Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis Thursday came to the defense of her colleague, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, dubbing a sheriff’s department political corruption probe into Kuehl a vindictive effort to “defame, harass and discredit” an elected official who has been openly critical of Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
“I have concerns about the integrity of any investigation conducted by the sheriff, especially as it relates to those who have consistently called for oversight, accountability and transparency over the sheriff and his department, like my colleague, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl,” Solis wrote in a series of Twitter posts.
“… The sheriff has a history of vindictiveness, harassment and intimidation and has shown that he lacks the credibility to lead any pursuit of justice,” she wrote.
Her comments echoed those made by Kuehl on Wednesday, Sept. 14, after sheriff’s deputies served a search warrant at her home in connection with the probe — which focuses on contracts awarded by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to a nonprofit agency run by Patti Giggans, a close friend of Kuehl whose home was also searched Wednesday. Kuehl sits on the Metro Board of Directors. Kuehl called the investigation “an effort to harass, intimidate and retaliate against a public figure who has been an outspoken critic of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. I am not the only such critic, and other courageous county leaders have also been the targets of this sheriff’s vindictiveness.”
Villanueva, who claims he has recused himself from the Kuehl investigation in light of his contentious relationship with the Board of Supervisors, appeared on Fox11 Wednesday night to discuss the probe and rebuffed suggestions the investigation is politically motivated.
“When we have a criminal complaint, which we did — this originated from an employee from the MTA, a whistleblower who coincidentally just settled with the county of L.A. I believe for $750,000 for retaliation she experienced at the hands of the MTA and the county,” the sheriff said. “And that was the initiation of the criminal complaint and the criminal investigation that our public corruption unit embarked on. It’s taken quite a few years as you can tell. It’s been two or three years since the inception. A search warrant was approved by a judge and it was executed (Wednesday) morning and that leads us to where we’re at right now.”
Solis noted in her statement Thursday that while Villanueva claims to have recused himself from the investigation, “the events of the last few days suggest otherwise.”Solis said the sheriff should turn the investigation over to the Attorney General’s Office. In addition to his appearance on Fox11 Wednesday night discussing the investigation, Villanueva on Wednesday sent a letter to the state Attorney General’s Office asking it to investigate Kuehl’s comments that county Inspector General Max Huntsman and the county counsel’s office tipped her off in advance about the impending search of her home.
The sheriff insisted Wednesday night, however, that he has had no hand in the investigation. “I still remain recused from the investigation,” he told Channel 11. “Undersheriff Tim Murakami is the one that leads or provides leadership to the Public Corruption Unit. They did the entire investigation. They made all decisions and ran the decisions through him. I had no involvement whatsoever. They gave me an update periodically.
“… I have no impact or decision-making in this process. That is a proper recusal. Of course I’m not going to be absolutely blind to what they’re doing. They just give me the updates at the appropriate times,” Villanueva said.
In addition to the homes of Kuehl and Giggans, detectives from the sheriff’s Public Corruption Unit also served warrants Wednesday at the headquarters of Peace Over Violence, the nonprofit agency run by Giggans, who also serves on the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission that oversees the sheriff’s department. The unit also served warrants at Kuehl’s office at the county Hall of Administration, the Office of the Inspector General and the headquarters of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to the sheriff’s department.
According to a court affidavit filed in support of the search warrants, the case is a probe into “an allegation of criminal conduct” by Kuehl and three “sole source contracts awarded to a nonprofit organization operating under the name Peace Over Violence” to operate a sexual harassment tip line for employees and riders on the Metro transit system.
“Between the years of 2014-2020, a series of `sole source’ contracts were awarded by the MTA to the Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization Peace Over Violence totaling over $890,000,” according to the affidavit. “A sole source contract is a non-competitive procurement that allows a single supplier to fulfill the contractual obligations and requirements from, in this case, a public entity/government contractor (MTA).”
The affidavit documents the long history of friendship between Kuehl and Giggans, noting that Kuehl officiated Giggans’ wedding in 2004 when she was a state senator. It also noted that Kuehl is a member of the advisory board of Peace Over Violence and that Kuehl appointed Giggans to the Civilian Oversight Commission.
Kuehl told reporters outside her home Wednesday the investigation was “bogus,” suggesting it was a continuation of Villanueva’s criticism and allegations of wrongdoing by the Board of Supervisors. She said she has no knowledge about the awarding of the Peace Over Violence contracts for the sexual harassment hotline.
“What this is all about is a disgruntled employee at Metro who was let go who became obsessed with a contract that Metro took with Peace Over Violence related to sexual harassment so that they would take the calls,” Kuehl said. “And she claimed that I had something to do with the contract, which was completely false.”
The former Metro employee, Jennifer Loew, sued Metro for alleged retaliation and recently reached an out-of-court settlement. The sheriff’s department affidavit in support of the search warrants did not cite Loew by name, but only described a “witness” who alleged that former Metro CEO Phillip Washington pushed the sole-source contract to Peace Over Violence “to remain `in good graces’ with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.”
The witness also claimed she pointed out billing irregularities involving Peace Over Violence to Washington, who ordered her to pay the bills because he did not want to “upset any of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s friends.”
Washington, who is now CEO of Denver International Airport, has been nominated by President Joe Biden to become the next administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. News of the sheriff’s investigation, however, could impede that nomination. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, issued a statement Wednesday expressing concerns about the corruption allegations.
“When Mr. Washington was nominated in July, I expressed my skepticism surrounding his lack of experience in aviation,” Wicker said. “Now I am deeply troubled to learn the nominee was named in a search warrant that ties him to allegations of corruption at LA Metro. The committee’s vetting process will require additional scrutiny and review into his leadership at LA Metro. I anticipate that this nominee’s credibility will also be a key focus of the committee.”
Washington could not be reached for comment.
In his interview with Fox11, Villanueva said the investigation into Kuehl will not be presented to the District Attorney’s Office for consideration of criminal charges. The sheriff said District Attorney George Gascón is “not an objective, unbiased person in this matter,” and added, “We are not going to get anything out of him in terms of an honest prosecutorial decision.”
The District Attorney’s Office issued a statement Wednesday saying the sheriff’s department had presented its investigation into Kuehl and the Peace Over Violence contracts to prosecutors in September 2021 for consideration of possible criminal charges.
“We reviewed the case and determined that the state of the evidence at that time did not prove criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to the D.A.’s Office. “LASD indicated that they would continue to investigate. We have not had additional contact on the matter and were not consulted or aware of the search warrants that were served today (Wednesday). In this case, because we did not review the warrant beforehand, we do not intend to defend it if challenged in court.”
Villanueva is in the midst of a contentious re-election campaign, squaring off in November against former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.
Kuehl, 81, has been on the Board of Supervisors since 2014 and is stepping down from the board this year. A former actress, she also served in the state Assembly and Senate.
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