D.A.'s office withheld decision in excessive force case to affect sheriff's race, lawsuit says

Sheriff Alex Villanueva at a news conference on March 29, 2022.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at a news conference on March 29, 2022. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A close advisor 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.

Read more: Fearing bad publicity, LASD covered up case of deputy who knelt on inmate's head

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 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.

A previous Times report also validated some of Villanueva's claims. Documents obtained by The Times show a prosecutor initially made a finding in June 2022 that Johnson had not committed a crime. The same document confirms Pentz's allegation in the lawsuit that Gascón signed off on the decision not to press charges Oct. 3. Such decisions are not final without the district attorney's approval.

Read more: Has L.A. County D.A. George Gascón delivered on his police accountability promises?

Neither Teran or the district attorney's office responded to requests for comment.

Villanueva, who is now challenging Janice Hahn for her seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said in a tweet on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that the "false narrative" against him is falling apart. He does not elaborate.

"Withholding information from voters to influence the sheriff’s election, isn’t that a crime?" he asked.

In the lawsuit, Pentz says she is a "whistle blower" and claims she was removed from her position as second in command of the Justice Systems Integrity Division. She said the move was punishment for pushing back against Teran's decision in the Johnson case and for testifying in a civil service commission hearing questioning the legality of Gascón's decision to hire several public defenders to fill critical positions in the district attorney's office.

Pentz also claimed her supervisor, Alan Yochelson, was angered by Teran's decision, according to the suit.

“Head Deputy Alan Yochelson told plaintiff that Diana Teran wanted to 'hold off' on releasing the [Johnson] Case declination, in an effort to impact the outcome of the election against Sheriff Alex Villanueva," the lawsuit read. "Yochelson told Plaintiff: 'This is total BS!' Yochelson went on to say he believed the declination should be released, but they don’t want to give Villanueva any good news this close to the election.”

Yochelson declined to comment.

The suit is one of a growing number of retaliation claims filed against Gascón by prosecutors who say they were demoted or punished for speaking out against decisions he made or policies he enacted. Gascón has denied all wrongdoing, but he lost the only case that has gone to trial so far, costing the county $1.5 million.

Read more: Gascón loses retaliation case, a grim omen for the L.A. County D.A.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Siddall — the former vice president of the union representing rank-and-file prosecutors and one of the nine people challenging Gascón in the 2024 primary — confirmed Pentz had previously filed a grievance with the union over Teran's alleged conduct. Siddall said he's long been concerned by the allegations.

While he does not believe the Johnson case would have had any "material impact" on Villanueva's longshot reelection odds, Siddall described the alleged conduct as "at best, unethical behavior, at worst, possible violations of the law.”

"The Johnson case in particular was a case that was being used to bludgeon Villanueva ... if we’re saying there’s nothing criminal being done, then the only beneficiary of that outcome is Villanueva," he said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.