The Greatest Sheriff in America

THE CITY--Norman Mailer famously said, "If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist."  

Shia Labeouf had apparently been studying Robert Faturechi, an LA Times reporter covering the American Civil Liberties Union's findings about excessive force in the county jail, for a role that he was going to play in The Company You Keep. 

Faturechi wore a thin necktie and a distinctive noirish trench coat, perhaps as protection against the spray of horrible revelations coming out about Sheriff Lee Baca, who Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky of the third district almost always referred to as the "greatest Sheriff in America."  

A Spark:

This was a period in county history when the onscreen chemistry between Lee Baca and Supervisor Gloria Molina was nasty.  By comparison, Sheila Kuehl and Sheriff Alex Villanueva come across as preening lovebirds. 

One meeting, Molina asked a point-blank question of staff about the James Austin report--an early proposal to NOT rebuild Men's Central by reducing and distributing the jail population to smaller facilities. Staff had no idea, so I texted a young ACLU lawyer who I'd noticed deliverIng sharp public comments.   

The ACLU immediately texted me back!  Starstruck is too strong, but who cares about Shia Labeouf, the frickin' ACLU texted me! 


The Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence [CCJV] was a response taken by Zev Yaroslavsky and the County Board of Supervisors. It was absolutely yet another commission on county jail violence.   

Rev. Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray was brought in by Mark Ridley-Thomas to repeat what Lord Acton had said so many years ago, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Amen.  

Miriam Aroni Krinsky (former Ethics Commissioner at City Hall / Red Flag) distinguished herself as Executive Director by posting transcripts of CCJV hearings, under the threat of public harassment.  The entire county felt like wearing a Faturechi-like trench coat, because of the horrific tales of brutality that came out thanks to the heroic work of the ACLU.   

A ruddy Jim McDonnell, then sporting the Long Beach PD uniform, sat among the forgettable CCJVists. [Question: How does a Police Chief pass for a "citizen?"] 

And just like that after several years holed up in the fancy but donated Munger Tolles & Olson Offices, 63 recommendations popped out of the county toaster resulting, according to the county, in a clean bill of health... for the county. 

Never mind that the custody manual had NOT been re-written as requested and a CPRA found instructions in the then and still current manual for  'arcing' a taser' -- something like cracking a whip --  to gain the compliance of an obstinate inmate.    

A  parade of pro bono attorneys got in line to receive sparkly thank yous from a radiant Krinsky who everyone suspected Yaroslavsky wanted to personally pension-spike, and the man who later turned out to indeed be Mr. Ridley-Thomas's lawyer, the original chip off the old Robert Bonner, Dick Drooyan.  

Local Governance Tool:

Zev liked to quote John Wooden, “Never mistake activity for achievement."   

This quote was equally useful either as a self-congratulation for his own brilliant CCJV commission or could easily be re-routined to denigrate the Oversight Commission sponsored by his longtime frenemy, Mark Ridley-Thomas. Now, dba the Civilian Oversight Commission [COC]. 

One thing Zev and MRT could agree on was that Richard Drooyan was an highly effective local governance tool. There is not a disturbing fact set or appalling set of failures that Drooyan cannot repack as some kind of improvement.   

A beating about the head and neck ... could be couched as inconclusive investigations pending a backlog. Drooyan's quarterly soliloquys about the four-year effort to hook up grievance iPad was mesmerizing. 

By yammering on in his signature fashion as a matter-of-fact military style lawyer, he could lull even the most alert promising journalist into a catnap.  Faturechi left for Propublica. 

As the Chief Counsel of the CCJV, the Implementation Monitor over the CCJV, and the Court Appointed monitor over Rosas litigation, Drooyan always had the same key recommendation:  More and continuing robust monitoring. Stat.  

Love at first comment

In retrospect, it was a dysfunctional relationship from the get-go.   

Peter Eliasberg got a glimpse of my large catalogue of lawsuits against the County and the Sheriff's department for disgusting jail violence and called me at home.  

When I drafted a CPRA request asking for billing invoices from the private law firms working for the county, who had been recommending a 'scorched earth' litigation strategy against jailhouse violence lawsuits, the ACLU and I agreed to start seeing one another.  

The ACLU hired Davis Wright Tremaine, a well regarded law firm, to help us extract the legal invoices.  

Our first date was in Superior Court, it was fantastic. The Honorable Luis A. Lavin, of Dept. 82 was presiding and we got a very good result but there was a disagreement about the county not providing Richard Drooyan's contract.  And there was a small question about whose lawyer Drooyan actually was?  

At one public meeting, while airing several grievances back when there was a public comment period, I referred to Mr. Drooyan as "obviously the Board's lawyer," who has "attorney/client privilege to the Board."    

Mark Ridley-Thomas wrote in his historic declaration, "I believed Mr. Preven's statement was incorrect, and said so. After Mr. Preven's time had expired, I expanded on my comment, stating: "When you refer to Mr. Drooyan being our lawyer, that is incorrect. He is a consultant with respect to the implementation of the recommendations made by [the] Citizens Commission on Jail Violence." 

