LOS ANGELES—Legal wrangling has escalated over the LA County Sheriff's Department's corruption probe of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority—with a judge barring investigators from delving into computers seized from Metro during searches this week, and the sheriff's department claiming the county fired its attorney in the matter.
The sheriff's department issued a statement Sept. 16 morning accusing the county of barring the county counsel from representing the agency in matters involving the investigation and defense of search warrants that were served Sept. 14 at Kuehl's home and office, at the offices of Metro and the home and office of Patricia Giggans, a friend of Kuehl and founder of the nonprofit group Peace Over Violence.
"This is exactly the type of obstruction, interference, and political shenanigans which Sheriff Alex Villanueva fights against daily," according to the sheriff's department. "We are now forced into a position of being unrepresented with no county authorization to pay for legal representation and reduced to solicit pro bono representation in this matter."
The complaint came one day after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued an order barring the sheriff's department from searching computers seized from Metro's Office of Inspector General during the series of raids Wednesday.
Attorneys for the Metro inspector's office challenged the legality of the warrants, arguing that a separate judge had previously ordered that a special master be appointed to review materials seized from the transit agency. In his ruling Thursday, Superior Court Judge William Ryan scheduled a hearing for Sept. 22, asking a series of questions—including why the sheriff ignored the previous ruling and went to a different judge to get the search warrants signed.
According to various media reports, the judge who signed this week's warrants, Craig Richman, has a longstanding relationship with sheriff's Det. Mark Lillienfeld, one of the lead detectives in the Kuehl and Metro investigation.
In his ruling, obtained by LAist, Ryan specifically wrote that he wants to know "how was it determined that the warrant application would be presented to Judge Craig Richman, and by whom?"
Ryan's ruling barring the search of computer equipment applies only to items taken from the Metro OIG. Kuehl, Giggans, and other targets of the warrant had not yet filed such challenges as of Friday, but Ryan's ruling could prompt them to do so.
The sheriff's investigation stems from allegations Kuehl, as a member of the Metro Board of Directors, helped steer a series of contracts worth more than $800,000 to Giggans's Peace Over Violence organization to operate a sexual-harassment hotline for workers and riders on the Metro transit system.
Giggans is a longtime friend of Kuehl, who appointed Giggans to the county Civilian Oversight Commission, which oversees the sheriff's department.
Kuehl and Giggans are also both vocal critics of Villanueva, who has clashed repeatedly with the Board of Supervisors. Villanueva has repeatedly insisted he recused himself from the investigation being carried out by the department's Public Corruption Unit—a unit that critics contend is being used to target the sheriff's political opponents.
Villanueva, appearing on Fox11 Wednesday night to discuss the case despite saying he had recused himself from any involvement, defended the probe, saying it originated with a legitimate complaint of alleged criminal wrongdoing.
That complaint came from a former Metro employee, Jennifer Loew, who sued Metro for alleged retaliation and recently reached an out-of-court settlement.
A sheriff's department affidavit in support of the search warrants served this week did not cite Loew by name, but only described a "witness" who alleged that former Metro CEO Phillip Washington pushed the sole-source contract to Peace Over Violence "to remain 'in good graces' with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl."
The witness also claimed she pointed out billing irregularities involving Peace Over Violence to Washington, who ordered her to pay the bills because he did not want to "upset any of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl's friends."
Washington, who is now CEO of Denver International Airport, has been nominated by President Joe Biden to become the next administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. News of the sheriff's investigation, however, could impede that nomination.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, issued a statement Wednesday expressing concerns about the corruption allegations.
"When Mr. Washington was nominated in July, I expressed my skepticism surrounding his lack of experience in aviation," Wicker said. "Now I am deeply troubled to learn the nominee was named in a search warrant that ties him to allegations of corruption at LA Metro. The committee's vetting process will require additional scrutiny and review into his leadership at LA Metro. I anticipate that this nominee's credibility will also be a key focus of the committee."
Washington could not be reached for comment.
Kuehl told reporters outside her home Wednesday the investigation was "bogus," suggesting it was a continuation of Villanueva's criticism and allegations of wrongdoing by the Board of Supervisors. She said she has no knowledge about the awarding of the Peace Over Violence contracts for the sexual harassment hotline.
"What this is all about is a disgruntled employee at Metro who was let go who became obsessed with a contract that Metro took with Peace Over Violence related to sexual harassment so that they would take the calls," Kuehl said. "And she claimed that I had something to do with the contract, which was completely false."