Sheriff’s investigators immediately searched supervisor’s phone for ‘tipoff’ about warrants – Daily News
Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives immediately combed through two of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s cellphones following a raid on her home to determine if someone tipped her off about their search warrants, according to court filings and a letter sent by her lawyer to the Attorney General’s Office.
Kuehl’s attorney, Cheryl O’Connor, stated in the Sept. 22 letter that she is “gravely concerned” that sheriff’s Sgt. Max Fernandez, the lead investigator, spent the weekend searching Kuehl’s text messages and voicemails for information O’Connor says is beyond the scope of the original warrants.
Fernandez “intentionally invaded attorney-client privilege by reading and publishing text messages between County Counsel and the Supervisor,” O’Connor wrote. Even if Fernandez’s truly intended to “discover evidence of an alleged improper ‘leak’ regarding the warrant, rather than to smear the Supervisor, simply receiving information is not unlawful,” she added.
The proper procedure for investigating this alleged new crime would have been to “seek judicial authorization of another warrant after demonstrating additional probable cause,” according to O’Connor.
“This intentional violation of Supervisor Kuehl’s constitutional rights by Sgt. Fernandez and LASD cannot be countenanced by the Attorney General,” she wrote.
Judge William Ryan, during a Sept. 22 hearing, declined to review the appropriateness of the hunt for the leak, but likened it to stumbling “across a dead body” while conducting a different investigation.
The sheriff’s original search warrants, executed Sept. 14, sought information about a series of contracts for a harassment hotline awarded to the nonprofit Peace Over Violence by L.A. County Metro. The Sheriff’s Department alleges it is investigating whether Kuehl used her influence to get the contracts, which totaled more than $800,000, approved by former Metro CEO Phil Washington. The probe is targeting two of the sheriff’s most vocal critics, Kuehl and Patricia Giggans, a member of the sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission and the head of Peace Over Violence.
Kuehl, a close friend of Giggans, did not vote on the contracts as a member of Metro’s board of directors.
Focus was finding the leak
Fernandez, in a declaration filed in court, said he personally went through 250 text messages and listened to two voicemails to try to find information related to the tipoff. The contents of the other seized devices have not been reviewed yet..
The sergeant cited Penal Code Section 148, which generally prohibits the obstruction of an officer’s duties, and Section 168, which prohibits prosecutors, judges, clerks and peace officers from disclosing a warrant’s existence prior to its execution “for the purpose of preventing the search or seizure of property or the arrest of any person” to support his searches.
A conviction on the latter could result in up to a year in county jail.
Fernandez alleges Giggans disposed of a iPhone ahead of the searches because one was not found at her home and her emails in the past included the message “Sent from my iPhone.” Though Sheriff Alex Villanueva previously stated in a letter to Attorney General Rob Bonta that Giggans and her attorney, Austin Dove, met deputies at the door, Fernandez’s declaration notes Dove showed up about 15 minutes after deputies did.
Dove could not be reached for comment.
O’Connor, in her letter, denied Kuehl violated either of the laws cited by Fernandez.
“Supervisor Kuehl neither obstructed the execution of the warrant at her home, nor did she disclose the existence of the warrant for the purpose of preventing the search or seizure of property,” O’Connor wrote. “Sgt. Fernandez and the LASD have not claimed otherwise.”
What the texts say
Fernandez attached images of two text messages related to the alleged tipoff in his declaration.
In a Sept. 13 text message, Lisa Mandel, Kuehl’s chief of staff, told the supervisor she received a call from County Counsel Dawyn Harrison about 10 p.m. informing her the “Sheriff may obtained (sic) a search warrant for your home and Patti G’s” and notes “I told her this was last week’s news.” Kuehl has stated the Los Angeles Times called her about the possibility of the warrants nearly a week beforehand.
“Per the informant, the warrant is for 7 a.m. tomorrow,” Mandel wrote. “Let me know if you want me to do anything. May still be a hoax, and then again, you never know.”
A separate text from Harrison to Kuehl at 11:41 p.m.added: “Max called CoCo tonight with his ‘intel.’ Just wanted to make sure you are aware. Should anything come of this in the morning Cheryl O’Connor is on standby.”
Fernandez stated CoCo stands for county counsel, and an interview Kuehl did with Fox 11 indicates “Max” likely refers to L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman, a frequent opponent of Villanueva.
“At minimum, whoever told Max Huntsman about this warrant committed a crime,” Fernandez wrote.
The Inspector General’s Office declined to comment because Huntsman was unavailable.
Neither of the texts provided in the declaration went to Giggans.
Court froze searches
Judge Ryan has ordered both the Sheriff’s Department and the Attorney General’s Office to cease reviewing any of the materials until a special master, a third-party overseer, can be appointed to weed out any privileged information, such as those with attorneys.
Bonta’s office seized control of the investigation days earlier after receiving a letter from Villanueva asking the state agency to separately investigate the alleged tipoff. Bonta, in a statement, explained he took over both investigations because the two sides were “intimately related” and the case had raised “serious questions for residents of Southern California and beyond.”
Bonta has pledged to conduct a “thorough, fair and independent investigation that will help restore confidence for the people of our state.”
Kuehl responds in tweets
Kuehl took to Twitter on Friday to “cut through the BS coming from MAGA media” in a series of messages criticizing the Sheriff’s Department’s handling of the case and Villanueva himself. She once again stated she heard about the possibility of the search nearly a week in advance from the L.A. Times.
“Members of the Sheriff’s Dept. were already leaking to the press long before last Wednesday morning,” Kuehl wrote.
The supervisor and O’Connor have called for the return of her devices, particularly as the declaration by Fernandez states that most have already been digitally duplicated.
“The Sheriff’s continued possession of my laptop and phones makes it very difficult to perform my duties as a supervisor, not to mention lacking all information to contact family and friends, as my personal phone and laptop were also confiscated,” Kuehl wrote.
Despite the investigation, Kuehl said she will continue to push to see “the Sheriff takes steps to reduce deputy-involved shootings, meaningfully addresses the existence of gangs in his department, cooperates with the Office of Inspector General, complies with subpoenas issued to his department, addresses the concerns of the County Civilian Oversight Commission, and operates, for a change, within a balanced budget, none of which the Sheriff is doing currently.”
In a final jab, Kuehl added she found satisfaction from the fact the sheriff and his team were “reviewing hundreds of texts that came to my personal phone after the raid, nearly all of them expressed some fairly strong, rude, and negative opinions about the Sheriff.”
“I hope he enjoyed them,” she wrote.