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Search warrant on LA county supervisor passes court’s muster

The county supervisor and a watchdog for the sheriff's department who were searched are both vocal critics of LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A judge ruled Thursday that the process by which Los Angeles sheriff's deputies obtained a warrant to search the homes of a county supervisor and another person was above board and "did not deviate from established processes."

"That puts to bed the issue in whether or not there was irregularity in obtaining the search warrant," Judge William Ryan said Thursday, addressing a room at Los Angeles County Superior Court packed with attorneys.

The decision was the latest plot point in what already feels like a long saga, even though it began little more than a week ago. The morning of Sept. 14, LA County sheriff's deputies showed up, search warrants in hand, at the homes of County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Patti Giggans, a member of the sheriff's oversight committee and the head of the nonprofit Peace Over Violence.

Investigators left the two homes with a total of 67 devices and Giggans' car was towed. Deputies also searched the offices of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, the county's transit agency.

Giggans and Kuehl lambasted Sheriff Alex Villanueva, saying that he was trying to intimidate two outspoken critics. Giggans' attorney, Austin Dove, told The Los Angeles Times: "These are Third World tactics. Vladimir Putin would be impressed.”

Other elected officials spoke out against the searches and seizures. City Councilman Mike Bonin called them "wild, unprecedented and dangerous" and said "an unbalanced and corrupt sheriff with a track record of abusing his power sent armed deputies to raid the homes of two of his critics."

Villanueva, who is in the middle of a tough reelection campaign, has been engaged in a bitter, long-running feud with the County Board of Supervisors and the oversight commission, as well as numerous other elected officials. He has said he recused himself from the investigation.

Sheriff's officials said the searches were part of a long investigation into a series of contracts, worth more than $800,000, given by Metro to Peace Over Violence to operate a hotline for people to report sexual harassment while riding trains and buses. A 2020 story by the local Fox TV affiliate found the hotline was only receiving a handful of legitimate phone calls every year. The story, which relied heavily on a former Metro employee, suggested there was a corrupt arrangement between longtime friends Kuehl and Giggans.

Kuehl has called the allegations "totally bogus." On Monday, the former Metro employee, Jennifer Loew, filed a defamation suit against Kuehl and Giggans.

On Tuesday, state Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that he was taking over the investigation. Villanueva has expressed approval over that move.

Questions have been raised over how the search warrant was obtained. When sheriff's deputies searched Metro's office of the inspector general in 2021, as part of the same investigation, a different judge, Eleanor Hunter, ordered a special master to make sure attorney-client privilege wasn't being violated. Why had investigators gone and sought a new search warrant from a different judge?

In his ruling Thursday, Judge Ryan found that the investigator, Detective Max Fernandez, had acted properly since Judge Hunter was on vacation when Fernandez sought the new warrant. Coincidentally, Fernandez himself had been on vacation when Hunter made her ruling, and therefore didn't know that a special master was supposed to have been appointed — although the appointment was never made.

Last week, Judge Ryan ordered the sheriff's department to stop looking at all the devices they'd obtained.

Kuehl's attorney, Cheryl O'Connor, asked that the supervisor's devices be "returned immediately," saying that her client had been "hampered" by the seizure and that her 2 million or so constituents had been "disenfranchised."

Judge Ryan flatly refused this request, saying, "They're not going to be returned immediately."

Attorneys for Giggans and Metro made the same request and were denied.

"I may consider it later, I’m just not going to do it today," Ryan told Metro's attorneys, adding: "The trains will still run on time."

"On time-ish," said Metro's lawyer, Robert Dugdale.

A lawyer with the state attorney general's office, Susan O'Connor, asked the court to order the sheriff's department to turn over all materials of the investigation, including everything obtained in the search, within two weeks. A sheriff's department lawyer indicated the department would cooperate, and that seemed to satisfy the judge.

"The sheriff will comply with the attorney general's request, and they can do it within two weeks," the judge said. "If in two weeks you’re not happy, you know where to find me."

Villanueva has said that the fact that Kuehl had advance warning that her home was about to be searched by itself be investigated as a crime. Judge Ryan suggested that he agreed, saying, "It's a very serious allegation, that the supervisor had been tipped off that search was coming. That’s not nothing. It’s a potential felony."

After the hearing, Giggans' attorney Austin Dove said he was "frustrated" the judge had signed off on the search warrant.

"You have a large organization with a 51-year history that’s been crippled seriously by the investigation," Dove said. "The sheriff is plucking off, one by one, people that are criticizing him."

As for Bonta's office taking over that investigation, Dove called it a "positive" step, adding there would be "more transparency, more integrity."

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