Judge orders sheriff to stop search for some computers in sprawling Metro investigation

A Superior Court judge on Thursday ordered Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials to stop searching some computers seized in the sprawling raids related to an investigation into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s contracts with a nonprofit organization. for domestic violence.

Judge William Ryan’s order applies only to computers that sheriff’s investigators took from the office of Metro’s inspector general, whose attorney filed documents Thursday asking the judge to issue the search warrant used to grab the equipment.

The lawyer argued that the warrant served this week was illegal. He said he failed to comply with a ruling by another judge over a similar warrant issued last year in the same case, prompting criticism that Sheriff Alex Villanueva is targeting its detractors.

“The LASD thus blatantly ignored a ruling by another Los Angeles Superior Court judge and took matters into their own hands by obtaining the second term while intentionally omitting from his affidavit,” Harvinder Anand said in the case.

Ryan’s order does not apply to materials seized from the homes and offices of LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Patti Giggans, the head of the nonprofit Peace Over Violence, also a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and close friend of Kuehl.

Neither has challenged the warrants in court – a lawyer for Kuehl declined to say whether she would, while a lawyer for Giggans said he plans to do so next week. They both denied any wrongdoing.

Ryan ordered sheriff’s investigators, including Dets. Mark Lillienfeld and Max Fernandez, to “stop searching all seized computers” in the office of the Metro Inspector General until further notice. Both are members of the sheriff’s secret public corruption unit which critics say targets political enemies of Villanueva and others who have crossed paths with him.

The judge has scheduled a hearing for next week, demanding answers to a list of questions about how and why the warrant was obtained, and why key details were withheld from the judge, Craig Richman, who signed it.

Ryan asked in his order how it was determined — and by whom — that the warrant application would be made to Richman. Richman and Lillienfeld have a decades-long relationship.

They have known each other since at least 1996, when Richman was a prosecutor in charge of an attempted murder case that Lillienfeld investigated. The detective would later go to the judge’s home to have warrants signed. Lillienfeld’s wife worked in Richman’s courtroom, transcribing hearings as the official court reporter.

Their relationship came under intense scrutiny several years ago when an internal Sheriff’s Department investigation was conducted into whether Lillienfeld tried to help Richman out of legal trouble.

Ryan also questioned why sheriff’s investigators hid from Richman the fact that the other judge, Eleanor Hunter, decided just two weeks ago to appoint a special master to oversee the search of the inspector general’s computers. Hunter told a Sept. 1 hearing that she was appointing a special master to ensure documents that might be privileged under solicitor-client privilege are sealed.

“Why, after Judge Hunter was going to require a special master, did the sheriff immediately seek a warrant from another judge, and who made that decision?” asked Ryan in his order.

The statement investigators presented to Richman made it clear they were focusing on a series of contracts worth more than $800,000 that Metro awarded the nonprofit from 2014 to 2020 to operate a hotline to report sexual harassment on public transport. The statement said the hotline was a “complete failure,” but the contract was extended anyway without bidding or analysis.

Kuehl and Giggans, who runs the nonprofit, have violently clashed with Villanueva and called for her resignation. Villanueva claimed he withdrew from the investigation to avoid conflicts of interest.

According to the statement, a whistleblower, whose name has been redacted, told sheriff investigators that the contract was put forward by Metro chief executive Phillip Washington “in order to stay ‘in good graces’ with” Kuehl.

It also details the campaign contributions Kuehl has received from Giggans and others associated with the nonprofit, alleging that “the donations can be considered to have been given against payment in exchange for the future allocation of the” hotline contracts.

Los Angeles Times

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