Judge halts sheriff’s search of computers seized in investigation of Supervisor Kuehl

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has ordered the Sheriff’s Department to cease searching computers seized from the offices of L.A. County Metro’s inspector general as part of its investigation into alleged corruption involving county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Civilian Oversight Commissioner Patti Giggans.

Under the order, signed by Judge William Ryan, the Sheriff’s Department is barred from duplicating the hard drives of the seized computers and must disclose anyone who may have reviewed the contents so far. The order does not stop sheriff’s investigators from continuing their search of electronics seized from the homes of Kuehl and Giggans as attorneys for the two officials have yet to challenge the warrants.

Attorney Harvinder Anand, on behalf of the Inspector General’s Office, filed an emergency motion Sept. 15 — the day after the seizures — asking a judge to freeze the search and to order the computers returned, according to the filing.

Anand argued that the search warrants “failed to comply with law” because Judge Eleanor Hunter, in a yearlong court battle over nearly identical search warrants issued last year, had already stated she would appoint a special master to oversee future searches due to the possibility that the inspector general’s computers could contain information protected by attorney-client privilege.

“An employee of the OIG specifically informed the LASD that a special master was required to serve the warrant and asked whether a special master was with the LASD team,” Anand wrote. “The LASD ignored the employee and took two computers anyway.”

The Sheriff’s Department allegedly went around Hunter and sought a new search warrant from a different judge, according to Ryan’s order.

Hearing scheduled

Ryan ordered the Sheriff’s Department’s attorneys to explain themselves at a hearing scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 22. Among his list of questions, Ryan is asking: “Why, after Judge Hunter was going to require a Special Master, did the Sheriff immediately seek a warrant from a different judge, and who made that decision?”

The sheriff’s attorneys also will have to explain their “failure to disclose to the Magistrate the fact that Judge Hunter was requiring a special master” and why they specifically chose to present the application for the new warrants to Superior Court Judge Craig Richman.

Richman and Detective Mark Lillienfeld, a member of the sheriff’s public corruption unit, allegedly have a decades-long friendship dating back to at least 1996, according to the Los Angeles Times. Lillienfeld is named specifically in Ryan’s order forcing detectives to stop their search.

Sheriff’s attorney pulled

The Sheriff’s Department now alleges the County Counsel’s Office fired its attorney on “the same day our search warrant was challenged in court” in an “unprecedented move of retaliation,” according to a press release put out by the law enforcement agency.

“This is exactly the type of obstruction, interference and political shenanigans which Sheriff Alex Villanueva fights against daily,” the statement reads. “We are now forced into a position of being unrepresented with no County authorization to pay for legal representation and reduced to solicit pro-bono representation in this matter.”

The County Counsel’s Office declined to answer questions about the matter.

“We have no comment on this matter other than to note that County Counsel is monitoring this case closely and will take actions as appropriate to ensure a lawful response,” said Michael Wilson, a spokesperson for the county Chief Executive Office.

Political warfare

The now looming court battle is just the latest in a saga of bare-knuckled political warfare between the Sheriff’s Department and Supervisor Kuehl, who sheriff’s detectives say covertly assisted Giggans, a close friend, in securing a lucrative contract for her nonprofit to run a hotline for Metro. The contract, which was approved by former Metro CEO Phil Washington without a vote of the Metro board that Kuehl sits on, paid out $890,000 from 2014 to 2020, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

Kuehl, meanwhile, has accused Villanueva of targeting her and Giggans in retaliation for their calls for his resignation. Both have been outspoken critics of Villanueva for years and have said the sheriff’s probe is an attempt at intimidation.

Villanueva purportedly has recused himself from the investigation, though he recently sent a letter to the Attorney General’s Office asking for an investigation into whether county counsel, or the county inspector general, tipped off Kuehl and Giggans ahead of the Sept. 14 searches.

It is not typical for the Sheriff’s Department to conduct corruption investigations into other county agencies. Such cases are usually handled by the Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which declined to prosecute the same case last year when it was presented by LASD because the “state of the evidence at that time did not prove criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to a spokesperson.

Villanueva and District Attorney George Gascón are also political enemies.

The District Attorney’s Office has stated it will not defend the sheriff’s search warrants if they are challenged because it had not reviewed them before they were executed.