California Attorney General Seizes Control of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Investigation of Local Officials

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has taken control of an investigation originally carried out by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, which quickly stirred accusations that the sheriff was attempting to intimidate local officials with oversight over his department.

Bonta said in a statement on September 20 2022 that the state Department of Justice would assume all responsibility for the probe into the nonprofit group Peace Over Violence.

That investigation led to a search warrant being executed against County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and the group’s head, Patti Giggans, on September 14 2022 by a “public corruption” unit. Giggans is also part of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, which is investigating long-standing allegations that several gangs have been allowed to foment within the Sheriff’s Department.

“I think the sheriff would have been very happy had I just left, resigned because of the pressure that has been put on me,” Giggans told reporter Kate Cagle at the time of that raid.

The department also executed a search warrant against the office of local Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Inspector General Max Huntsman, prompting a legal challenge.

That, in turn, led Villanueva’s department to announce that County Counsel Rod Castro-Silva’s office, which typically represents LASD in legal affairs, had “terminated” that relationship; the department reportedly sought pro bono legal representation at that time.

“In recent days, the public unfolding of an unprecedented investigation has raised serious questions for residents of Southern California and beyond,” Bonta said in a statement regarding his office’s assuming responsibility for the “corruption” investigation. “I recognize the deep uncertainty this has engendered and, given the unique circumstances, my team has committed to taking over this investigative process. Make no mistake: We are committed to a thorough, fair, and independent investigation that will help restore confidence for the people of our state. If there is wrongdoing by any party, we will bring it to light.”

The Los Angeles Times also reported that Bonta announced his intentions to the department in a letter responding to Villanueva’s demand that the state Department of Justice investigate whether Giggans and Kuehl had been “tipped off” about the raids.

“Your department should cease its investigative activity and refrain from any actions in furtherance of these investigations, including public statements or court filings related to the investigations,” Bonta said in his response, sent to Undersheriff Tim Murakami, while saying he would indeed accede to Villanueva’s request.

As LAist reported in February 2022, Castro-Silva had sent his own letter to Bonta’s office in late 2021 asking him to take over Villanueva’s investigation of Huntsman, which he said was politically motivated and part of an effort on the sheriff’s part to “discourage legitimate oversight” of his department.

“The only way to put an end to the Sheriff’s abuse of power is to have the California Department of Justice supervise these investigations (including any future investigations the Sheriff may announce against oversight officials), determine whether they have merit, and end them if they do not,” Castro-Silva wrote to Bonta.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department told us, “No response will be provided. AG has taken over the investigation.”

Update 9/22/2022, 8:18 a.m. PST: Updated to reflect response from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. — ag