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Judge orders LA sheriff to testify about deputy gangs

"Let the truth come out," LA County Superior Court Judge Malcolm Mackey said before ordering the sheriff to testify under oath before the inspector general.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Los Angeles County judge on Monday ordered Sheriff Alex Villanueva to testify under oath on the subject of "deputy secret societies" — rogue gangs of officers — as part of an investigation by the Office of Inspector General.

It's been more than a year since the county's inspector general hit Villanueva with a subpoena. The sheriff, an elected official, said the subpoena was "too broad, harassing, and not within the scope of the authority granted by state law and county ordinance." He had tried to quash the subpoena in court, but that attempt was denied by the judge.

Villanueva has offered to talk to the inspector general "voluntarily," but not under oath. His attorney, Linda Savitt, reiterated that offer in court Monday.

"He just doesn’t want to testify under oath," Savitt said.

"He’s going to be forced to testify under oath," said LA County Superior Court Judge Malcolm Mackey, cutting her off. "Period."

The 92-year-old judge added: "He should want to testify. He should want to give information," later asking, "What’s the problem? Let the truth come out."

Savitt replied, "He does not have a problem with the truth coming out. He does have problem with the OIG whipping out subpoenas so he can grandstand."

Savitt argued that the OIG was "abusing the scope of their subpoena power."

"Is he a public servant?" Mackey asked calmly, referring to Villanueva. When Savitt replied yes, Mackey said, "Then the OIG has the right to go into this information."

Little was asked of Harv Anand, the county's lawyer, during the hearing, although he did offer that Villanueva "has no valid legal reason to avoid testifying under oath."

After the hearing, a spokesman for the county, in an email, called the ruling "historic," noting that it is believed to be the first time a California court has affirmed an inspector general’s subpoena authority under a new state law, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020.

The issue of deputy gangs, or "cliques," within LA County Sherriff's department, the law enforcement agency that patrols most of the county that's not part of the city of Los Angeles, has long been a thorny one. Lawsuits, media reports and public commissions have detailed the their existence going back to at least the 1970s.

"The cop gangs include the Reapers, Jump Out Boys, the 3000 Boys (whose members earned their tattoos — their ‘ink” — by breaking the bones of inmates), the Spartans, the Regulators, Vikings, the Pirates and the Banditos," according to one lawsuit filed in 2019. "The culture of officer gangs, and lack of accountability for bad cops, is so ingrained in the department, that many Sheriff’s Department employees, as well as Sheriff Villanueva, refuse to recognize or accept how outrageous it is for there to be “gang cops” — they find it, and the accompanying violent criminal behavior to be normal, acceptable, and the status quo."

Indeed, in February, Villanueva sent a bizarre cease-and-desist letter to the LA County Board of Supervisors demanding they stop using the phrase "deputy gangs," calling it "willful defamation" of individual officers and the organization as a whole.

Last month, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission announced the launch of its own investigation into the deputy gang problem.

"Deputy gangs have fostered and promoted excessive force against citizens, discriminated against other deputies based on race and gender, and undermined the chain of command and discipline,” said the commission's chair, Sean Kennedy. “Despite years of documented history of this issue, the department has failed to eliminate the gangs.”

Villanueva, who's up for re-election in June and facing a host of challengers, has taken every opportunity to lash out at his many adversaries. Last week, during an interview with The Los Angeles Times editorial board as part of its endorsement process — a process Villanueva said he would refuse to participate in, even as he quite patently was participating in it — accused the county's inspector general, Max Huntsman, of being a "Holocaust denier." Huntsman denied the allegations, which were made without any supporting evidence, and which a Times news story called "ugly" and "unfounded."

“The allegation comes from a man devoid of honesty and honor,” Huntsman wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. “So perhaps it goes without saying that such a claim is meaningless from him.”

According to Judge Mackey's order, Sheriff Villanueva has 21 days to testify, under oath, for Huntsman's investigation. When asked if her client would testify, Savitt said, "I'm going to advise him of the court order."

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