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Supervisors seek subpoena power for oversight panel

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors voted to strengthen oversight of the Sheriff’s Department Oct. 15, directing county lawyers to find a way to grant subpoena power to the Office of Inspector General and, by extension, the Civilian Oversight Commission.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl co-authored the motion, and also asked attorneys to determine how the move would affect a March ballot measure asking voters to grant subpoena power to the Civilian Oversight Commission.

Ridley-Thomas said the motion wasn’t a sign of disrespect for the department.

“This should not be construed as damning the entirety of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” Ridley-Thomas said. “The vast majority do their jobs well and we respect that.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she hoped that the board and the department would one day reach a position of trust that would preclude the need for subpoenas.

The Los Angeles Police Commission rarely uses subpoenas, according to Inspector General Max Huntsman, who said he hoped that simply having the legal tool would ultimately negate the need to use it.

“In the long run, I would expect subpoenas to be very rare,” Huntsman said.

However, Huntsman, Civilian Oversight Commission Executive Director Brian Williams and members of the board offered different views on whether the board’s move was aimed specifically at Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

The inspector general said cooperation between his office and the department was in place “until this administration … stepped backwards.”

However, Williams said problems accessing information predated Villanueva, who took office in December.

“This is an issue that we’ve seen over and over and over again,” Williams told the board.

Kuehl pointed out the Civilian Oversight Commission was established long before Villanueva was elected sheriff and denied that something unusual was being done because of the current administration, although the motion cited a “recent” lack of access to data, documents and direct testimony.

“There is unfettered power in any law enforcement agency if there isn’t a degree of transparency. … If people don’t have eyes on,” Kuehl told her colleagues.

Supervisor Hilda Solis also insisted that the motion wasn’t an attack on the sheriff.

“I don’t think this is a way of being antagonistic at all. I think it is a way of getting people to the table,” Solis said.

But the table in question won’t include Villanueva. Barger had asked that the sheriff be included in the group reporting back to the board on the issue of how to grant subpoena power, but failed to get agreement from her colleagues.

“At least allow the sheriff to weigh in on it,” Barger said.

Ridley-Thomas countered that the sheriff could submit his perspective in writing.

Sheriff’s Department Chief Dennis M. Kneer told the board that his boss had “some concerns [about subpoena power], specifically as it pertains to employee rights.”

Kneer cited the subpoena of medical records as one example and said the sheriff wanted to seek an opinion from outside legal counsel.

County Counsel Mary Wickham said the department could always seek a motion to quash any subpoena seeking confidential information.

Kneer also sought to counter the idea that the department was stonewalling the Office of Inspector General, saying he had personally ensured a response to “multiple requests.” In at least one case, involving a request for station logos related to deputy cliques, Kneer said the department gave one of the watchdog agencies more than it asked for.

“We want to be transparent,” the chief told the board.

The vote took place as the county continues to wage a legal battle against the department in connection with the sheriff’s rehiring of former deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, who was fired following allegations of domestic violence and stalking. The Sheriff’s Department has opened a criminal investigation of the Office of Inspector General, alleging a potential conspiracy and theft of confidential files.

Despite that backdrop, Civilian Oversight Commission Chair Patti Giggans said the watchdog agency would use subpoena power as “a last resort, not a first resort,” but characterized it as a necessity.

“Our credibility in the community depends on our ability to be effective,” Giggans told the board.

The motion is also designed to put the recently approved Probation Oversight Commission and the Civilian Oversight Commission, which has been operating for roughly three years, on an equal footing in terms of subpoena power. Both agencies are expected to access that authority through the Office of Inspector General’s office.

A report is expected back in 30 days. It is intended to include a response to a July motion requesting legal advice on giving the Office of Inspector General more authority to investigate deputy secret societies and granting subpoena power.

Wave Wire Services