When I learned that a swarm of Los Angeles County sheriffs were conducting early morning searches of the homes of LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Patti Giggans, executive director of one of the oldest anti-domestic violence groups in the country, I realized that County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has gone through the deep end.
Does our embattled law enforcement officer really think such a transparent effort to intimidate his critics will save his bungled November re-election bid? (“NOBODY IS ABOVE THE LAW,” he trumpeted on his Instagram feed under a photo of Kuehl with her hands raised as officers escorted her out of her home.)
If I were his opponent — as retired Long Beach Police Chief is Robert Luna — I’d do hand jumping.
Kuehl and Giggans, who have been friends for decades, are vociferous critics of Villanueva. Kuehl has called for his firing, as has Giggans, whom Kuehl appointed to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission upon its inception in 2016.
And now they discover they are the target of a criminal investigation by the sheriff’s mysterious Public Corruption Unit, which seems to exist only to harass and intimidate his opponents.
“He’s only targeting political enemies,” the district attorney’s George Gascón told my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian last year after the sheriff tried to implicate him in his first botched vendetta against Kuehl and Giggans. “Obviously this wasn’t the kind of job I wanted to do, so we declined.”
Last week, Gascón said he would not support or defend the latest round of search warrants in court.
The sheriff would have us believe that Kuehl mistakenly sent a small, no-bid contract to Giggans’ nonprofit Peace Over Violence to pay for the establishment of a sexual assault hotline for people using public transportation. And that Giggans bribed Kuehl with campaign donations to get the contract. Kuehl said she wasn’t even aware of the contract until she was invited to a press conference where it was announced.
Thursday, on TNZT 11 News, Villanueva said the money used to fund the hotline had been “embezzled.” Reporter Phil Shuman emphatically asked the sheriff why he was talking about the investigation on TV, as he said he had withdrawn from the investigation.
How did this absurd situation come about?
Several years ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, better known as Metro, found in surveys that an alarmingly high percentage of female drivers reported having been sexually harassed on its trains and buses. In 2014, almost a quarter of the passengers indicated that they had experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour. Nearly a third said they stopped using public transport because they felt unsafe.
Metro approached Giggans, who founded Peace Over Violence, which is committed to ending sexual, domestic and interpersonal violence. Can her group help Metro develop a plan to improve the situation?
“They came to see us,” Giggans told me Friday morning. “We are known in the field.”
With an initial contract, Peace Over Violence developed a publicity campaign called “Off Limits,” as in “sexual harassment is off limits at Metro.”
Metro then decided it wanted to provide a dedicated hotline. Victims could report harassment and let Metro security know where it happened and be referred for advice and other resources.
After the first year, Metro decided to renew the “single source” contract and budgets $160,000 per year for Peace Over Violence, which has an annual budget of approximately $5.5 million, most of which comes from government grants.
According to Giggans, the hotline never got enough attention on trains and buses, which she blamed on Metro project manager, Jennifer Loew, who was initially very positive about the partnership.
“We know hotlines,” said Giggans, who founded one of the first domestic violence hotlines in the country. ‘You have to have the number there, you have to saturate the trains. She never did.”
Instead, Loew became a critic. She divided the number of calls to the hotline by the annual cost and concluded that the hotline cost $8,000 per call, a waste of money, she felt, at a time when Metro was in dire straits.
“Our answer is that it’s not a lot of money to help someone who has been raped or sexually harassed,” says Giggans. “If you want to discuss that with us, go ahead.”
Loew also made many complaints of wrongdoing against Metro and filed a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the agency, which her husband, Adam Loew, told me had been settled late last year for $625,000 plus some delinquent.
The contract for the “Off Limits” hotline expired last year, Giggans said. Today, the San Gabriel Valley-based nonprofit Project Sister Family Services handles phone calls. And there’s a line of text that goes straight to Metro’s Transit Security Department.
In the meantime, the sheriff has custody of Peace Over Violence’s server, which has hampered the group’s ability to serve its customers.
Officers searched Giggan’s drawers and closets on Wednesday and seized her car.
“And now I’m mad,” she said, in a comment captured by TV cameras as she watched the car being towed.
“This has gotten out of hand,” she told me. “I’m not going to back down. I have work to do.”
One of her upcoming duties: On Friday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Civilian Oversight Commission has scheduled “a special hearing on deputy gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department” to highlight its report on an issue the department has had for decades. teases . You can watch it online or attend in person at Loyola Marymount University.
Villanueva has claimed that the gangs “don’t exist”. I’m not sure what else you’d call law enforcement groups calling themselves the Banditos, the Grim Reapers, or the Vikings, getting themselves colored with matching tattoos and engaging in what many describe as lawless behavior.
But again, reality isn’t our sheriff’s forte.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.