"At the time I made the above remarks, I believed them to be correct," MRT wrote, "I was and am very familiar with Mr. Drooyan's activities as the Commission's Implementation Monitor. In fact, I recommended and prepared the motion that he be appointed to that position!" 

"The truth is that" as my brother and I have written before, "the attorney-client privilege — an important right for individuals — is a scourge to the people’s interest when invoked by public entities."  

The Appellate court, where a doppelganger for Mike Antonovich named Judge Aldrich delivered a predictable setback was not enough to kill our relationship.   We renewed our vows and went to the Supreme Court of California. 

Half a loaf:

Finally, that crisp morning in San Francisco, taking pictures together on the steps of the California Supreme Court... I wondered aloud if my $135 dollars for my plane ticket would fit in the ACLU foundation's massive budget.  No, obviously not.  

The decision came down a few weeks later: the scope of the attorney-client privilege had been clarified and finally we, ACLU/Preven were vindicated -- the county would have to show the invoices for cases we'd requested.  Only for cases that were closed.  

The Supreme Court Opinion:  Filed 12/29/16 “The imperative of protecting privileged communications between attorney and client –– and thereby promoting full and frank discussion between them –– is a defining feature of our law. 

Instead, the contents of an invoice are privileged only if they either communicate information for the purpose of legal consultation or risk exposing information that was communicated for such a purpose. This latter category includes any invoice that reflects work in active and ongoing litigation." 

The public had many questions about the historic ruling, like if the county doesn't want to disclose what they're paying to e.g. Skip Miller to disembowel a critic or eviscerate an alleged victim, what prevents them from just saying to the requestor: "Thank you for interest in County Government, the case is active and ongoing."   

I thought at minimum, before we called a wrap on the case, the public should have a clear understanding of the invoices that we had sought.  This seemed to annoy the ACLU and lawyers, as if all that was beside the point.   

It was a classic Broadcast News movie moment.  Station manager Peter Hakes tells Producer Holly Hunter: It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room.   

Holly Hunter steals the movie with her reply, "No. It's awful." 

Fight on!

Since the ACLU didn't want to help get the Drooyan contract, I pursued it on my own uncovering over $1.6M paid to him for 'attorney-client privileged' monitoring, more by now.   

Nevermind that Drooyan had advertised himself as pro bono, Nicole Davis-Tinkham, a deputy at county counsel was forced to authorize the county to pay my attorney $35,000 before releasing the records, so not exactly compliance and provision.  

Meanwhile, the ACLU was announcing in the press that inmates were reporting a difference in the atmosphere in the jails, the Rosas case settled with $950,000 in legal fees to the ACLU of Southern California.  

Despite our differences, and possible conflict, I was adamant that the county pay the ACLU and the attorneys from Davis Wright Tremaine for all of their work fighting the county's private attorney, Tim Coates of Greines Stein, who had never lost a case until ACLU/Preven.   

I wrote, "I can't in good conscience settle this case until LA County agrees to release the Sheriff's Custody Division Manual without which there can be no meaningful civilian oversight of the jails. The County's intransigence on this point makes a mockery of the Rosas settlement." 

The ACLU and Rochelle Wilcox of Davis Wright Tremaine dumped me. 

Oui, je t'ai quitté et j'ai beau résister (Yes, I left you and there’s no use in holding on)

Eric Preven

After a breathtaking journey together, it was clear that despite a strong shared vision for improvements to the criminal justice system, the ACLU and Preven were ready to go our separate ways. 

We ran into each other several times at Supervisors' meetings where the ACLU seemed much more interested in chatting up Dr. Christina Ghaly of DHS than reviewing the sneaky legal conduct of the Board of Supervisors.  

The deep dive into the lawyers invoices revealed double-billing, lousy record keeping and a discrepancy.  The public record act request to review the Custody Division Manual was stonewalled.   

Sheriff Villanueva hasn't budged.   

Delegated Authority: 

One case, that the county held out until the last minute was called Heriberto Rodriguez  et al. v. County of Los Angeles  had to do with Extreme Tasering Facts.  One can see a snippet of the mighty shero, Caitlin Weisberg of Mclane Bednarski + Litt, LLP arguing against the county before a panel of judges at the ninth circuit.   

Had the "extreme tasering facts" referred to in this video been made public or shared in a meaningful way with the Board of Supervisors, the decision to move forward with a very costly appeal, at least for Hilda Solis, Sheila Kuehl, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, would have been inconceivable.  

Was it the Board of Supervisors who kicked this case down the road for nearly a decade with specious appeals over qualified immunity, costing in excess of ten million dollars in legal fees, but far more in integrity, or is that a mistaken conclusion? 

In July 2019, Los Angeles County also agreed to pay $54 million the largest settlement payout on record in county history to end a lawsuit over search practices at the Sheriff’s Department’s Century Regional Detention Facility. The same set of attorneys sued as in the Heriberto Rodriguez case, Mclane Bednarski + Litt, LLP.    

Guess the ACLU had other priorities.  As an optimist, maybe we can get the ACLU to help at restoring general public comment at Board meetings.  Time to bury the hatchet.  All is forgiven...


(Eric Preven is a community activist and lives in Los Angeles. He is a CityWatch contributor. Views expressed are not necessarily those of CityWatch or CityWatch writers.)