LOS ANGELES — A close adviser to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón allegedly delayed announcing the decision not to file criminal charges in a high-profile excessive force case because of its potential effect on then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s reelection bid, according to a lawsuit filed late Friday.
Assistant Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Amy Pentz alleged in the suit that prosecutors finalized the decision not to charge Deputy Doug Johnson, who was caught on video kneeling on the head of an inmate at the San Fernando courthouse lockup, on Oct. 3, 2022. But prosecutors didn’t make that decision public until six weeks later.
Pentz said Diana Teran, who oversees the district attorney’s office unit that handles prosecutions of police officers, “wanted the declination held back until after the sheriff’s election because Sheriff Villanueva had made public statements about the (Johnson) case,” according to her lawsuit. The suit does not explain why Villanueva’s public comments were an issue.
Both Gascón and his chief of staff, Joseph Iniguez, were present for the meeting and approved of her decision, according to the suit.
The Johnson case was one in a series of controversies that marked Villanueva’s tenure as sheriff. The department was accused of covering up the March 2021 incident, fearing release of the video would have led to bad press for the department because of similarities to video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
In the video, inmate Enzo Escalante can clearly be seen punching Johnson first. But then a melee erupts, ending with Johnson kneeling on Escalante’s head for several minutes. According to an internal report and several other sheriff’s department officials, Villanueva and others declined to pursue assault charges against Escalante in order to suppress the incident.
The district attorney’s office wasn’t notified of the case until October 2021; Villanueva was allegedly shown the video almost seven months earlier.
Three high-ranking sheriff’s officials sued Villanueva and accused him of orchestrating a cover-up in the case. Villanueva has denied all wrongdoing, and one of those lawsuits has since been dismissed. In the fallout from the allegations, Villanueva announced that a Los Angeles Times reporter was the subject of a criminal investigation into the leak of the video, but he quickly backpedaled after facing immediate and widespread outrage.
Villanueva previously claimed, without evidence, that Gascón had delayed announcing decisions not to charge deputies in shootings and excessive force cases in order to hurt the sheriff’s reelection chances. Most polls showed Villanueva losing, however, and he was handily defeated by current Sheriff Robert Luna last November.
Still, the lawsuit raises serious ethical questions. Villanueva and Gascón are political enemies, as the former sheriff loudly supported both failed attempts to recall the district attorney from office.
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