Sheriff’s officials tried to block key witness from testifying at ‘agent gang’ hearing, lawsuit says

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Sgt. Jefferson Chow, right, answers questions from Bert Deixler, who is leading the Sheriff’s Political Oversight Commission’s investigation into gang-like groups of deputies in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and other department officials tried to prevent a key witness from testifying before an oversight panel about gang-like groups of deputies, according to a new lawsuit.

The directive that Sgt. Jefferson Chow must not appear before the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission despite being subpoenaed to do so, Chow was told in a phone call by a lieutenant working for Undersheriff Tim Murakami, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday Chow’s wife, who is also a sergeant. at the Department.

During the Aug. 19 call, the lieutenant told Chow that Villanueva had issued an order not to testify, the lawsuit says. Villanueva instructed the lieutenant to hand it over as she “desperately tried to prevent Mr. Chow from testifying,” the lawsuit alleges. The lieutenant, Chris Kusayanagi, also told Chow that unions representing department members supported the idea of ​​not showing up, according to the lawsuit.

However, the alleged attempt to stop Chow from testifying was too late. Kusayanagi called Chow 18 minutes before he was scheduled to testify, and Chow did not answer, the lawsuit said. When Chow called after his appearance at the hearing, Kusayanagi was unaware he had already testified and began explaining why he shouldn’t, the suit says.

Before having Kusayanagi make the call, Villanueva tried to get Chow to agree to be represented by a lawyer in an effort to “stonewall” the oversight committee, according to the lawsuit.

In an email, John Satterfield, Villanueva’s chief of staff, called the claim that the sheriff ordered Chow not to testify “100% FALSE.”

Inspector General Max Huntsman, who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors as the Sheriff’s Department watchdog, said he was aware of the allegations and his office is investigating whether there was attempted tampering with a witness, which is a crime under state law. He declined to comment further.

Chow also declined to comment.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Kusayanagi denied that he had instructed Chow not to testify, saying, “There was no instruction.” Declining to elaborate, he said he would call with details, but not until Tuesday afternoon.

Chow’s claims and the department’s denials unfold amid a legal skirmish over the Civilian Oversight Commission’s authority to subpoena sheriff’s officials.

In 2020, the two unions representing rank-and-file deputies, sergeants and others filed a complaint with the county’s Labor Relations Board over the department’s supervisors’ subpoena power. Derek Hsieh, executive director of the Assn. for Los Angeles deputy sheriffs, said the union’s position is that filing is “negotiable and requires careful coordination.”

The union, Hsieh said, believes that “until this is resolved, MPs should not go” to testify.

On Aug. 18, a day before Chow testified, a hearing officer in the case found the county had failed to negotiate with unions about the impact of giving subpoena power to supervisors and recommended it stop issuing subpoenas. The officer’s findings are advisory and the Labor Relations Board has yet to make a final decision on the case.

Meanwhile, the Civilian Oversight Commission has moved forward with its investigation into so-called surrogate gangs. The Sheriff’s Department has long struggled with groups of deputies, who sport matching tattoos, run amok at sheriff’s stations and county jails, exert control over other deputies and glorify violence. The oversight committee announced plans to launch an independent effort to scrutinize the groups earlier this year and has held several days of hearings in which lawmakers and others have been called to testify.

Both Villanueva and Murakami have refused to comply with subpoenas ordering them to appear before the committee. Villanueva said the committee’s efforts amounted to a “sham court hearing” and “sham trial” designed to hurt his chances for re-election in November.

As the investigator who led a high-profile criminal investigation into an alleged 2018 attack by deputies suspected of belonging to the Banditos, a gang at the East LA sheriff’s station, Chow was a key witness in the committee’s investigation. Two deputies who were not members of the Banditos were knocked unconscious at a department party.

In a log he kept of his investigative activities, Chow wrote that after Villanueva took office in late 2018, he was instructed not to ask questions about “subculture groups” when interviewing lawmakers about the attack. Portions of the diary were released by the committee in May.

At the August 19 hearing, Chow confirmed under oath that he was the author of the diary and was ordered not to ask questions about the Banditos. He testified that while these questions were critical to determining the motive for the attack, he followed the order because he feared he would be disciplined or fired for insubordination if he did not.

The order not to ask questions about the Banditos came from Matt Burson, the department’s chief who has since retired. Burson testified before the committee at a July hearing and said under oath that he, in turn, had been instructed by Villanueva’s chief of staff, on behalf of the sheriff, to steer the investigation away from the Banditos.

“Don’t look into the Bandito aspect of the case,” Burson said he was told. “Just focus on the alcohol and the race.”

It didn’t occur to him at the time, Burson said, but now he feels he was unwittingly used to help cover up the Banditos’ involvement in the incident.

Larry Del Mese, Villanueva’s former chief of staff, also testified, saying he did not recall instructing Burson not to ask questions about the Banditos or ever having a conversation with Villanueva about the group.

In a social media broadcast a few weeks later, Villanueva disputed Burson’s version of events. The sheriff said he did not investigate the race in East LA when he took office because he was busy with other issues, such as issuing body-worn cameras to deputies and removing federal immigration authorities from county jails.

“When I took office in December 2018, apart from hearing about a Bandito tattoo, that was about the extent of what I knew about Bandito, the sub-group,” he said. “Do you think for a nanosecond that I put a curse on this investigation? Other than the fact that it was going to go ahead and let them do their job, which is exactly what they did.”

But Villanueva has said multiple times that one of his first acts in office was to remove the captain of the East LA station, where Banditos ran roughshod and dictated where deputies were assigned. Villanueva also said he transferred problematic employees to quell the problem. Body cameras, meanwhile, didn’t launch until fall 2020.

Villanueva also downplayed the importance of the Banditos’ role in the 2018 race.

“When you have a drunken party that turns into a brawl, and there’s mutual combatants, and there’s people trading blows on both sides, and everybody’s drunk, no … there’s not going to be a lot of motivational research for that.” Villanueva said.

On the same show, Villanueva suggested that Chow’s diary had been audited.

“The best they got is a processed log?” Villanueva said.

In his diary, Chow wrote that before Villanueva took over, he was instructed by a lieutenant and Burson, then his chief, to interview witnesses about the deputy squads.

Within weeks, however, days after Villanueva took office, that directive changed, Chow claims. The sergeant wrote in the log that Burson told him that questions about the Banditos or other groups should not be part of his investigation. Burson was promoted by Villanueva from captain to captain.

Satterfield, the sheriff’s chief of staff, claimed the log was redacted because in it, Chow referred to Berson as “captain/chief” on Nov. 27, 2018, before Berson was promoted. Chow addressed the allegation in his deposition, saying he knew Burson was up for the promotion to captain long before it became official.

The lawsuit filed by Chow’s wife, Vanessa Chow, alleges that the sheriff and his wife, a retired deputy, run the agency like “their own personal fiefdom.” She claims she spoke out about illegal behavior and faced retaliation, including having her score changed on a manually administered exam to prevent her from getting a promotion.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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