A former sheriff’s sergeant who sued Los Angeles County, alleging she suffered a backlash for being critical of then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his wife, can move forward with her two retaliation claims, a judge ruled this week.
However, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis also found that plaintiff Vanessa Chow will have to shore up her defamation and false claims regarding Villanueva’s allegedly false statements on the sheriff’s department website. On the website, Villanueva described Chow’s lawsuit allegations as a “compendium of false statements, omissions, mischaracterizations, and outright lies” and said the complaint was designed to get publicity for other department employees who filed similar cases.
But Duffy-Lewis noted the website is a public forum. She gave Chow’s attorneys 10 days to file an amended complaint. According to Chow’s suit, Villanueva while in office “held himself out as above the law and immune to accountability, with leadership operating with the lack of transparency and audacity of a Third World dictatorship and evading any oversight.”
Villanueva “lied repeatedly to the public” by claiming the Board of Supervisors has a vendetta against him, but at the same time the supervisors have “done nothing to curb Villanueva’s corruption, retaliation against whistleblowers, and extreme abuse of power,” the suit further states.
Chow became the sheriff’s department liaison to the Board of Supervisors in October 2018, shortly before Villanueva’s election. When Chow informed Villanueva that the Board of Supervisors wanted to build a working relationship with him, he told her to tell the supervisors “they could go (epithet) themselves,” for not endorsing him, a message the plaintiff did not relay to the board, the suit states. Villanueva viewed Chow as an “important vehicle to do battle” with the supervisors, but over time the sheriff grew frustrated and angry with her when she “refused to take part in illegal conduct and spoke out against such corruption acts, and repeatedly advising the sheriff to not engage in wrongful conduct and reporting that conduct when the sheriff refused to follow rules and laws,” the suit brought last Aug. 30 states.
While Villanueva stated over social media that he would not enforce the county’s employee coronavirus vaccination mandate, he at the same time asked his top leaders to draft written reprimands for any deputies that refused to register or adhere to the policy, the suit states.
“Sheriff Villanueva fooled anti-vaxxer deputies into thinking that he was on their side regarding the vaccine mandate,” the suit states.
Villanueva’s only real concern with the mandate was that it was authored by Supervisor Hilda Solis, against whom Villanueva had “a particular chip on the shoulder,” the suit states. Two department members who were Villanueva allies engineered a “lieutenant’s exam cheating scandal” in which one of them seeking the promotion obtained the answers in advance, was given time off to study while still being paid, and helped numerous sergeants cheat in the same way she did, the suit alleges.Chow alleges she was given an unfairly low score on the lieutenant’s exam, which she further maintains was part of the retaliation against her.
Villanueva’s wife, Vivian Villanueva — who retired five years ago — is “an associate of the deputy gang, the Banditos, and has acted as the gang’s protector during Alex Villanueva’s reign as sheriff,” the suit alleges.
“The sheriff and his wife … run LASD like their own personal fiefdom and business by placing individuals whom they consider as allies in key positions within the department, despite these individuals’ lack of qualifications and ethics, while weeding out individuals with integrity, without regard for their accomplishments or contributions,” the suit alleges.
In September 2019, Chow learned that Vivian Villanueva was driven to a training session in a county car by an alleged founding member of the Banditos, whose members allegedly attacked other deputies during a September 2018 party at Kennedy Hall in East Los Angeles, the suit states. The Kennedy Hall incident left five deputies injured, including two knocked unconscious, the suit states. Someone close to the sheriff told Chow that Vivian Villanueva “did not like to drive herself anywhere, not even to the grocery store, and said that people would recognize her everywhere … because she is a celebrity,” the suit states.
One of the investigators into the Kennedy Hall incident was Sgt. Jefferson Chow, the plaintiff’s husband, the suit states. Villanueva and the Banditos have targeted Jefferson Chow for retaliation for “creating a paper trail of Villanueva’s alleged obstruction of justice in the investigation into the attack at Kennedy Hall,” the suit alleges.
In September 2021, Vivian Villanueva confirmed to the plaintiff that she and one of her husband’s allies were behind the firing of the plaintiff’s assistant because they saw a photo of the aide depicting support for then-rival candidate Eli Vera, a retired sheriff’s department commander, in the sheriff’s race, the suit states. Chow maintains she is “too distressed to return to work and she has been constructively terminated from LASD.” She has suffered temporary lower body paralysis and cancer as well as severe financial losses and emotional distress because of the alleged retaliation, according to her suit.
Villanueva was defeated in his bid for re-election on Nov. 8 by retired Long Beach Police Department Chief Robert Luna.