In November 2022, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva lost his reelection bid to former Long Beach police chief Robert Luna. In his concession speech, Villanueva blamed his loss on LA’s political machine.
One of the scandals that probably hurt Villanueva most involved a deputy named Doug Johnson. In March 2021 Johnson was searching inmates who were on their way to court. Two of the inmates were talking and he told them to stop. The inmates kept talking and Johnson told one of them, a multiple murderer named Enzo Escalante, to face the wall. When Johnson came close, Escalante turned and punched him in the face several times. Johnson and other deputies brought Escalante to the ground and Johnson kneeled on his head for several minutes.
Again, this happened in March 2021 just as the trial of Derek Chauvin was gearing up. Villanueva was concerned the video of Johnson kneeling on Escalante would create bad press for the office because of it’s similarity to the George Floyd video. In order to keep the story from making news Villanueva allegedly chose not to pursue charges against Escalante for punching Johnson so he could keep it under wraps.
But then a reporter at the LA Times published the video of the incident and that’s when the story really became hot. At a press conference, Villanueva accused his political opponents of taking the video and leaking it to hurt him politically. He said the leak of the video was under investigation and seemed to suggest that the reporter who published it might be a subject of that investigation.
The Los Angeles County sheriff insinuated that a local journalist was under criminal investigation related to her coverage of a leaked tape that allegedly showed a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate — a statement he later walked back amid criticism he’s trying to muzzle the press…
Reporters at the briefing grilled Villanueva on whether Tchekmedyian — whose photo was blown up and put on display by the sheriff — was the subject of an investigation.
“The act is under investigation. All parties to the act are subject to investigation,” he responded…
“When you take this entire thing into context you realize that there’s a lot of people working in concert and coordination,” the sheriff said. “That includes the LA Times. That includes people that obviously want to defeat me electorally. That includes the [Board of Supervisors]-appointed inspector general and the [Civilian] Oversight Commission. A lot of people working overtime and they’re doing it as best they can, so there’ll be more of this nonsense thrown at me until June 7, but it is what it is.”
At this point the story went national and Villanueva quickly walked back the suggestion that the reporter was under investigation. But by then it was too late. On top of that, deputy Johnson was placed under investigation for his use of force and that issue continued to hover over the election for the rest of 2022.
Villanueva’s insinuation that a reporter might be investigated for publishing the leaked video was a major misstep but according to a recently filed lawsuit, the sheriff may not have been wrong that his enemies were colluding against him. In fact, progressive DA George Gascon allegedly approved a plan to hold off on releasing news that deputy Johnson would not be charged until after the date of the election.
Assistant Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Amy Pentz alleged in the suit that prosecutors finalized the decision not to charge Deputy Doug Johnson, who was caught on video kneeling on the head of an inmate at the San Fernando courthouse lockup, on Oct. 3, 2022. But prosecutors didn’t make that decision public until six weeks later.
Pentz said Diana Teran, who oversees the district attorney’s office unit that handles prosecutions of police officers, “wanted the declination held back until after the sheriff’s election because Sheriff Villanueva had made public statements about the [Johnson] case,” according to her lawsuit…
Both Gascón and his chief of staff, Joseph Iniguez, were present for the meeting and approved of her decision, according to the suit.
In addition to refusing to announce the deputy had been cleared, Pentz claims she was retaliated against by Gascon for pushing back on the delay.
In the lawsuit, Pentz says she is a “whistle blower” and claims she was removed from her position as second in command of the Justice Systems Integrity Division. She said the move was punishment for pushing back against Teran’s decision in the Johnson case and for testifying in a civil service commission hearing questioning the legality of Gascón’s decision to hire several public defenders to fill critical positions in the district attorney’s office.
DA Gascon is already facing more than a dozen lawsuits for retaliation. Only one has gone to trial so far and, despite testifying in the case to his own innocence, Gascon lost and his office was ordered to pay the victim $1.5 million.
Villanueva lost his reelection race by a substantial margin so it’s not likely that this one (alleged) effort to keep a cloud hovering over his head made the difference. Still, this is exactly the kind of dirty LA politics Villanueva claimed was being used against him and in this case he appears to have been right.