A veteran prosecutor alleges in a new lawsuit that District Attorney George Gascón withheld a 2022 decision not to file charges against a deputy in a high-profile use-of-force case to adversely impact the reelection chances of former Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
In the suit filed Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Assistant Head Deputy District Attorney Amy Pentz states she was removed as second-in-command of the Justice System Integrity Division after complaining about delaying the disclosure of the filing decision. She is seeking unspecified damages for lost wages and pension benefits as well as attorney fees.
The DA’s office and attorneys for Pentz declined to comment Monday.
Deputy cleared of excessive force
The JSID conducted an investigation in April 2022 after a video was widely circulated showing a sheriff’s deputy placing his knee on a Los Angeles County jail inmate’s neck for more than three minutes. After the investigation was completed, JSID Head Deputy Alan Yochelson in September 2022 signed off on a decision not to prosecute the deputy, determining the use of force against the inmate was justified, according to the lawsuit.
Gascon, along with his chief of staff, Joseph Iniguez, also approved the so-called declination, the suit says.
Typically, once a declination is approved, it is immediately provided to the affected law enforcement agency. However, that wasn’t the case with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department because Diana Teran, who is Yochelson’s supervisor, wanted to “hold off” issuing a notification in an effort to impact Villanueva’s reelection bid because he had been publicly critical of the JSID investigation into the jail incident, the suit states.
Villanueva: ‘They sold it as a cover-up’
In a phone interview Monday, Villanueva said the controversy surrounding the jail incident video was manufactured by the DA’s office and some members of the media. ”They ran around screaming cover-up,” he said. “They sold it as a cover-up and it wasn’t.”
Villanueva subsequently became aware the declination decision had been withheld and publicly chastised Gascón. He lost the election to former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, described in the lawsuit as a close ally of Gascón. Pentz alleges that a day before the Nov. 8, 2022, election, she was removed from her position with the integrity division because Gascón believed she had told Villanueva that the declination disclosure had been blocked.
Villanueva said that, in addition to the jail incident, he was notified by someone in the DA’s office, whom he declined to identify, of three other use-of-force declinations from the DA’s office — finalized months before the election — that weren’t provided to the Sheriff’s Department. He said he plans to file complaints against Teran and Gascón with the State Bar of California for interfering with his reelection.
“That’s not the type of conduct you would expect from someone who represents the DA’s office or is in leadership,” Villanueva said.
Testimony against Gascon hires
Additionally, Pentz’s lawsuit references fallout from her testimony in January 2023 at a Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission hearing involving two new hires from the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office. Pentz testified that the new employees were placed into the integrity division even though they were not qualified for the position, the suit states.
Following her testimony, Pentz was offered a position on the district attorney’s Equity Action Team, but later was allegedly removed after being told there were too many prosecutors on the team. Pentz is currently the assistant head deputy for the Central Trials Division.
Teran’s lawsuit is among more than a dozen filed by other prosecutors who similarly allege they have faced retaliation and demotions from Gascón for opposing his policies. At least two of the lawsuits have been settled.
In March, Head Deputy Shawn Randolph was awarded $1.5 million in damages after alleging she was transferred from a prestigious position to a “dead-end job” after complaining about Gascón’s juvenile sentencing policies.
Additionally, in 2021 Richard Doyle, a former head deputy district attorney who has since retired, received an $800,000 settlement after complaining that he faced retribution from Gascón for refusing to drop charges against three anti-police protesters accused of attempting to wreck a train in Compton.