The independent watchdog for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is investigating allegations Sheriff Alex Villanueva lied about his knowledge of an incident in which a deputy kneeled on a handcuffed inmate’s head.
Inspector General Max Huntsman issued a subpoena Thursday evening ordering Villanueva to either testify or turn over records by April 22 about the kneeling incident and how the investigation into it was handled.
The Times published a video last month of the March 2021 incident and detailed efforts by department officials to keep it under wraps. Officials had worried at the time about the negative publicity that could come from a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed man’s head, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force,” according to an internal report by a commander critical of the cover-up.
After The Times report, Villanueva said he first learned of the case eight months after it occurred, in November, and immediately ordered a criminal investigation into whether the deputy had used excessive force on the inmate.
Huntsman's subpoena challenges Villanueva’s timeline.
In the subpoena, Huntsman said his office has learned of allegations that the sheriff viewed the video of the incident earlier than he claimed when a senior official “personally played the video” for him and other high-ranking members of the department.
“OIG is aware of allegations that this occurred before the date that Sheriff Villanueva has publicly claimed to have first learned of the incident,” the subpoena said.
Villanueva did not respond to questions Friday about when he viewed the video and whether he plans to comply with the subpoena. Villanueva has a history of defying subpoenas issued by Huntsman and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and challenging them in court.
A Superior Court judge this week ordered the sheriff to comply with a subpoena Huntsman issued more than a year ago that seeks Villanueva's testimony under oath about gang-like deputy groups. Villanueva released a statement saying he plans to appeal the ruling.
In response to questions from The Times, Huntsman said the allegation that the sheriff viewed the video came from a blog that started recently and has published posts critical of Villanueva by an anonymous writer or writers. Huntsman would not say whether that was his only source of the information.
Others have disputed the timeline the sheriff has given for when he knew of the kneeling incident.
Eli Vera, a former top-ranking department official who is running to unseat Villanueva, told The Times that the sheriff was involved in the decision to cover up the violent detention and had viewed the video at an aide’s desk within days after it occurred. Villanueva denied Vera's allegations.
Allen Castellano, the commander critical of the alleged cover-up, wrote in his report that at least one senior sheriff's official with a rank higher than division chief was aware of the incident early on.
Only Villanueva, Undersheriff Tim Murakami and three assistant sheriffs are above the rank of chief. Villanueva has refused to answer questions about who was made aware of the incident and what direction they gave.
After The Times report, Villanueva announced that he had shaken up his “senior command,” but refused to provide specifics about whose jobs had changed and why.
Villanueva said a review done in light of Vera's allegations uncovered evidence that members of his senior command staff had tried to cover up the kneeling incident. He said an internal investigation into the cover-up was launched. He refused to provide specifics, but said he had named a new assistant sheriff to oversee countywide operations in place of Robin Limon, who held the position at the time of the inmate's detention.
In recent days, Villanueva said he has launched a criminal investigation to determine who leaked the video and information about the incident to The Times. In his subpoena, Huntsman said he had learned of allegations that the criminal investigation was opened in order to frighten people away from coming forward with information about possible misconduct.
In an interview with Fox 11 News, Villanueva said the disclosure of the video to The Times amounted to a theft of investigative material.
“That is still an active case — it’s not supposed to see light of day until it’s concluded,” he told the station. “And the fact that The Times had not only the investigation, they had the videotape — that was stolen from the department, and by department members.”
The Sheriff's Department's handling of the incident could have violated several laws, including those that protect employees who report misconduct, according to the subpoena.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.