LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigators served multiple search warrants Wednesday — including at the home and office of county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl — in connection with a public- corruption probe involving contracts awarded by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to a nonprofit group run by a close friend of Kuehl.
Kuehl denied any wrongdoing and blasted the probe as a politically motivated act of harassment by Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has repeatedly clashed with the Board of Supervisors.
Detectives from the sheriff's Public Corruption Unit also served warrants at the home of Patricia "Patti" Giggans and at the headquarters of Peace Over Violence, the nonprofit agency run by Giggans, who is a friend of Kuehl's and sits on the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission that oversees the sheriff's department.
The unit also served warrants at Kuehl's office at the county Hall of Administration, the Office of the Inspector General and the headquarters of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to the sheriff's department.
According to a court affidavit filed in support of the search warrants, the case is a probe into "an allegation of criminal conduct" by Kuehl and three "sole source contracts awarded to a nonprofit organization operating under the name Peace Over Violence" to operate a sexual harassment tip line for employees and riders on the Metro transit system.
"Between the years of 2014-2020, a series of `sole source' contracts were awarded by the MTA to the Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization Peace Over Violence totaling over $890,000," according to the affidavit. "A sole source contract is a non-competitive procurement that allows a single supplier to fulfill the contractual obligations and requirements from, in this case, a public entity/government contractor (MTA)."
The affidavit documents the long history of friendship between Kuehl and Giggans, noting that Kuehl officiated Giggans' wedding in 2004 when she was a state senator. It also noted that Kuehl — who serves on the Metro Board of Directors — is a member of the advisory board of Peace Over Violence and that Kuehl appointed Giggans to the Civilian Oversight Commission.
Kuehl — who has clashed repeatedly with Villanueva and has called for his resignation — told reporters she was escorted from her home in Santa Monica at around 7 a.m. She said she was alone at the time.
Sheriff's deputies went inside her home, and could be seen opening and closing doors and taking photos or videos, the Los Angeles Times reported from the scene. Kuehl told reporters investigators took her cell phone.
Kuehl told reporters outside her home 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."
Kuehl said she was notified by an attorney for the county Tuesday night that the sheriff's department was planning to show up at her home Wednesday morning.
Giggans' attorney, Austin Dove, told The Times the raid amounted to "Third World tactics" by the sheriff's department. Dove also accused deputies carrying out the search of going beyond the limits outlined in the warrant — including towing Giggans' car.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying the sheriff's department presented its investigation into Kuehl and the Peace Over Violence contracts to prosecutors in September 2021 for consideration of possible criminal charges.
"We reviewed the case and determined that the state of the evidence at that time did not prove criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt," according to the D.A.'s Office. "LASD indicated that they would continue to investigate. We have not had additional contact on the matter and were not consulted or aware of the search warrants that were served today. In this case, because we did not review the warrant beforehand, we do not intend to defend it if challenged in court."
In a statement released late Wednesday afternoon, Kuehl said the "basis of this search was questionable and will be investigated."
"This morning's storming of my home by deputies with bulletproof vests and tactical gear was an effort to harass, intimidate and retaliate against a public figure who has been an outspoken critic of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva," Kuehl said in the statement. "I am not the only such critic, and other courageous county leaders have also been the targets of this sheriff's vindictiveness."
Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who also sits on the Metro Board of Directors, issued a statement blasting the investigation.
"This is a bogus, vindictive, politically motivated witch hunt by a corrupt sheriff with a track record of abusing his power and trying to silence and intimidate his critics," Bonin said. "Sheila Kuehl is a public official of the highest integrity and of remarkable accomplishment. Alex Villanueva runs a department notorious for violence, scandal and civil rights violations. He is scared of civilian oversight, defies civilian oversight, and is abusing his power to get revenge on those who exercise civilian oversight."
Villanueva has not commented directly on the search warrants. The search warrant affidavit notes the Villanueva recused himself from any involvement in the investigation to avoid any appearance of conflict. In a video statement released Wednesday afternoon, Undersheriff Tim Murakami stated that he was overseeing the investigation in light of Villanueva's recusal from the matter.
Despite claiming to have recused himself from the matter, however, Villanueva on Wednesday sent a letter to the state Attorney General's Office requesting that it investigate a statement made by Kuehl following the raid, indicating a county attorney had contacted her Tuesday night and informed her of the impending sheriff's department search. Villanueva suggested in the letter that county Inspector General Max Huntsman and the county counsel's office had interfered with a criminal investigation by notifying Kuehl of the search, calling it a potential felony offense.
"The illegal acts committed by Mr. Huntsman and county counsel have potentially compromised the integrity of this criminal investigation including, but not limited to, the concealment or destruction of evidence," the sheriff wrote, in spite of insisting he had recused himself from all aspects of the investigation.
The sheriff is in the midst of a contentious re-election campaign, squaring off in November against former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.
Kuehl, 81, has been on the Board of Supervisors since 2014 and will be leaving the board this year. A former actress, she also served in the state Assembly and Senate.
The affidavit in support of the search warrant cites allegations by the former Metro employee mentioned by Kuehl. According to the affidavit, that witness claims former Metro CEO Phillip Washington pushed forward 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 bills because he did not want to "upset any of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl's friends."
The affidavit contends that evidence gathered by the search warrants "may prove that there was a `corrupt agreement' between Kuehl and Giggans to award and receive the sole source contracts in return for campaign donations, political power and continued opportunities to enrich each other in a variety of ways."
The affidavit also cites a 2020 Fox11 investigation which found that Peace Over Violence's operation of the sex-harassment hotline was costing taxpayers more than $8,000 per phone call. The station reported that although the line was purported to have received 1,300 calls between 2017 and 2020, very few of them turned out to be legitimate, with the vast majority being hang-ups, tests or not applicable to the line's purpose.
In October 2019, only eight of 29 calls reported by Metro turned out to be legitimate harassment reports, the station reported. Of the 349 calls to the line in 2019, 260 were wrong numbers or hang-ups, according to local media.
Through August of 2017, only 13 legitimate sexual-harassment-related calls were received on the line, equating to a per-call cost of $8,450, the station reported.
The report was based on allegations made by Jennifer Loew, a former Metro project manager who also alleged that Kuehl had steered the no-bid contracts to Giggans and Peace Over Violence. Loew was not formally identified in the search warrant affidavit, which only cites an unnamed "witness" who raised the allegations. A local news outlet reported that Loew sued Metro for retaliation.
Responding to the local news report in 2020, Metro defended the contracts with a statement saying, "Yes, there have been misdialed numbers or hang-ups, but of that total number, more than 230 calls have been specific sexual assault or harassment calls that have helped victims. The success of the hotline is not based on the volume of calls. It is a critical resource available to our transit customers 24/7. If 911 received a low number of calls, would you recommend it be shut down?"
Peace Over Violence told the station, in part, "We do not inflate the call numbers and we count accurately all the calls that are received on the Off Limits hotline. According to our contract, all calls coming into the hotline are legitimate. ... We cannot put a price tag on serving a survivor of violence and there are no quotas associated with our hotlines. We are there to serve the people that call 24/7. This is not a fee-per-survivor service. Metro is paying for the program, not per survivor."