California Atty. General Rob Bonta took control of a controversial criminal investigation into county chief Sheila Kuehl and others Tuesday from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, saying the department’s suspension was in the “public interest.”
Bonta’s unusual decision to deprive the sheriff’s department of its own investigation comes amid mounting questions about the department’s handling of the investigation and allegations by Kuehl and others that Sheriff Alex Villanueva is using it to target political enemies.
In another setback for the department, a Superior Court judge on Tuesday temporarily barred sheriff’s investigators from searching computers and other equipment seized by Kuehl and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority last week.
The actions abruptly end the Sheriff’s Department’s efforts to investigate a series of contracts awarded by Metro to a domestic violence non-profit organization. The investigation, which has been ongoing for more than a year, exploded in public again last Wednesday when sheriff’s deputies conducted early-morning raids on the home of Kuehl and Patti Giggans, the nonprofit’s head, as well as the headquarters of Metro and others performed district offices.
Sheriff’s investigators suspect Kuehl, who is a friend of Giggans, helped forward the contracts to Giggans’ nonprofit, according to court filings sheriff’s investigators filed to obtain search warrants to conduct the raids .
Bonta informed the sheriff’s department in a letter sent Tuesday to Undersheriff Tim Murakami that his office had taken control of the investigation.
“Your department should cease its investigative activity and refrain from any action taken to further this investigation, including public statements or court filings related to the investigation,” Bonta instructed.
Bonta’s letter was in response to one he sent to Villanueva last week, in which Villanueva asked Bonta to launch an investigation into claims that Kuehl and Giggans had been warned about the upcoming searches.
In his letter, Bonta replied that while he would investigate Villanueva’s claim, he would also handle the department’s investigation into Giggan’s charity.
He ordered Murakami, “please have your department staff transmit all evidence, investigation reports and information to” two agents in Bonta’s office.
How Bonta’s move will affect the decisions of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan was not immediately clear.
On Friday, Ryan issued an order temporarily barring the department from examining computers seized by investigators at Metro’s inspector general after attorneys for the inspector general challenged the validity of the search warrant used in the raid. Lawyers for Kuehl and Metro then filed similar lawsuits, and Ryan extended the ban to any devices taken from them.
The judge came close to granting a motion by Kuehl’s and Metro’s attorneys that he invalidate the search warrants that the sheriff’s investigators had received and ordered the sheriff’s department to return the confiscated property. The validity of the warrants, he wrote, will be determined after hearing from the sheriff’s department attorneys and the targets of the investigation.
A lawyer for Kuehl urged Ryan to drop the warrants altogether, likening Friday morning’s raid on the bosses’ home to “a scene right out of LA Confidential.”
“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department conducted an early morning retaliatory, politically motivated raid on the home and office of Los Angeles County Superintendent Sheila J. Kuehl, one of Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s harshest and most vocal critics,” it said attorney Cheryl O’Connor, wrote in a court filing.
Kuehl’s attorneys called for the appointment of a special supervisor to review the material and discard privileged communications, which the judge had indicated.
“The court appears that the temporary delay in the sheriff’s access to the seized computers and devices that may contain privileged communications while the court considers the appointment of a special master will have little or no impact on the investigation,” Ryan wrote.
Before attorneys for Kuehl and Metro filed appeals against the warrants on Monday, sheriff’s officers authorized investigators to log overtime over the weekend searching electronic equipment seized last week, a law enforcement source told the Times.
Ryan has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to discuss the warrant challenges and whether his decision to block the sheriff’s investigators should stand. In a series of questions Ryan planned to answer at the hearing, he asked why investigators withheld key details about the case from the judge who issued the warrants used in last week’s raids.
That judge, Craig Richman, has had a decades-long relationship with Mark Lillienfeld, a key investigator in the sheriff’s public corruption unit. Lillienfeld’s involvement in last week’s arrest warrants is unclear.
Evidence investigators presented to Richman made it clear that they focused on a series of contracts worth more than $800,000 that Metro awarded the nonprofit organization between 2014 and 2020 to build a hotline for reporting sexual to operate harassment on public transport. The statement said the hotline was a “total failure,” but the contract was nevertheless extended without a competitive offer or analysis.
Both Kuehl and Giggans, who is also a member of the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission, have clashed with Villanueva and have called for his resignation. Giggan’s home and non-profit offices were also searched. Both have denied wrongdoing.
Last week, Kühl called the allegations “completely false”, she “didn’t know anything about the contract” and the supervisory board did not vote on its approval.
Villanueva said he withdrew from the investigation to avoid a conflict of interest. But he has discussed the investigation in recent news interviews and used it as fodder for social media accounts for his sheriff’s reelection campaign, stating, “The LA political establishment is borrowing a page from Donald Trump’s script to expand the corruption investigation into Supervisor.” To discredit #SheilaKuehl. ”
He also posted a photo of Jennifer Loew, a former Metro employee who claimed she was the target of retaliation from bosses after she made allegations of misconduct against the agency. Court records show that Loew reached a settlement in a lawsuit she filed against Metro.
“Meet Jennifer Loew, a mother of three whose brave actions helped bring this issue the attention it deserves,” Villanueva wrote on social media, linking to an interview Loew gave to Fox 11 and alleging that the nonprofit’s contracts with Metro were improper.
In a statement that sheriff’s investigators presented to the judge when they applied for search warrants for last week’s searches, they said a whistleblower, whose name has been redacted, told authorities that Metro boss Phillip Washington’s contract was pushed “to stay. in good grace’ at” Kühl.
The statement also details campaign contributions Kuehl has received from Giggans and others associated with the nonprofit, claiming that “the donations can be viewed as consideration for future award of the” hotline contracts.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-20/kuehl-warrant-order L.A. sheriff stripped of control of Kuehl investigation by attorney general