Los Angeles, CA – Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva demoted one of his top advisers last week because the high-ranking official is running against him in the next election.
Sheriff Villanueva notified now-Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) Commander Eliezer “Eli” Vera in a letter that he had been demoted from his position as chief of the department’s Technology and Support Division as of Sept. 5, the LA Daily News reported.
The letter said that Chief Vera had been “administratively restored to the position of commander” and told him to report to a lower position in the Court Services Division.
A spokesman for Sheriff Villanueva said it was perfectly appropriate for the sheriff to remove a top advisor from his innermost circle when that person was challenging their upcoming election, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“The law is firmly established that… those who serve as confidential advisors to an elected leader, cannot oppose him/her politically and keep their post,” LASD Captain John Satterfield said in a written response to the Los Angeles Times. “Who has ever heard of a cabinet secretary running against the president who appointed them?”
But now-Cmdr. Vera doesn’t agree and called the move retaliation, the LA Daily News reported.
He told the Los Angeles Times that the letter didn’t give a specific reason for the demotion but he said LASD Undersheriff Tim Murakami had explained it to him.
“The Undersheriff made it perfectly clear that the incumbent sheriff doesn’t feel that he could have a division chief running against him and holding that position at the same time,” Cmdr. Vera told the Los Angeles Times. “So it’s clearly politically driven, I don’t think there’s any question whatsoever.”
He said the demotion wouldn’t really impact him because commanders usually get weekly briefings but said he believed the sheriff did it as a warning.
“What he’s trying to do is harm my campaign,” Cmdr. Vera said. “It’s a message to the rest of the department: Fall in line or else.”
He accused Sheriff Villanueva of attempting to muzzle him with a non-disclosure agreement and said the sheriff had used “intimidation tactics” against him, the Los Angeles Times reported.
But Capt. Satterfield said that the commander’s accusations “lack merit” and pointed out that multiple high-ranking LASD officials have challenged the sheriff in the upcoming election and have been vocal in their criticism of the incumbent.
He said LASD Lieutenant Eric Strong, who supervises four of the county’s courthouses, has filed to run against Sheriff Villanueva.
And LASD Captain Britta Steinbrenner, who runs security for county buildings including libraries and hospitals, has also thrown her hat into the ring, the Los Angeles Times reported.
A number of former sheriff’s department officials are running, too.
Former LASD Sheriff’s Captain Matt Rodriguez has also challenged Sheriff Villanueva.
Rodriguez, who retired in 2013, was most recently interim chief of the Santa Paula Police Department, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Former LASD Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo – currently chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police – has also announced his candidacy for sheriff in the 2022 election.
This is not the first time that an LASD sheriff has been challenged by their high-ranking officials, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In 1998, LASD Division Chief Lee Baca ran against LASD Sheriff Sherman Block.
However, he didn’t step down from his chief position until after he forced a run-off against Sheriff Block in the primary, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Then Sheriff Block died just a couple of days before the general election and Sheriff Baca was elected.
He went on to serve four terms as sheriff before he went to federal prison for three years for his role in a plot to obstruct a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation into the county’s jails.