Attorneys for Los Angeles County, who want a court to consider holding Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his undersheriff in contempt for allegedly ignoring subpoenas to testify before the Civilian Oversight Commission about alleged deputy gangs, obtained an expedited hearing on the issue Wednesday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michelle Williams Court scheduled the hearing for Sept. 7, more than six months ahead of the original date of March 14.
“Prompt resolution of the petition would further the public’s interest in swiftly uncovering the full facts and rooting out alleged deputy gangs or cliques from the department,” the county’s lawyers stated in their latest court papers filed Tuesday.
The COC hopes to conclude its investigation by Oct. 5, and subsequently issue recommendations based on its findings, according to the county attorneys’ new court papers.
Subpoenas to Villanueva and Undersheriff Timothy Murakami required each of them to appear and testify at the commission’s July 1 public hearing on whether so-called deputy gangs exist in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the county lawyers said. Their alleged refusal to comply subjects them to the contempt procedures, according to the county’s petition brought July 21.
Villanueva’s nonappearance was the sixth straight time he disobeyed a commission subpoena, according to the petition.
The commission subpoenaed Villanueva because in 2018 his then-Division Chief Matthew Burson issued an order barring sheriff’s department internal investigators from questioning witnesses about what role a suspected deputy gang known as the “Banditos” played in assaults by some deputies upon others at a department party, the petition states.
“Burson thus robbed criminal investigators before the investigation started of their best chance of exposing the Banditos, even though the evidence strongly suggested their direct involvement in the attacks and deputy gangs (that) have reportedly plagued the department for decades,” the petition states.
Villanueva’s testimony is now even more critical because Burson, who is now retired, testified under oath on July 1 that Villanueva, through his then-chief of staff, directed him to issue the order to the internal department investigators to not look into the activities of the Banditos, the petition states.
“Only Sheriff Villanueva can answer why the department failed to fully investigate its own deputy sheriffs in such an important criminal investigation and why the sheriff gave the order to not to investigate the Banditios as testified to by Burson,” the county lawyers argue in their newest court papers.
Murakami’s failure to appear on July 1 was his fourth alleged consecutive disregard of a subpoena from the commission, according to the petition, which further states the commission wants to question the sheriff’s department veteran of more than three decades about gangs as well.
Burson testified that he believes Murakami has a “suspected deputy clique Caveman tattoo,” the petition states. In addition, Murakami once worked patrol at the East Los Angeles station, where the Banditos are allegedly active, the petition states.
Villanueva said he was prepared to testify before the commission in July, but “was deeply disappointed to learn the commission is unwilling to allow very basic and reasonable elements of a legitimate oversight meeting designed to understand the truth. It makes neutral observers question whether the commission’s real agenda is to learn the facts, or to put on a show.”
The COC rejected the sheriff’s conditions for his testimony, in which he demanded the presence of a neutral hearing officer at the proceedings, an advance look at exhibits the commission intended to use and the opportunity for the sheriff to make an opening statement and cross-examine witnesses.
Villanueva has said in the past that he’s acted to clean up any gang problem that may have existed in the department.
The sheriff, who has repeatedly accused the county Board of Supervisors and Inspector General Max Huntsman of pursuing personal political biases in clashes over the alleged deputy gangs and other issues, expressed concern in a letter to the commission last month about “demonstrably false statements having already been accepted by the commission.”
Villanueva wrote: “This is why I sent department executives, on several occasions, to answer questions for the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) about deputy cliques and subgroups. Additionally, on March 26, 2019, and December 17, 2020, I personally appeared and answered questions for the COC about deputy cliques and subgroups. Subsequently, I testified under oath before the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on April 22, 2022, and I offered to testify again in May on the issue of deputy subgroups.”