A judge has denied on procedural grounds a request by attorneys for Los Angeles County that a hearing be scheduled on whether to hold former Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his ex-undersheriff in contempt for allegedly ignoring subpoenas to appear before the Civilian Oversight Commission and testify about alleged deputy cliques.
Subpoenas to Villanueva and former Undersheriff Timothy Murakami required each of them to appear and testify at the commission’s July 1 public hearing on whether so-called deputy gangs exist in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and their alleged refusal to comply subjects them to the contempt procedures, according to the Los Angeles Superior Court petition brought July 21.
However, Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis ruled during a hearing on Wednesday, Dec. 7, that the petition for contempt hearings for both Villanueva and Murakami was being denied for now because the law requires that the court papers state that due notice was given, that the subpoena was served in the manner required by the Code of Civil Procedure and that the person or persons still failed or refused to answer or appear. The judge said that if those terms are met, she will issue an order directing the two men to appear in court and show cause why they did not attend the COC hearing and bring the subpoenaed documents.
Villanueva’s non-appearance in July was the sixth straight time he has disobeyed a commission subpoena as of the filing of the petition, the county’s court papers state. The panel subpoenaed Villanueva because in 2018, his then-Division Chief Matthew Burson issued an order barring sheriff’s department internal investigators from questioning witnesses about what role a suspected deputy gang known as the “Banditos” played in assaults by some deputies upon others at a department party, the petition states.
“Burson thus robbed criminal investigators before the investigation started of their best chance of exposing the Banditos, even though the evidence strongly suggested their direct involvement in the attacks and deputy gangs have reportedly plagued the department for decades,” the petition states. Villanueva’s testimony is now even more critical because Burson, who is now retired, testified under oath on July 1 that Villanueva, through his then-chief of staff, directed him to issue the order to the internal sheriff’s department investigators to not look into the activities of the Banditos, the petition states.
“The COC naturally wants to ask Sheriff Villanueva what reason he had for directing Burson to foreclose questioning regarding the Banditos,” the petition states.
Murakami’s failure to appear on July 1 at the time was his fourth alleged consecutive disregard of a subpoena from the commission, according to the petition, which further states the commission wants to question the sheriff’s department veteran of more than three decades about gangs as well.
Burson testified that he believes Murakami has a “suspected deputy clique Caveman tattoo,” the petition states. In addition, Murakami once worked patrol at the East Los Angeles station, where the Banditos are allegedly active, the petition states.