanueva also requested that the court block any further subpoenas, inspiring Chalfant to write, “The sheriff refused to meet with the inspector general voluntarily and his desire for an order protecting him from all future subpoenas reflects his disdain for OIG oversight.”

While Villanueva’s petition states that he already answered questions about rogue deputy associations within LASD from the Civilian Oversight Committee on December 18 of last year, and shared a video on the subject on January 21, a letter from Huntsman accompanying the subpoena points out that Villanueva himself had asked for feedback from the OIG regarding the video.

The judge did give Villanueva one more chance to avoid a contempt charge, stating that the court will hear any legal challenge to the subpoena he wishes to raise, with contempt proceedings following only if the sheriff’s challenge is unsuccessful and he persists in refusing the interview.

Another hearing is scheduled for August 12.

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