Baca's Debacle 

Sheriff Lee Baca Relied Heavily on two Controversial Campaign Supporters to Set up His Asian Crime Task Force. Now Both Men Have Drawn FBI Scrutiny, and the New Sheriff's Reputation is on the Line

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
Photo by Ted SoquiTWO DAYS BEFORE HIS INAUGUration as sheriff of Los Angeles County, Leroy D. Baca took the seat of honor at a banquet on the quiet, manicured grounds of the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. The event reflected the multiethnic reality behind Baca's victory. He'd campaigned extensively in the Asian-American communities of the San Gabriel Valley, promising them not only more, but more culturally sensitive, policing. At the banquet, he took the first step toward delivering on that promise.

The Sheriff's Department was going to put a new, Asian face on operations in the San Gabriel Valley, Baca vowed, including a new Asian Crime Task Force staffed with bilingual and bicultural deputies. Baca then paused to acknowledge the key players in his Asian campaign effort, among them two men who would play leading roles in the new task force.

The first was Kenny Chang, a gregarious, glad-handing insurance broker from Hacienda Heights who became a prolific fund-raiser in Baca's campaign. Following the election, Chang would take the lead in establishing an organization called the Los Angeles Chinese American Sheriff's Advisory Committee, or LACASA, which was to advise Baca on setting up the task force and act as a quasi-official liaison between the Sheriff's Department and Asian-American communities.

The second was a trilingual deputy sheriff named Eddie Leung. Leung was a prominent member of the community in his own right and a close friend of Kenny Chang; he'd also campaigned extensively for Baca. Leung would be Chang's counterpart inside the department; at the banquet, the Chinese press reported, Baca announced that he was appointing Leung to head the new task force, a gesture Baca hoped would set an example for Chinese-American adolescents throughout the county. Deputy Leung would be, as Baca put it, "the new sheriff of the San Gabriel Valley."

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Campaigning in the Chinese community had given him an understanding of the challenges faced by its heavily immigrant population, Baca told the audience. His mission was to break down the linguistic and cultural barriers that have stood between the community and law enforcement. My success, he said, is the Chinese community's success.

WITHIN SIX MONTHS, BACA'S NEW ASIAN Crime Task Force initiative was in disarray, embroiled in controversy that centered on the two people Baca relied on to set the unit's agenda: Kenny Chang and Eddie Leung.

Both men, it turned out, had in recent years come to the attention of local and federal law-enforcement agencies, in part for their alleged associations with Asian organized-crime figures. And in the months after his election, Baca learned that both had come under renewed scrutiny. In Chang's case, the FBI explicitly warned Baca to be wary; separately, the FBI notified the Sheriff's Internal Criminal Investigation Bureau that Leung was the subject of an inquiry.

Because of their backgrounds -- and their perceived closeness to Baca -- Chang and Leung became polarizing figures on the new Asian Crime Task Force. In May, following a bitter power struggle, Leung was forced out of the new unit. Two months later, after a department insider leaked FBI reports to the press (including the Weekly) showing Chang's involvement in an illegal bookmaking ring, Chang resigned from the board of the LACASA advisory committee.

The departure of such key figures within and without left the task force "in disarray," staffed largely by rookies or patrol officers with little investigative background, according to one department veteran. Moreover, in order to make room for the new unit, Baca had disbanded the department's crack Asian Organized Crime squad, recognized nationally for its success in tracking the foreign criminal syndicates that plagued the Asian immi- grant community.

In person at his Hacienda Heights insurance office, Kenny Chang declined to discuss his relationship with Baca. He said he left the LACASA solely to "spend more time with my business." The Sheriff's Department would not allow the Weekly to interview Eddie Leung. Contacted at his current post as night duty sergeant at the Walnut Station, Leung would say only, "I've heard those rumors before. Rumors can really hurt people."

The story of how Lee Baca's Asian-crime initiative came together, and so quickly fell apart, unfolds at the intersection of ethnic politicking, political patronage, and the historic distrust between the Asian community and law enforcement. And it offers an early window onto how, less than a year into his first term, Sheriff Baca runs his $1.4 billion-a-year agency. "Lee is the first political sheriff," said Jorge Flores, the lead consultant on Baca's campaign. "By virtue of how he ran the race, challenging an incumbent, the office has become politicized. And there are ramifications and consequences to that, that other sheriffs haven't been confronted with."

How Baca has confronted those ramifications is what concerns many of the veteran officers interviewed for this article. The sheriff's willingness to put key campaign supporters -- with controversial backgrounds, in the case of Chang and Leung -- in prominent positions in his administration raised questions about his judgment and whether, in the name of repaying support he received during the campaign, he was putting the integrity and effectiveness of the department and its programs at risk.

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