An obscure unit in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has been accused of targeting critics and opponents of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, leading to calls for an investigation into an alleged abuse of power.
The purpose and actions of the Civil Rights and Public Integrity Detail unit of the department are largely kept from the public and even other units, The Los Angeles Times reported. However, the investigations being handled by the unit have been discovered to be centered around critics of Villanueva.
The Times reported that L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman and a nonprofit that oversees the sheriff's department have all been subject to investigation by the unit. Huntsman is one of Villanueva's harshest critics.
The extended rate at which the unit's highly public investigations were carried out and the lack of actual criminal charges resulting from them sparked suspicion.
Loyola Law School professor Sean Kennedy, who sits on the county's Civilian Oversight Commission, told the Times that the fact that charges were never filed in these investigations suggested "ulterior motive."
Speaking to the newspaper, Los Angeles County district attorney George Gascón said of Villanueva's unit, "He’s only targeting political enemies."
“It was obvious that was not the kind of work I wanted to engage in, so we declined," said Gascón.
Sources within the department told the Times that the unit was referred to as Villanueva's "secret police."
The Times reported that the sheriff's office refused to speak on the matter, alleging that the journalist working on the report, Alene Tchekmedyian, had a conflict of interest.
On Wednesday evening, before the report was published, Villanueva's office shot back at the Times' report in a statement.
"In the article, the reporter will push the narrative that I created this team to attack my political opponents and their appointees. This is false," Villanueva said.
"The sole responsibility of the Sheriff’s Department is to investigate allegations of criminal conduct as they are discovered, regardless of how inconvenient it may be to the subject of the investigation," he continued. "The unit is supervised by the Undersheriff, and I have recused myself from all decision making to avoid any potential conflict of interest."
When reached for comment by The Hill, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department did not provide any further comment apart from Villanueva's Wednesday statement.