LOS ANGELES – A defiant Sheriff Alex Villanueva Wednesday blasted as “fake” an accusation that he falsely reported a crime when he accused the county’s former CEO of violating conflict of interest laws in a referral to the state Attorney General’s Office.
The District Attorney’s Office confirmed to the Los Angeles Times it was looking into the allegation raised by Lawrence S. Middleton, an attorney for the county, that Villanueva knowingly made false allegations against Sachi Hamai in a report to the Attorney General’s Office.
“We will review the allegations to determine whether a crime was committed,” district attorney spokesman Greg Risling told The Times.
County lawyers have disputed Villanueva’s conflict-of-interest claim against Hamai in the past and threatened legal action.
Lt. John Satterfield, a sheriff’s department spokesman, told the paper the matter involving Hamai was properly referred to the attorney general.
“The circumstances under which this allegation came to light were highly suspicious, and a report was written regarding the facts known at the time,” he said referring to Villanueva’s conflict-of-interest accusations against Hamai. “One of the primary roles of the California attorney general is to investigate and prosecute cases in which a conflict of interest arises between the investigatory agency and the parties involved.”
Speaking in an online briefing Wednesday, Villanueva said the accusation against him was another step in an escalating “proxy war” being waged by the county Board of Supervisors to discredit him. He said his department has a duty to investigate “suspicious circumstance” allegations of any kind and refer them to the appropriate agency.
“From a lot of those suspicious circumstance reports we get two versions — we end up finding out that a crime did occur or we find out that a crime did not occur,” he said. “One or the other. Our obligation is to report the facts. Attorneys, particularly those that work for the county, their obligation is to spin everything they can to the advantage of their client, which is the Board of Supervisors.
“So this entire thing is fake, but it got their desired result,” the sheriff said. “The attorney (Middleton) knew … nothing was going to happen with this. They knew that there was — obviously there was no criminal act, no criminal intent. In fact, no facts support this.”
But Villanueva said the attorney wrote the letter anyway, and the county leaked it to the Los Angeles Times to generate a “screaming headline.”
“That’s all they were aiming for,” he said. “They’re trying to build this fake narrative and sustain it with report after report.”
He said the allegation against him is just the latest effort by the board to discredit him, using “proxies” such as Inspector General Max Huntsman or county attorneys, then leaking information to the media.
“When we do reports, criminal reports, and we provide these to the district attorney, the attorney general, to the FBI, we don’t follow with a press release,” he said “And we don’t leak these complaints to any news outlet. That’s not our job. That’s not what we do. If we believe a crime has occurred, there’s a suspicion a crime has occurred, we document it and we put it in a report and we send it to the appropriate investigative agency.”
The false-report allegation is the latest development in a lengthy series of clashes and tense relations between Villanueva and other county leaders since he took office in December 2018.
The conflict-of-interest issue arose in July, when Villanueva fielded a question from his wife, Vivian, during a live Facebook broadcast about the propriety of Hamai’s position on the board of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.
The nonprofit helped push a proposal to the Board of Supervisors that would redirect 10% of the county’s general fund, which includes part of the Sheriff’s Department’s budget, to better address the needs of low-income residents in under-resourced communities. Hamai had stepped down from the United Way board before the supervisors’ vote on the proposal to avoid the appearance of any conflict.
On the broadcast, Villanueva responded in part: “Apparently it is a felony if you’re receiving money from United Way and you’re on the board, or you’re a county officer and you’re voting on a measure or you’re facilitating a measure which you stand to gain from your position on the other third party. That is a felony.”
The next day, Skip Miller, an attorney representing Hamai and the county, said in a letter to Villanueva that his “malicious lies” amounted to defamation and threatened legal action, The Times reported. He said Hamai had no financial interest in United Way, serving as an unpaid member of the board.
In his letter, Middleton reported to Lacey that after Villanueva received this information, the sheriff advised the Board of Supervisors of a criminal inquiry referred to the attorney general concerning a subordinate. The department’s letter to board members said the potential charges included breach of public duty, conflicts-of-interest disclosure and a public official with a financial interest attempting to influence a political decision.
“It is clear that the subordinate referenced in the letters is CEO Sachi Hamai and that Sheriff Villanueva is doubling down on his prior Facebook Live comments,” Middleton wrote to Lacey, according to The Times. “Here, after being put on notice that his Facebook comments accusing CEO Hamai of having committed a felony were demonstrably false, Sheriff Villanueva reported to the attorney general that she had violated three different statutes.”
He added: “Sheriff Villanueva made the criminal referral and the report to the Board of Supervisors knowing that Ms. Hamai had no financial interest in United Way or the ballot measure it supported, …”
Hamai retired in August, when she secured a $1.5 million settlement and full-time private security to address concerns for her personal safety after a county attorney said she faced months of “unrelenting and brutal” harassment from Villanueva.
Villanueva again slammed that payment on Wednesday.
“This one is all fake, the whole thing,” the sheriff said. “She has no claim for $1.5 million for anything. You read through the narrative, ‘Oh brutal, this and that.’ What? Put it in writing. In fact, what did she put in writing? Nothing. That’s the whole point. There was no investigation. They didn’t follow any procedure. It was a gift of public funds.”