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When O'Brien later confronted Chang about the incident, Chang, he says, told him, "'I'm sorry. That is the way we do business in my country.'" Not long after, Chang was officially relieved of his volunteer position.
So O'Brien was stunned to find Chang among Baca's inner circle years later at the sheriff's election-night victory party at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton. He was surprised to see him, and all the more so when Chang introduced him to Baca's then-girlfriend, Carol Chiang. "I asked myself, 'How did this guy get here?'" O'Brien said.
Chang, as O'Brien would soon find out, enjoyed an unusual level of access in the Baca administration. As vice president of LACASA, he was given considerable leeway to insinuate himself into the business of the Asian Crime Task Force, and he wasn't shy about doing it.
The concept for LACASA was an unusual blend of ethnic politicking and â official department outreach. It was a committee, organized and led primarily by Baca-campaign contributors, that would act as a quasi-official liaison with the Sheriff's Department. Its members carried business cards and letterhead with department logos. "LACASA in Spanish means home," Chang was quoted as saying in an article in the Chinese Daily News. "This commit- tee will have direct access to Lee Baca. LACASA is a family, and Lee Baca is the head of our family."
As the task force was getting off the ground, Leung and Chang were often seen together, and both worked to build support for the new task force -- even soliciting furnishings for a satellite office in Rowland Heights. Because of Chang's involvement, O'Brien felt uncomfortable about accepting such assistance. In one instance, he discouraged Leung from accepting a gift of leather office chairs from a furniture manufacturer in the City of Industry. When Leung went ahead and accepted the chairs anyway, O'Brien blew his stack, according to a source in the department.
Baca's campaign advisers had cautioned the new sheriff about just such a conflict. "I said to make sure there is a clear delineation as to what the overall goals are, and make sure there are very set standards as far as where someone can and can't go," related Jorge Flores. "I can't say where that boundary is -- Lee has got to set that standard. I made him aware this was an issue."
Despite O'Brien's cool reception, Chang was not easily put off. "Kenny was everywhere," said one Chinese-American reporter -- making TV and radio appearances, recruiting members for LACASA, who paid $300 apiece to join the organization, and dropping Baca's name -- and his own business card -- wherever he went.
All of which rankled O'Brien. "I heard about him boasting out in the community about his connections," O'Brien said. "'I am Kenny Chang. I have friends, buy insurance from me. I can help you.' The guy is a braggart." O'Brien tried to freeze Chang out. Chang, in turn, fed stories to the Chinese Daily Newscasting O'Brien as unfriendly and insensitive to the Chinese community.
BY HIS OWN ADmission, O'Brien was ignorant of all things Asian. He is, in person, big, loud, engaging, a straight-talking, my-way-or-the-highway style cop. Among some in the department, he admits, he is not thought to have excess sensitivity in racial and ethnic issues. When he was head of the department's recruitment unit in the early 1990s, O'Brien faced a long Internal Affairs investigation into alleged racial bias against a black deputy. He was not disciplined following the probe, which wound up in official mediation, with Baca as mediator. A few years later he was accused by fellow officers in depositions filed in a racial-bias suit against the department of making racist statements -- allegedly calling blacks, for instance, "more violent than other races" -- and selectively disqualifying black recruits to the department. That case was dismissed on summary judgment, but it didn't help O'Brien's reputation.
Said a department veteran who worked closely with O'Brien, "This is not the guy you send in to be put in charge of something sensitive, like working with the Asian community, or any ethnic community."
His demeanor helped Chang and others mount a campaign against O'Brien. According to a source close to Chang, he took that campaign to Baca directly. He "talked to Baca about getting rid of O'Brien," the source said, and dropped hints that O'Brien "was not the right person for the job of leading the task force." By O'Brien's account, Chang nearly succeeded. In late April, O'Brien got word from his commander that he had been transferred to the Detective Bureau, to supervise the unsolved-murders unit. "Promotional opportunity," he was told. He didn't want it, especially because he suspected that Chang and Leung were behind the move.
He asked for a meeting with Baca, and when he arrived at the sheriff's office, he found several members of his unit already there to support him. O'Brien told them to leave. "This is between me and the sheriff," he said.
By O'Brien's account, Baca tried to soft-pedal the situation. He congratulated O'Brien on the transfer and told him that he had done "a yeoman's job" bringing the task force on line. There were "new horizons" out there for him, Baca said. "I think something's going on here," O'Brien responded. "I think Kenny Chang is a crook." Furthermore, he said, he wanted Leung transferred out of the unit.