(Bloomberg) -- A Los Angeles commission probing the presence of gang members in the county sheriff’s department is being stonewalled, with witnesses refusing to testify despite being subpoenaed and some claiming they fear for their safety or careers.
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A planned five-hour hearing was cut short when no witnesses showed up Friday, prompting the commission to direct its lawyers to seek enforcement of a subpoena in state court issued to Matthew Burson, a former division chief in the LA Sheriff’s Department who failed to appear.
Burson should be found in contempt if he continues to refuse to cooperate and the commission will ask a judge to order him incarcerated, Chairman Sean Kennedy said at the hearing.
The civilian commission that oversees the sheriff’s department began an independent investigation into the presence of gang members among deputies in March. An Inspector General’s report earlier this year said a partial list showed dozens of deputies in the East LA and Compton sheriff’s stations belonged to the Executioners and the Banditos, whose members have distinctive gang tattoos.
Witnesses won’t appear in public, even if they’re promised anonymity, Bert Deixler, a former federal prosecutor who is leading the probe, told the commission. They either fear for their safety or believe that testifying in public would be “career suicide,” Deixler said.
“The climate of fear” that exists in the Sheriff’s Department “is evidence itself that the groups exist,” Commissioner Robert Bonner said. “People are simply too afraid of retaliation.”
The commission also directed legal staff to issue additional subpoenas, including another for Sheriff Alex Villanueva to appear at its next meeting on July 1. Villanueva had ignored an earlier subpoena, according to the commission. Villanueva, who is up for re-election, failed to get the required 50% of the vote in June 7 primary to avoid a runoff in November.
The LA Sheriff’s Department asked for questions about the meeting to be submitted by email, and hasn’t responded to those questions.
The commission urged Villanueva to issue a public statement to his deputies to cooperate with the investigation.
“We’re appealing to his sense of honor and decency,” Bonner said.
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