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Former Sheriff Alex Villanueva will not face contempt hearing for defying subpoenas, judge rules

A county judge ruled last week that former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva will not face a contempt hearing for refusing to comply with a series of 2021 subpoenas ordering him to testify in front of the Civilian Oversight Commission.

The ruling is a long-awaited coda to one of the many power struggles between Villanueva and the various county entities responsible for oversight and investigation of the Sheriff’s Department.

The former sheriff, who is now campaigning for a spot on the county Board of Supervisors, lauded the court’s decision.

“This final court ruling cements the reality that the board of supervisors, through their proxies on the civilian oversight commission, unlawfully abused the subpoena power given to the COC by voters,” Villanueva told The Times in an emailed statement Tuesday. “The courts affirmed I did not lose my constitutional right to challenge these politically driven subpoenas.”

On Tuesday afternoon, a county spokesperson declined to comment. Sean Kennedy, who chairs the Civilian Oversight Commission, said meaningful oversight would be impossible if top officials can “flout subpoenas with impunity.” He vowed to “keep fighting” to have both Villanueva and former Undersheriff Tim Murakami testify under oath “about the proliferation of deputy gangs under their leadership of the department.”

In early 2020, the Board of Supervisors granted the commission subpoena power, which voters then reaffirmed with the approval of Measure R. A few months later, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law granting subpoena power to oversight bodies statewide.

That same year, the commission issued a subpoena directing the sheriff to testify about his response to COVID-19 inside the jails. Villanueva questioned the legality of the subpoena, which he called a “public shaming endeavor.” The dispute ended up in court, but Villanueva avoided a contempt hearing by agreeing to answer the commission’s questions voluntarily.

In early 2021, Inspector General Max Huntsman subpoenaed Villanueva to answer questions about a number of issues, including deputy gangs. Villanueva initially fought the subpoena in court, but was eventually interviewed that fall. Huntsman cut off the questions when the then-sheriff refused to answer under oath.

The county then took Villanueva to court and a judge ordered him to comply with the questioning. When Villanueva appealed, the 2nd District Court of Appeal shot him down in April 2022. Huntsman confirmed to The Times on Tuesday that Villanueva ultimately did show up to answer many — but not all — of his office’s questions.

As that legal battle played out, Villanueva and the county also sparred over another set of subpoenas issued by the commission in fall of 2021, ordering Villanueva to testify both about deputy gangs and about an investigative unit that targeted the sheriff’s critics. Again, Villanueva resisted testifying under oath, and the county asked a judge to enforce the subpoena.

“A court order holding the sheriff in contempt clearly is necessary to force him to comply with valid oversight subpoenas,” lawyers for the county wrote. “Indeed, the sheriff’s latest excuses for not complying with the subpoenas are merely a continuation of his endless machinations to delay and deny meaningful oversight.”

Judge Elaine Lu scheduled a November 2022 contempt hearing, but called it off after Villanueva’s lawyers asked a higher court to step in.

The former sheriff’s legal counsel argued that the 2020 statute Newsom signed described a two-step process and said that the judge first needed to issue an order directing Villanueva to comply with the subpoena. Only if he ignored that could be found in contempt, his lawyer said.

Last month, the appeals court sided with Villanueva and sent the matter back to Lu. On Friday, she issued a new ruling, calling the county’s arguments “unpersuasive.” Under state law, she wrote, contempt would only be a one-step process if the Board of Supervisors had issued the subpoena itself. Since the Civilian Oversight Commission issued the subpoenas, Lu said, the court should have used a two-step process.

“I think it’s the correct outcome, and it complies with my analysis,” said Linda Miller Savitt, the lawyer who represented Villanueva. “I never thought the statute was crystal clear, but it provided for a two step process. “

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