The Los Angeles County district attorney's office says it is reviewing allegations that Sheriff Alex Villanueva falsely reported a crime when he accused the county's former chief executive of violating conflict of interest laws in a referral to the state attorney general's office.
County lawyers have disputed Villanueva's claim against former Chief Executive Sachi Hamai and threatened legal action, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In an Aug. 10 letter obtained by The Times, Lawrence S. Middleton, an attorney representing LA County, asked District Attorney Jackie Lacey to investigate, alleging that Villanueva knew his accusations were false.
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Prosecutors turned the letter over to the attorney general's office "to avoid any potential conflict of interest," Greg Risling, a spokesman for Lacey, told The Times. Risling said the attorney general's office on Tuesday notified the district attorney's office that no conflict exists.
"We will review the allegations to determine whether a crime was committed," Risling told The Times.
It is not unusual for prosecutors to review a formal complaint against a public official.
Lt. John Satterfield, a Sheriff's Department spokesman, said the matter involving Hamai was properly referred to the attorney general.
"The circumstances under which this allegation came to light were highly suspicious, and a report was written regarding the facts known at the time," he said referring to Villanueva's conflict-of-interest accusations against Hamai. "One of the primary roles of the California attorney general is to investigate and prosecute cases in which a conflict of interest arises between the investigatory agency and the parties involved."
It's the latest development in a lengthy series of clashes and tense relations between Villanueva and other county leaders since he took office in December 2018.
The conflict-of-interest issue arose in July, when Villanueva fielded a question from his wife, Vivian, during a live Facebook broadcast about the propriety of Hamai's position on the board of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.
The nonprofit helped push a proposal to the Board of Supervisors that would redirect 10% of the county's general fund, which includes part of the Sheriff's Department's budget, to better address the needs of low-income residents in under-resourced communities. Hamai had stepped down from the United Way board before the supervisors' vote on the proposal to avoid the appearance of any conflict.
Villanueva responded in part: "Apparently it is a felony if you're receiving money from United Way and you're on the board, or you're a county officer and you're voting on a measure or you're facilitating a measure which you stand to gain from your position on the other third party. That is a felony."
The next day, Skip Miller, an attorney representing Hamai and the county, said in a letter to Villanueva that his "malicious lies" amounted to defamation and threatened legal action, The Times reported. He said Hamai had no financial interest in United Way, serving as an unpaid member of the board.
Middleton reported to Lacey that after Villanueva received this information, the sheriff advised the Board of Supervisors of a criminal inquiry referred to the attorney general concerning a subordinate. The department's letter to board members said the potential charges included breach of public duty, conflicts-of-interest disclosure and a public official with a financial interest attempting to influence a political decision.
"It is clear that the subordinate referenced in the letters is CEO Sachi Hamai and that Sheriff Villanueva is doubling down on his prior Facebook Live comments," Middleton wrote to Lacey, according to The Times. "Here, after being put on notice that his Facebook comments accusing CEO Hamai of having committed a felony were demonstrably false, Sheriff Villanueva reported to the Attorney General that she had violated three different statutes."
He added: "Sheriff Villanueva made the criminal referral and the report to the Board of Supervisors knowing that Ms. Hamai had no financial interest in United Way or the ballot measure it supported."
Hamai retired in August, when she secured a $1.5 million settlement and full-time private security to address concerns for her personal safety after a county attorney said she faced months of "unrelenting and brutal" harassment from Villanueva. Villanueva criticized the settlement.