LOS ANGELES — As promised, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva defied a subpoena to appear at Thursday’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 IG 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.”