LASD ordered to stop search of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s computers; DOJ taking over investigation

A judge has ordered the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to stop searching all computers seized from the Metro Transportation Authority, MTA Office of Inspector General and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl until further notice.

The judge also ordered the department to “refrain from any hard drive imaging.” Any imaging that has been done must be disclosed, as well as who took the images, has the images and has seen the images.

The court declined to return any of the seized property and an earlier decision to return the computers seized at the MTA OIG has been vacated.

Additionally, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that the California Department of Justice has taken over the corruption investigation into Kuehl. Also, the DOJ will determine if anyone committed a crime warning the supervisor about the search warrants. 

“It’s not unprecedented in the sense that the law does allow the Attorney General to take over an investigation like this,” said Loyola Law Professor Jessica Levinson. “If you’re asking me can I think of another example where something like this happened, the answer is no.”

The investigation centers on the claim that Kuehl helped steer contracts to her close friend, Patti Giggan’s nonprofit. According to an affidavit released by the Sheriff’s Department, a whistleblower submitted a complaint saying “the personal relationship between Kuehl and Giggans,” among other factors, raised questions about a potential “conflict of interest.” The affidavit said the MTA awarded a series of “sole source” contracts to Peace Over Violence, totaling more than $890,000. 

Kuehl has denied these claims.

“In recent days, the public unfolding of an unprecedented investigation has raised serious questions for residents of Southern California and beyond,” said Bonta. “I recognize the deep uncertainty this has engendered and, given the unique circumstances, my team has committed to taking over this investigative process. Make no mistake: We are committed to a thorough, fair, and independent investigation that will help restore confidence for the people of our state. If there is wrongdoing by any party, we will bring it to light.”

In a letter addressed to Undersheriff Timothy Murakami, he added that he believed it was in the “public interest” that the DOJ takes over the investigation after Sheriff Alex Villanueva recused himself.

“…I believe that the handling of all these matters by DOJ will be in the public interest. Therefore, we will also assume all responsibility for the underlying investigation of the Peace Over Violence, Patricia Giggans, et al,” Bonta wrote in the letter to LASD. “To that end, your Department should cease its investigative activity and refrain from any actions in furtherance of these investigations, including public statements or court filings related to the investigations.”

Bonta has requested all evidence, investigative reports and information to be given to DOJ authorities.

Last Wednesday, detectives with the Public Corruption Unit served search warrants at Kuehl’s home, Giggans’ home, Offices at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration, Peace Over Violence headquarters, and LA Metro headquarters.

The California Superior Court has scheduled a hearing on Sept. 22 to determine if the “temporary stay of the Sheriff searching the devices” will be extended. 

On Wednesday, Sheriff Villanueva published a pair of letters he sent in regards to the investigation.

The first letter, a thank you to the Attorney General for taking over the investigation, also thanked Bonta for opening a criminal investigation into L.A. County Inspector Max Huntsman. 

“I would like to thank you for accepting my request to open a criminal investigation for alleged public corruption by Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman and a member(s) of the Los Angeles County Counsel in the form of conspiracy to obstruct justice by notifying suspect(s) of the service of our search warrant,” the letter said. “The illegal acts allegedly committed by Mr. Huntsman and County Counsel have potentially compromised the integrity of this criminal investigation including, but not limited to, the concealment or destruction of evidence.”

The letter also provided a “gentle reminder” to Bonta that there remained another public corruption case that had previously been submitted to the Department of Justice for consideration relating to the possible criminal conduct by former LA County CEO Sachi Hamai.

In the second letter, addressed to “The Honorable Board of Supervisors,” calls for the removal of Max Huntsman as the County’s Inspector General referencing a 2021 letter written that informed the board of Villanueva’s “grave concerns with the conduct of your appointed Inspector General,” for “zealot-like behavior which continues to create civil liability for the Los Angeles County.”

The letter states that Huntsman was a felony suspect in a separate investigation into the theft of electronic information, but the board’s “failure to address the issues … now resulted in an even more serious crime,” before referring to the public corruption search warrants served on Sept. 14. 

“Mr. Huntsman and the Los Angeles County Counsel have now become the focus of a criminal investigation by the Office of the Attorney General, and as such, the conflict of interest in Mr. Huntsman remaining in his current assignment is untenable,” the letter states. “For these reasons, I demand that Mr. Huntsman be treated like any other of the over 100,000 Los Angeles County employees and be relieved of his duties, pending the outcome of the Attorney General’s criminal investigation.”