breaks

Sheriff's investigator did not seek friendly judge to approve Supervisor Kuehl searches, court finds

sheriff's-investigator-did-not-seek-friendly-judge-to-approve-supervisor-kuehl-searches,-court-finds

SANTA MONICA, CA - SEPTEMBER 14, 2022 - - Los Angeles Supervisor Shelia Kuehl talks to the media after Los Angeles County sheriffs served her with an early morning search warrant, which she is holding, in Santa Monica on September 14, 2022. This was part of a criminal investigation into a county contract awarded to a nonprofit organization. Sheriff's investigators also searched Patti Giggans' house, her nonprofit's offices, officers at the L.A. County Hall of Administration and the headquarters of the county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which awarded a contract to Giggans' Peace Over Violence.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl talks with reporters as Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators search her home on Sept. 14. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

A judge found Thursday that a Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigator followed proper protocols when he obtained a warrant to search the home and office of county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and others, clearing him of allegations that he’d sought out a friendly judge to sign off on the searches.

“The court concludes that the process to obtain the new warrant did not deviate from established processes for law enforcement to obtain a warrant,” Superior Court Judge William Ryan wrote in a document laying out his findings.

He said that Sheriff’s Sgt. Max Fernandez, who wrote the statement of probable cause that was presented to Judge Craig Richman ahead of last week’s raids, attempted to get the warrants signed Sept. 8 by another judge who had handled proceedings related to earlier warrants in the case.

That judge, Eleanor Hunter, was on vacation. So Fernandez went to the bailiff’s office and was directed to another open court, which happened to be that of Richman, Ryan found.

“Detective Fernandez did not select Judge Richman,” Ryan wrote. “At the time, Detective Fernandez did not know Judge Richman and had never heard of him before.”

Richman has a decades-long relationship with Mark Lillienfeld, a key investigator in the sheriff’s public corruption unit, which carried out the Sept. 14 raids and has been accused by critics of targeting political enemies. Ryan found that there was no evidence that Lillienfeld was involved in securing or executing the search warrants.

Kuehl and others still have requests pending asking a judge to throw out the warrants altogether. In a filing, attorneys for Kuehl argued that the searches were politically motivated and retaliatory, as well as overbroad.

Ryan did not make any rulings on whether the evidence Fernandez presented to Richman to secure the warrants rose to the level of probable cause. He said the challenges to the warrants would be heard later.

The evidence made clear investigators were focused on a series of contracts worth more than $800,000 that Metro awarded to a domestic violence nonprofit between 2014 and 2020 to operate a hotline for reporting sexual harassment on public transit. Fernandez’s statement called the hotline a “complete failure” but said the contract was still extended without a competitive bid or analysis.

Kuehl and Patti Giggans, who runs the nonprofit and also serves on the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, have clashed fiercely with Sheriff Alex Villanueva and called for his resignation. Giggans’ home and nonprofit offices were also searched. They both have denied wrongdoing.

Ryan on Thursday extended his prior orders barring sheriff’s investigators from searching the seized devices, including 67 devices seized from Kuehl and Giggans, 50 of which have been wholly or partially imaged. Ryan said he planned to appoint a special master to sort through the material for privileged communications.

Of the items seized, sheriff’s investigators have reviewed 250 text messages and two voicemails on Kuehl’s phones related to her being tipped off the night before the raid, the judge said.

During an impromptu news conference as investigators were searching her home, Kuehl told reporters that she had been alerted the night before by an attorney in the county counsel’s office who she said heard about the impending search from Inspector General Max Huntsman.

Kuehl’s attorney, Cheryl O’Connor, said in court Thursday that she was “gravely concerned” by the review of texts and voicemails, as it indicates that investigators were looking for material beyond the scope of the warrant Richman signed.

Villanueva had asked California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to investigate whether Kuehl and Giggans were illegally tipped off, and in agreeing to do so this week, Bonta took over the entire case. He said sidelining the department was in the “public interest.”

“In recent days, the public unfolding of an unprecedented investigation has raised serious questions for residents of Southern California and beyond,” Bonta said in a statement. “I recognize the deep uncertainty this has engendered and, given the unique circumstances, my team has committed to taking over this investigative process.”

Lawyers in Bonta’s office were at Thursday’s hearing and asked sheriff’s investigators to provide all the seized material to them within two weeks.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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