State takes over sheriff's probe of LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Metro

The state Attorney General's Office Tuesday seized control of a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigation into allegations of political corruption against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl over contracts awarded to a nonprofit organization run by one of Kuehl's closest friends.

The move by Attorney General Rob Bonta was confirmed in a letter sent to the sheriff's department and first obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Bonta's letter ordered the sheriff's department to "cease its investigative activity and refrain from any actions in furtherance of these investigations, including public statements or court filings related to the investigations."

Sheriff Alex Villanueva had reached out to the Attorney General's Office last week asking it to investigate allegations that county Inspector General Max Huntsman and the county counsel's office had tipped off Kuehl to a planned search of her home by sheriff's deputies.

In Tuesday's letter responding to that request, Bonta wrote that his office would look into those allegations, but he said since that matter is directly tied to the underlying investigation into Kuehl, Metro, Kuehl's close friend Patricia Giggans and Giggans' nonprofit group Peace Over Violence, he would take over that probe as well.

"Given that Sheriff Villanueva has recused himself from the underlying investigation of Peace Over Violence and Patricia Giggans, and by seeking our assistance he recognizes that he should be recused from any related matters, I believe that the handling of all these matters by DOJ (Department of Justice) will be in the public interest," Bonta wrote. "Therefore, we will assume all responsibility for the underlying investigation of Peace Over Violence, Patricia Giggans, et al."

RELATED: LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl served with search warrant in public corruption investigation

The sheriff's investigation grabbed headlines last week when deputies searched Kuehl's home and office, along with offices at Metro, the Metro Office of Inspector General and Giggans' home and office. The probe stems from allegations that Metro steered a series of no-bid contracts worth a total of more than $800,000 to Peace Over Violence to operate a sex-harassment hotline for Metro riders and employees.

A Metro whistleblower, Jennifer Loew, sparked the investigation with allegations that Kuehl helped push the contracts toward Giggans and Peace Over Violence, an allegation Kuehl has strongly denied. Kuehl said she had no involvement in the contracts and did not vote on them as a member of the Metro Board of Directors. Loew has also alleged that former Metro CEO Phillip Washington ignored alleged billing improprieties involving Peace Over Violence because he wanted to remain in "good graces" with Kuehl.

Villanueva, despite saying he has recused himself from any involvement in the investigation by his department's Public Corruption Unit, defended the probe, saying it originated with a legitimate allegation of criminal activity.

Kuehl has blasted the probe as a retaliatory action by Villaneuva, who has repeatedly clashed with the Board of Supervisors over budget and policy issues, while rebuffing subpoenas to appear before the county's Civilian Oversight Commission, of which Giggans is a member. The commission is in the midst of a series of hearings investigating activities of alleged deputy gangs within the department.

Shortly before Bonta's letter to the sheriff's department assuming control of the investigation became public, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a ruling blocking sheriff's investigators from searching any computers seized from Kuehl or Metro during last week's raids. The ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan mirrored one he issued last week blocking any search of computers taken from the Metro OIG's office.

Ryan declined to quash the warrants or order the return of seized equipment, but he ordered the sheriff's department to refrain from copying any information on any of the seized computers, and disclose if any such copies have already been made.

Attorneys for the Metro OIG and Kuehl challenged the legality of the warrants. Metro attorneys argued that a separate judge had previously determined that a special master should be appointed to review materials seized from the transit agency in any investigation. Ryan scheduled another hearing for Thursday, asking a series of questions -- including why the sheriff ignored the previous ruling and went to a different judge to get the search warrants signed after the initial judge reviewing the matter called for a special master in the case.

Kuehl has suggested that the judge who signed off on the search warrants served last week, Craig Richman, is a longtime associate of one of the sheriff's lead investigators in the case, Detective Mark Lillienfeld.