COVID test provider says it plans to sue L.A. County Sheriff Villanueva over China claims

The company that provides Los Angeles County with coronavirus testing said it plans to sue Sheriff Alex Villanueva for defamation over claims the sheriff made alleging the company has links to the Chinese government.

Fulgent Genetics, the Temple City company contracted to administer tests and track the vaccination status of county employees, alleged that Villanueva orchestrated a briefing with FBI agents a day after Thanksgiving “in a last-ditch effort” to avoid complying with the county’s employee vaccine mandate, according to papers the company’s lawyers filed in court Friday. After the briefing, Villanueva claimed in a letter to elected county officials that FBI agents had called the meeting to warn him about Fulgent. The Times obtained a copy of the letter the same day Villanueva sent it.

Villanueva “made these and other false claims about Fulgent even though the FBI neither accused Fulgent of wrongdoing nor alluded to any evidence that Fulgent provided or would provide private medical information to China,” Fulgent attorneys said in the filing. They alleged that the FBI “never even mentioned Fulgent’s name” during the meeting.

Fulgent, which contracts to provide testing for various federal and local agencies, asked a judge to order Villanueva to turn over documents and communications, including text messages and emails discussing Fulgent, as well as call logs and any written materials related to the FBI briefing.

The Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. After Villanueva’s letter was made public, Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokesperson, declined to answer questions about what had been discussed at the meeting.

The county, whose top attorney and chief executive were also at the FBI briefing, released a statement disputing Villanueva’s characterization of what was discussed. It said the county’s contract with Fulgent prohibits the disclosure of data collected without the county’s written permission and requires that the company store and process data in the continental United States.

And in an email to employees last month, Lisa M. Garrett, the county’s director of personnel, said: “The County has no evidence from any law enforcement agency or any other source that any County employee data has been or will be shared with the Chinese government.”

The controversy stems from a letter Villanueva sent to the Board of Supervisors late in November saying the FBI contacted him and held a briefing the day after Thanksgiving to relay “the serious risks associated with allowing Fulgent to conduct COVID-19 testing” of county employees.

Villanueva claimed Fulgent collected genetic information about county employees when testing them and that it was “not guaranteed to be safe and secure from foreign governments.” FBI officials, he went on, had advised him at the briefing that the genetic information was likely to be shared with the Chinese government. Fulgent Genetics, he alleged in the letter, has “strong ties” with Chinese technology and genomics companies, but he did not elaborate on what those ties are.

In a response to the letter, Fulgent’s chief commercial officer, Brandon Perthuis, dismissed the sheriff’s allegations as untrue, saying the company was founded and is led by American citizens. He said the company does not use the swabs it collects during tests to sequence people’s unique genetic profiles and that the biological samples are destroyed by incineration after 48 hours. In general, he added, Fulgent does not share personal data about people who are tested with the Chinese government.

Fulgent attorneys alleged that Villanueva directed the letter to be published on the Sheriff’s Department’s website. The allegedly false statements spread on social media, leading to an anti-Fulgent protest and causing the company to lose out on business contracts, according to the court filing. The filing also said a window was shot out at Fulgent’s headquarters, though it does not say when.

In letters to Fulgent attorneys that were attached to the court filing, Villanueva’s attorney, Linda Savitt, said the sheriff did not publicly disseminate the letter and it wasn’t posted to the department’s website. “I do have the IT Department looking into whether the Sheriff’s website was hacked or accessed by someone outside of the department,” she wrote.

Savitt also accused the test company of deleting disclaimers from its website that it may store or transmit “personal information in locations around the world” and “if you do not want your information transferred to or processed or maintained outside of the country or jurisdiction where you are located, you should not use our services.”

Villanueva repeatedly has blasted the county’s vaccine mandate for employees, saying he won’t force his deputies to get inoculated and making dramatic claims that the mandate would trigger a mass exodus from the department.

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