LA County Sheriff Villanueva faces lawsuit over alleged whistleblower retaliation against sergeant

ByIrene Cruz and Lisa Bartley via KABC logo
Wednesday, August 31, 2022
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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is facing yet another whistleblower lawsuit accusing him and the department of corruption and retaliation.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is facing yet another whistleblower lawsuit accusing him and the department of corruption and retaliation.

Sgt. Vanessa Chow, a 21-year veteran of the department, says her role as a liaison between the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors put her in the crosshairs of Villanueva's "war against the BOS."

In her newly filed lawsuit, Chow says she also became a target in part because her husband, Detective Jefferson Chow, was the lead investigator in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's investigation into the September 2018 Banditos deputy gang attack at Kennedy Hall in East Los Angeles.

The victims in that attack -- who were younger, non-Bandito deputies -- say they were beaten and strangled by the older Bandito deputies to the point they believed they might die. Three of the alleged Bandito deputies were later fired and one retired.

But the District Attorney's Office declined to file criminal charges in the case, citing "insufficient evidence."

Detective Jefferson Chow testified two weeks ago at a special hearing into deputy gangs that he was specifically ordered to not ask questions about the Banditos in his investigation of the Banditos attack.

Chow's investigative log shows an entry from Nov. 27, 2018, that reads, "cancelled interviews due to Captain/Chief Burson. He wanted to make sure I did not have to ask questions about subcultures groups at ELA station."

Now retired LASD Chief Matthew Burson previously testified that order came from Villanueva through the sheriff's then-chief of staff Larry Del Mese.

"Mr. Chow, did you think it was weird that Captain or Chief Burson told you not to ask about whether or not the people involved in this fight were members of a deputy clique or deputy gang," asked Civilian Oversight Commission member Sean Kennedy at the August hearing.

"Yes sir, I did," replied Chow, who explained that the LASD is a paramilitary organization, and any pushback would be perceived as insubordination.

Sgt. Vanessa Chow's lawsuit claims that Villanueva defamed her husband when he stated last month that the gang attack at Kennedy Hall was "just a drunken brawl" and that Detective Chow "altered the investigation log."

"So, they've created this grand conspiracy, a fake conspiracy of course, and they have me telling Del Mese who tells Burson who tells Mr. Chow -- who I think is a sergeant investigator -- not to ask questions," Villanueva said in a Facebook video in July.

The LASD declined to make Villanueva available for an interview or respond to questions from ABC7, stating they are unable to comment "due to pending litigation."

According to Chow's lawsuit, her husband noticed he was being tailed by undercover surveillance units after his testimony on deputy gangs two weeks ago. She says one of the vehicles idled outside their home until she walked outside with a video camera to record the incident.

The sergeant lists a raft of other allegations in her retaliation lawsuit, including LASD employees working on public time to help with Villanueva's re-election campaign and widespread cheating on the department's lieutenant exam.

"There were a lot of people scoring suspiciously high scores," says Chow's attorney Vincent Miller. "You have individuals working under Villanueva who admitted to having the test questions and answers ahead of time."

Chow alleges that her scores were rigged to not pass -- as a form of retaliation for speaking out about wrongful conduct. She says she was not allowed to appeal the exam score, not view her test result, and when she reported it the cheating was not investigated.

"He responds by punishing them, blocking their promotion, demoting them, constructively firing them," Miller says.

The lawsuit also alleges that at various times Sgt. Chow's "computer cords had been cut" and files she kept in a locked cabinet were shredded.

The day after this story was published, Deputy David Yoo with the Sheriff's Information Bureau sent this statement to Eyewitness News:

"The lawsuit Vanessa Chow v. County of Los Angeles is a compendium of false statements, omissions, mischaracterizations, and outright lies. It was strategically designed to drum up publicity for numerous other failing lawsuits, while also assisting the County in attempting to influence the outcome of the upcoming election. Attorney Vincent Miller is currently representing more than 15 frivolous lawsuits against the department, all which seem to share a common thread: lack of accountability for poor performance by the plaintiffs. There appears to be collaboration between these lawsuits and the recent political theater sponsored by the Civilian Oversight Commission at Loyola Marymount School. Interestingly, it is Attorney Vincent Miller's established pattern and practice to provide demonstrably false statements on behalf of his clients, then avoid having his clients sign the claim under penalty of perjury. By utilizing this unethical practice, he is able to provide the media with false statements they can turn into sensational headlines, yet he and his clients avoid accountability or prosecution when the allegations are later proven false. We look forward to vigorously challenging these lawsuits in court."

Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com