Former Sheriff Villanueva to file $25-million lawsuit over county's 'Do Not Rehire' label

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at a news conference on Nov. 2, 2021.
Then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva in 2021. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Former Sheriff Alex Villanueva plans to file a $25-million federal lawsuit against Los Angeles County for putting a “Do Not Rehire” notation in his personnel file after an oversight panel said he harassed and discriminated against two county employees.

In early 2022, one of those employees — Inspector General Max Huntsman — accused then-Sheriff Villanueva of “dog whistling to the extremists he caters to” when he repeatedly referred to the inspector general by his foreign-sounding birth name, Max-Gustaf. A few weeks later, Villanueva publicly accused Huntsman of being a Holocaust denier.

Around the same time, a justice deputy for county Supervisor Hilda Solis filed a complaint accusing Villanueva of targeting and harassing women of color. Last fall, the County Equity Oversight Panel sustained complaints in both cases and recommended Villanueva — who had been voted out of office by that point — be deemed ineligible for rehire.

Villanueva’s lawyer called the recommendation — which the department ultimately adopted — a “lethal blow” to the former sheriff’s lengthy career in a 196-page tort claim letter dated Wednesday. The letter accused the county of “scarlet-lettering” Villanueva with “defamatory allegations” during a secretive legal process that gave him no chance to respond.

“The county spent five years defaming me and trying to convince the public that I was this horrible human being,” Villanueva told The Times on Wednesday. “The reality was the exact opposite.”

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He and his lawyer, Carney Shegerian, also said the county violated time limits laid out in the state’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights by placing the "Do Not Rehire" notation in his file more than a year after receiving the complaints about him.

In an emailed statement late Wednesday, lawyers for the county said they hadn't yet evaluated the claim.

"At this point, however, we can say that the County takes seriously its statutory requirement to be transparent about its peace officers’ actions, including the type of sustained misconduct that led to a ‘Do Not Rehire’ recommendation for former Sheriff Villanueva,” the statement said.

After publication, the Sheriff's Department offered a short statement again confirming the department upheld the panel's recommendation.

The tensions that led to the formal equity complaints began not long after Villanueva took office. After ousting his predecessor in 2018, Villanueva repeatedly sparred with county oversight officials as well as the Board of Supervisors. He leveled personal attacks against Huntsman, asked county supervisors to remove him from his watchdog post and eventually banned him from the department’s facilities and databases, saying he was a suspect in two criminal cases.

Huntsman was highly critical of the sheriff’s handling of the department. He published several investigatory reports accusing Villanueva of “unlawful conduct" and issued subpoenas trying to force his cooperation in oversight investigations.

In March 2022, Huntsman filed a complaint accusing Villanueva of sending an email “throughout the Sheriff’s Department that was a racially biased attack.” In the email, Villanueva allegedly referred to Huntsman by his full name.

When Villanueva found out about Huntsman’s complaint that month, he in turn told The Times editorial board about it, adding in the new claim about Huntsman’s supposed denial of the Holocaust.

“You do realize that Max Huntsman, one, he’s a Holocaust denier,” Villanueva told the board. “I don’t know if you’re aware of that. I have it from two separate sources.”

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The editorial board functions independently of The Times’ newsroom, and the interview — during Villanueva’s reelection campaign — came as part of the board’s usual endorsement process in the 2022 election cycle.

At the time, Huntsman wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors, alerting them to the sheriff’s allegations and offering a response. He denied the accusation and wrote that Villanueva was “dog whistling to his more extreme supporters that I am German and/or Jewish and hence un-American.”

Huntsman declined a request for further comment, but sent a photo of his California driver license, which does not include "Gustaf" as part of his name.

Esther Lim — Solis' justice deputy — filed her own complaint the same week as Huntsman in 2022. Pointing to comments the former sheriff made on Facebook livestreams, Lim alleged a pattern of age discrimination and harassment of Asian women. Lim did not respond to a request for comment this week.

Near the end of 2022, Villanueva lost his bid for reelection. Afterward, he said, he heard nothing further from the county about the complaints or their outcome until The Times published an article about it this year.

By that point, Villanueva was running for a spot on the Board of Supervisors — a race he lost in the primary to the incumbent, Janice Hahn. In emails to The Times earlier this year, he called the “Do Not Rehire” designation a “brazen attempt” at “electioneering.” His lawyer repeated those allegations in this week’s claim.

The claim also defended Villanueva’s use of the inspector general’s full name, noting that his longer, hyphenated name is included on some public records websites as well as on his desk plaque. The claim did not address the former sheriff’s description of Huntsman as a Holocaust denier.

But on the phone Wednesday afternoon, Villanueva and his lawyer both reiterated the allegation about Huntsman, which the former sheriff said stemmed from a lengthy investigation. “We’re confident about the source,” Villanueva said, adding that it was “not surprising” given Huntsman’s “family history.” (Previously, the inspector general has said that his grandfather was conscripted into the Nazi army and that the “way the Nazis functioned” did great damage to his family. )

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The former sheriff went on to allege that the investigations into his conduct were in retaliation for complaints he’d made to county supervisors. He and his lawyer raised questions about the timing of the panel’s October decision, which came a month after Villanueva announced his candidacy for the Board of Supervisors.

The claim said Villanueva’s "long, storied career" had been "brought to a standstill" without proper transparency or due process.

Though Villanueva is no longer employed by the Sheriff’s Department, he told The Times that he feared the “Do Not Rehire” designation could harm his ability to land other jobs in law enforcement. In addition to the $25-million payout, he's asking the court to order the designation rescinded.

He said he has not yet made a decision as to whether he might run for sheriff again.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.