The L.A. County sheriff debate turns heated as challenger Robert Luna spars with incumbent Alex Villanueva over corruption concerns

Sheriff Villanueva and opponent Robert Luna discuss corruption, department gangs and more at Wednesday’s debate.

A photo of Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Robert Luna on stage at the sheriff debate

Sheriff Alex Villanueva and retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna exchanged fiery accusations at a debate Wednesday heading into November’s runoff election.

Villanueva accused Luna of being a “puppet” for the LA Board of Supervisors during the debate which took place at the Skirball Cultural Center. Luna, who advocated cooperation with the BOS and other county agencies, slammed Villanueva for the sheriff department’s raid of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s home last week, who is a prominent critic of Villanueva.

According to the sheriff department’s search warrant, the raid of Kuehl’s home was part of an investigation into an alleged conspiracy between Kuehl and Patti Giggans. Giggans was appointed to the Civilian Oversight Commission by Kuehl, which launched an investigation into sheriff deputy gangs in March.

“The sheriff had no business investigating this from the very beginning,” Luna said about the raid, adding that he would have referred the corruption probe to a separate county agency. “You cannot investigate your political opponents or enemies.”

Villanueva responded, “He wouldn’t touch public corruption with a ten foot pole. His job as a puppet is to look the other way.”

The debate, hosted by FOX 11 News, followed June’s primary election where Villanueva earned less than a third of the vote, the lowest percentage of any incumbent L.A sheriff in at least 80 years. According to an August poll by UC Berkeley and the Los Angeles Times, 31% of L.A. County voters support Luna, while 27% support Villanueva.

Villanueva positioned himself as the anti-establishment candidate in the race, warning viewers that Luna would “acquiesce to the defund [the police] scheme” peddled by left-leaning members of the BOS.

Luna argued that government cooperation—not corruption—is the solution to restoring public trust in the sheriff department.

“I’d stop this us-versus-them mentality,” he said. “Every time [Villanueva] brings up the Board of Supervisors there’s anger in his voice. He hates them. This is why public trust has been eroded.”

Luna criticized Villanueva for not only failing to address the violent deputy gangs in his department, but also for denying their existence in the first place.

“You have to admit that there is a problem if you’re going to fix it,” Luna said.

Villanueva doubled down on his stance that no such gangs exist in his department, calling the term “deputy gangs” a political buzzword akin to a “unicorn.”

“Everybody knows what a unicorn looks like, but name one,” he said to the audience.

According to the Office of the Inspector General and the Civilian Oversight Commission, at least 41 sheriff deputies have been identified as tattooed members of the Banditos or Executioners gangs.

“His own chief of staff has a Grim Reaper tattoo. Ask him what a Grim Reaper is,” Luna said to the audience, implying Villanueva’s ties to deputies sporting known gang emblems.

Mail-in voting for the upcoming sheriff election and other county races begins on Oct. 10 with in-person polls opening on election day Nov. 8.