Despite Subpoena, Los Angeles County Sheriff Refuses To Appear At Oversight Meeting

National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy, center, and Elizabeth Espinoza, executive communication director for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, lower left, and others listen to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, lower right at podium, during a news conference about the helicopter crash that killed former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and eight others, at the Lost Hills substation in Calabasas, Calif., Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy, center, and Elizabeth Espinoza, executive communication director for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, lower left, and others listen to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, lower right at podium, during a news conference about the helicopter crash that killed former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and eight others, at the Lost Hills substation in Calabasas, Calif., Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – As promised, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex
Villanueva defied a subpoena to appear at today’s meeting of the county
Civilian Oversight Commission, prompting the panel’s vote to challenge that
move in court.

The commission also voted to issue a second subpoena for information
on how the sheriff and his command staff handled photographs taken by deputies
at the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other
people.

Inspector General Max Huntsman said his staff have been allowed to
review redacted documents about the crash photos in meetings with the
department’s internal investigators. However, investigators were not
particularly forthcoming and shed little light on the sheriff’s own role in
managing the incident, he said.

“The sheriff is reported to have directed the destruction of
evidence,” Huntsman said. “If we were to ask the sheriff to investigate
himself, there would be an obvious conflict of interest.”

The draft subpoena includes a full page of requested information,
including the identity of all county employees and civilians at the crash scene
and command post, as well as those present when orders were given to delete the
photos. It also calls on the department to turn over cell phone records, radio
traffic recordings and the major incident log and related reports.

Huntsman, anticipating a challenge from the sheriff’s department, said
the information was requested as part of an inquiry, rather than an
investigation. That distinction means the work would be entirely separate from
any department discipline or internal affairs investigation, according to the
inspector general.

The IG said he had been surprised to hear through the rumor mill,
rather than investigators, that the department was close to wrapping up an
investigation that “does not include a robust investigation” of Villanueva
himself.

The OIG team’s meetings with the department give “the sense that
you’re being played,” Huntsman said. “I’m not saying that’s happening.”
However, he said the inquiry into the crash photos could potentially
uncover evidence of a more systemic effort to avoid oversight and evade
accountability.

Villanueva told reporters Wednesday he had no intention of attending
the commission’s meeting.

“Regarding the commission’s subpoena, you have to understand … the
subpoena, Measure R, the ordinance enacted by the Board of Supervisors, all
these things were generated without any oversight, without any third-party
independent legal analysis of its constitutionality,” Villanueva said. “That
still remains in doubt, and until that issue is resolved I will not be adhering
to any subpoena issued by either entity — be it the inspector general or the
Oversight Commission.”

As promised by the sheriff, his department was represented at
Thursday’s meeting by Assistant Sheriff Bruce Chase, who Villanueva said
“volunteered his time to go and testify to the commission and give them an
update on all the COVID-19 efforts we are engaged in.”

Chase promised the watchdog agency his cooperation on behalf of the
department going forward and said he would appear at the next meeting.
“It’s important for us to keep you posted and keep you advised,”
Chase said.

Commission Chair Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over
Violence, said Villanueva was challenging the legality of Measure R, which
grants subpoena power to the commission and was approved by voters in March.
Subpoena power was first granted to the commission by the Los Angeles County
Board of Supervisors earlier this year.

Commissioner Robert Bonner, a former U.S. attorney, made a motion to
take all legal action necessary to compel the sheriff to comply with the
subpoena and made clear that his failure to do so could be punishable by
contempt.

“We need to move forward promptly,” Bonner said. “We can’t just
allow the status quo to stand.”

The commission’s vote on the motion was unanimous.

Villanueva said Wednesday his department is committed to being as
transparent as possible with the commission and the public, with information
from the agency shared through the Transparency Project online resource.

“All the information that can legally be provided to the commission,
to anybody, is always going to be available online. I want people to decide for
themselves without any interference or middlemen,” the sheriff said.

Villanueva questioned the motives behind the subpoena.

“If the transparency is being provided and the information is
provided, what exactly is the purpose of the subpoena?” he asked. “If they
are engaged in a public shaming endeavor, which it looks like at face value,
well they are sadly mistaken. We are not going to be participating in that. If
it is an issue about providing information so the Oversight Commission can do
their job, by all means we will give them all the information we can legally
give them.”

The commission used its newly granted subpoena power for the first
time after Villanueva did not attend or send a representative to a third
consecutive meeting. The subpoena ordered Villanueva and his representatives to
attend the commission’s Thursday meeting.

“We’re not doing it frivolously,” Giggans said Thursday.

Giggans had said earlier that the sheriff’s participation was even
more important during the coronavirus crisis.

“The meetings now conducted virtually twice a month due to the
critical COVID-19 crisis are very well attended by the public. We are in a
pandemic which calls for more oversight, more collaboration, more input into
policy, not less. The role of the sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission is a
public mandate and one that every commissioner takes seriously.”

Commissioners had hoped to question Villanueva Thursday and during
their last meeting about how his department was handling coronavirus cases in
the county jail system, issues that were addressed by Chase.

After the last meeting, Brian K. Williams, executive director of the
Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said the sheriff’s absence was a rebuke
to more than the commissioners.

“This is the third meeting in a row where the sheriff’s department
has not been represented, this is unfair to the commission, the community and
the men and women of the sheriff’s department whose voice we also need to
hear,” Williams said.

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