L.A. County sheriff searches offices of LA Metro, oversight board member in criminal probe
Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives this week searched the headquarters of L.A. Metro and the offices of a nonprofit run by a civilian oversight commissioner critical of the department’s leadership, sheriff’s officials announced Friday.
Detectives served warrants for unspecified records at both locations on Thursday, Feb. 18, but a spokesperson declined to provide details about the nature of the probe.
“The search warrant was signed by a judge, and partially sealed, in connection to an ongoing criminal investigation,” said Deputy Eric Ortiz, a member of the sheriff’s information bureau, in an email. “We are unable to offer further comment at this time, in order to preserve the integrity of this active investigation.”
In an email, Metro spokesman Dave Sotero confirmed the transportation authority received a warrant.
“However, given the limited information contained in the warrant, we cannot determine the nature of LASD’s investigation,” Sotero said.
Peace Over Violence, the nonprofit targeted in the search, operates L.A. Metro’s “Off Limits” sexual harassment counseling hotline. Spokeswoman Darcy Pollan also confirmed the search warrants served at Peace Over Violence, which is based out of Metro’s headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. She declined to comment further.
Patricia Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, is a member of the Civilian Oversight Commission and was appointed by county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. The nine-member commission advises the Board of Supervisors and was created to increase transparency and accountability at the Sheriff’s Department.
Kuehl’s office referred questions about the search warrants to L.A. County Counsel. The county’s attorneys then deferred to Metro.
Commission’s rocky history with sheriff
Commissioners have clashed with the department, and Sheriff Alex Villanueva in particular, in the past two years. Giggans chaired the commission when Villanueva defied a subpoena to appear at one of its meetings. Measure R, approved by voters in March 2020, grants that power to the Oversight Commission. In response, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge threatened Villanueva with contempt over the issue.
The commission, Kuehl and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called for Villanueva’s resignation in September. Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors discussed possible legal strategies for removing the sheriff from office shortly after the California Attorney General announced a civil rights investigation into the department.
It is uncommon for the Sheriff’s Department to conduct investigations into other county agencies. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office typically handles public corruption cases in the county through its Public Integrity Division. The Sheriff’s Department did not respond to questions about whether it is working with other agencies, nor would it address whether it has taken steps to avoid any conflicts related to investigating a commissioner.
A spokesperson for the Oversight Commission took a message from a reporter, but no one returned the request for comment.
Peace Over Violence’s contract questioned
While it is unclear what exactly the Sheriff’s Department is investigating, Metro’s sole sourced, no-bid contract with Peace Over Violence for the sexual harassment hotline has faced scrutiny recently.
In September, Fox 11 released an investigation into the hotline and determined the low volume of calls — sometimes only a few dozen per month — amounted to a cost of about $8,000 per call. A Metro employee, Jennifer Loew, alleged Peace Over Violence received the contract in 2017 via a behind-the-scenes push from supervisor Kuehl, a close friend and ally of Giggans. Loew previously sued Metro in February 2020, alleging discrimination and conspiracy, but a judge dismissed the case in August for a “lack of prosecution” after Loew, who represented herself, did not respond to a court order, according to court records.
Kuehl is a member of Metro’s board and a member of Peace Over Violence’s advisory board. In a FAQ on its website, Peace Over Violence confirmed Kuehl and Giggan’s friendship, but denied it played any role in the selection.
“POV categorically refutes these accusations as false and self-serving fabrications on the part of the whistleblower,” the FAQ states.
The hotline’s contract never came before the board for a vote because it was below a $500,000 threshold. Peace Over Violence has worked on other projects with Metro and its total pay from the agency, across multiple contracts, is more than $800,000 as of 2021, according to the nonprofit’s website. The contract is set to expire at the end of the year.
Metro similarly told Fox 11 that Kuehl had no influence over Peace Over Violence’s contract. Kuehl’s office at the time stated that Metro CEO Phil Washington, who is set to step down when his employment agreement expires in May, made the decision. An employee from Kuehl’s office offered recommendations on the proposed scope of work, which was described as “appropriate given the supervisor’s role as a Metro board member,” according to the statement to Fox 11.
Nonprofit first hired in 2015
An FAQ on Peace Over Violence’s website indicates the nonprofit began working with Metro in 2015 in response to a survey showing that one-fifth of Metro riders faced unwanted sexual behavior. At the time, Metro, Peace Over Violence and the Sheriff’s Department under Villanueva’s predecessor partnered on a public information campaign, titled “It’s Off Limits,” that was credited with contributing to a decline in sexual harassment on the public transportation system.
That collaboration later led to the 2017 contract for the 24/7 “Off Limits” hotline, which offers “immediate counseling, safety planning, advocacy and referrals” to callers. The hotline provides a “direct link” to Metro Security for reporting and tracking where and when assaults are occurring, according to the nonprofit.
The hotline has reportedly helped more than 200 victims of sexual harassment or assault and handled “thousands” of calls from distressed riders. Fox 11’s investigation suggested publicly released information about the number of calls may have been inflated because many were hangups or wrong numbers.
Peace Over Violence denied the allegation. The website states there is no quota associated with the hotline and questioned putting a “price tag on serving a survivor of violence.”
“According to our contract, all calls coming into the hotline are legitimate,” the FAQ states. “Hangups are common on hotlines, and we do not classify them as live calls from survivors. We repeatedly called attention to the low number of calls received and continued to encourage Metro to advertise this service.”
Metro no longer advertises the hotline’s number and instead refers callers reporting sexual harassment to the non-profit if they need counseling.