When I heard that a swarm of Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies executed early-morning searches at the homes of L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Patti Giggans, executive director of one of the oldest anti-domestic-violence groups in the country, I realized county Sheriff Alex Villanueva has gone off the deep end.
Does our embattled lawman really think such a transparent attempt to intimidate his critics is going to rescue his sagging bid for reelection in November? (“NOBODY IS ABOVE THE LAW” he trumpeted on his Instagram feed under a photo of Kuehl with her hands up as deputies escorted her from her house.)
If I were his opponent — as retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna is — I’d be doing handsprings.
Kuehl and Giggans, who have been friends for decades, are vociferous critics of Villanueva. Kuehl has called for him to be fired, as has Giggans, whom Kuehl appointed to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission at its inception in 2016.
And now, they find they are targets of a criminal investigation by the sheriff’s mysterious public corruption unit, which seems to exist only to harass and intimidate his detractors.
“He’s only targeting political enemies,” George Gascón, the county district attorney, told my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian last year after the sheriff tried to enlist him in his first failed vendetta against Kuehl and Giggans. “It was obvious that was not the kind of work I wanted to engage in, so we declined.”
Last week, Gascón said he would not support or defend the latest round of search warrants in court.
The sheriff would have us believe that Kuehl improperly steered a small, no-bid contract to Giggans’ nonprofit group, Peace Over Violence, to pay for the creation of a sexual assault hotline for people who use public transportation. And that Giggans bribed Kuehl with campaign donations to get the contract. Kuehl said she didn’t even know about the contract until she was invited to a news conference where it was announced.
Thursday, on Fox 11 News, Villanueva said money used to fund the hotline was “embezzled.” Reporter Phil Shuman pointedly asked the sheriff why he was on TV talking about the probe since he said he had recused himself from the investigation.
How did this absurd situation come about?
Several years ago, the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, commonly known as Metro, learned in surveys that a disturbingly high percentage of female riders reported being sexually harassed on its trains and buses. In 2014, nearly a quarter of passengers said they had experienced some form of unwanted sexual behavior. Nearly a third said they had stopped using public transportation because they felt unsafe.
Metro approached Giggans, who founded Peace Over Violence, which works to end sexual, domestic and interpersonal violence. Could her group help Metro develop a plan to improve the situation?
“They sought us out,” Giggans told me Friday morning. “We are well known in the field.”
With an initial contract, Peace Over Violence developed a publicity campaign called “Off Limits,” as in, “sexual harassment is off limits at Metro.”
Metro then decided it wanted to provide a dedicated hotline. Victims could report harassment and let Metro security know where it was occurring and receive referrals for counseling and other resources.
After the first year, Metro decided to extend the “sole source” contract and budgeted $160,000 per year for Peace Over Violence, which has an annual budget of about $5.5 million, most of which comes from government grants.
According to Giggans, the hotline never got enough exposure on trains and buses, which she blamed on the Metro project manager, Jennifer Loew, who had initially been very supportive of the collaboration.
“We know hotlines,” said Giggans, who founded one of the first domestic abuse hotlines in the country. “You have got to get the number out there, you have got to saturate the trains. She never did.”
Instead, Loew became a critic. She divided the number of calls to the hotline by its annual cost and decided that the hotline cost $8,000 per call, a waste of money, she felt, at a time when Metro was facing a big deficit.
“Our answer is that is not a lot of money to service someone who has been raped or sexually harassed,” said Giggans. “If you want to argue with us about that, go ahead.”
Loew also made many complaints of misconduct against Metro and filed a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the agency, which her husband, Adam Loew, told me had been settled late last year for $625,000 plus some back pay.
The contract for the “Off Limits” hotline ended last year, Giggans said. These days, the San Gabriel Valley-based nonprofit Project Sister Family Services is handling calls. And there is a text line that goes directly to Metro’s Transit Security Department.
In the meantime, the sheriff has custody of Peace Over Violence’s server, which has hampered the group’s ability to serve its clients.
Deputies rifled through Giggan’s drawers and closets on Wednesday and impounded her car.
“And now I’m pissed,” she said, in a comment caught by TV cameras as she watched the car being towed.
“This is out of control,” she told me. “I am not going to back down. I have work to do.”
Among her upcoming tasks: On Friday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Civilian Oversight Commission has scheduled “a special hearing on deputy gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department” to highlight its report on a problem that has plagued the department for decades. You can watch it online or attend in person at Loyola Marymount University.
Villanueva has claimed that the gangs “do not exist.” I am not sure what else you would call groups of law enforcement officers who dub themselves the Banditos, the Grim Reapers or Vikings, have themselves inked with matching tattoos and engage in what many describe as lawless behavior.
Then again, reality is not our sheriff’s strong suit.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.