Sheriff tried to block testimony about ‘deputy gangs,’ lawsuit says

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and other department officials tried to block a key witness from testifying before an oversight committee about gang-like groups of deputies, according to a new lawsuit.

The directive that Sgt. Jefferson Chow is not expected to appear before the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Board despite being subpoenaed to do so was handed over to Chow in a phone call by a lieutenant who works for Deputy Sheriff Tim Murakami, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday by Chow’s wife, who is also a sergeant in the department.

During the August 19 call, the lieutenant told Chow that Villanueva had issued an order not to testify, according to the lawsuit. Villanueva asked the lieutenant to turn him in as he was “desperately trying to block Mr. Chow’s testimony,” according to the lawsuit. The lieutenant, Chris Kusayanagi, also told Chow that unions representing members of the department support the idea that he does not show up, according to the lawsuit.

The alleged attempt to prevent Chow from testifying, however, was too late. Kusayanagi called Chow 18 minutes before he was scheduled to testify, and Chow did not answer, the lawsuit said. When Chow called back after his court appearance, Kusayanagi was unaware that he had already testified and launched into an explanation of why he shouldn’t, according to the lawsuit.

Before asking Kusayanagi to make the phone call, Villanueva tried to convince Chow to agree to legal representation in an effort to “block” the oversight board, according to the lawsuit.

In an email, John Satterfield, Villanueva’s chief of staff, called the allegation that the sheriff ordered Chow not to testify “100% FALSE.”

Inspector General Max Huntsman, who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors as a watchdog for the Sheriff’s Department, said he is aware of the allegations, and his office is investigating whether there is had an attempt to tamper with a witness, which is a crime under state law. He declined to comment further.

Chow also declined to comment.

When reached by phone Tuesday, Kusayanagi denied that Chow had been ordered not to testify, saying, “No order was given.” Declining to elaborate, he said he would call back with details, but had not done so by Tuesday afternoon.

Chow’s allegations and the department’s denials come amid a legal skirmish over the Civil Oversight Commission’s power to subpoena sheriff’s employees.

In 2020, the two unions that represent rank-and-file deputies, sergeants and others filed a complaint with the County Employee Relations Commission regarding the department’s watchdog subpoena power. Derek Hsieh, executive director of Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said the union’s position is that testimony is “negotiable and requires careful coordination.”

The union, Hsieh said, believes that “until this is settled, MPs should not go” to testify.

On August 18, the day before Chow testified, a hearing officer in the case found that the county had failed to negotiate with unions over the impact of giving oversight officials the power to subpoena to appear and recommended that he stop enforcing the subpoenas. The officer’s findings are advisory, and the Employee Relations Commission has yet to make a final decision in the case.

Meanwhile, the Civilian Oversight Commission continued its investigation into the so-called deputy gangs. The sheriff’s department has long struggled with groups of deputies, who have matching tattoos, run amok in sheriff’s stations and county jails, exerting control over other deputies and glorifying violence. The oversight committee announced plans to launch an independent effort to review the groups earlier this year and held several days of hearings in which MPs and others were called to testify.

Villanueva and Murakami refused to comply with subpoenas ordering them to appear before the commission. Villanueva said the commission’s efforts amounted to a “fake hearing” and a “fake trial” designed to hurt his re-election chances in November.

As an investigator who led a high-profile criminal investigation into an alleged assault in 2018 by deputies suspected of belonging to the Banditos, a group from the East LA Sheriff’s Station, Chow was an important witness in the investigation. of the commission. Two deputies who were not members of Banditos were knocked unconscious during a departmental party.

In a diary he kept of his investigative activities, Chow wrote that after Villanueva took office at the end of 2018, he was told not to ask about “groups of subculture” when questioning MPs about the assault. Parts of the diary were made public by the commission in May.

At the August 19 hearing, Chow confirmed under oath that he was the author of the diary and was ordered not to ask about the Banditos. He testified that while these matters were crucial to determining the motive for the attack, he followed the order because he feared he would be disciplined or fired for insubordination if he did not.

The order not to ask about the Banditos came from Matt Burson, a department head who has since retired. Burson testified before the commission at a hearing in July and, under oath, said he, in turn, was instructed by Villanueva’s chief of staff, on behalf of the sheriff, to hijack the investigation from Banditos.

“Don’t look at the Bandito aspect of the deal,” Burson said. “Just focus on the booze and the fight.”

It didn’t occur to him at the time, Burson said, but he now feels he was unwittingly used to help cover up the Banditos’ involvement in the incident.

Larry Del Mese, Villanueva’s former chief of staff, also testified, saying he did not recall ordering Burson not to ask about the Banditos or ever having a conversation with Villanueva about of the group.

In a social media broadcast a few weeks later, Villanueva challenged Burson’s version of events. The sheriff said he was not involved in the East LA fight investigation when he took office because he was busy with other matters, such as distributing body-worn cameras to deputies and the removal of federal immigration authorities from county jails.

“When I took office in December 2018, other than hearing about a Bandito tattoo, that’s about all I knew about Bandito, the subgroup,” he said. “Do you think for a nanosecond that I gave a shit about this investigation? Aside from the fact that it was going to go on and let them do their job, that’s exactly what they did.

But Villanueva has repeatedly said that one of his first acts in office was to remove the captain of the East LA station, where Banditos played loose and dictated where deputies would be assigned. Villanueva also said he transferred problematic employees to solve the problem. Body cameras, on the other hand, weren’t rolled out until fall 2020.

Villanueva also downplayed the Banditos’ role in the 2018 fight.

“When you have a drunken party that turns into a fight, and there are mutual fighters, and there are people trading blows on both sides, and everyone is drunk, no.. .there won’t be a big motive investigation on this,” Villanueva says.

On that same show, Villanueva suggested that Chow’s diary had been tampered with.

“The best they have is a forged log?” said Villanueva.

In his diary, Chow wrote that before Villanueva took office, he had been assigned by a lieutenant and Burson, his captain at the time, to interview witnesses about the deputy groups.

Within weeks, however, just days after Villanueva took office, that instruction changed, Chow claims. The sergeant wrote in the newspaper that Burson told him questions about the Banditos or other groups need not be part of his investigation. Burson was promoted by Villanueva from captain to chef.

Satterfield, the sheriff’s chief of staff, claimed the diary was tampered with because Chow referred to Burson in it as “captain/chief” on Nov. 27, 2018, before Burson was promoted. Chow addressed the allegation in his testimony, saying he knew Burson was in the running for promotion to chief long before it was made official.

The lawsuit filed by Chow’s wife, Vanessa Chow, alleges that the sheriff and his wife, a retired deputy, run the agency as “their own personal fiefdom.” She alleges that she reported unlawful conduct and was retaliated against, including manually having a mark changed on an exam she took to prevent her from getting a promotion.

Los Angeles Times

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