By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
photo by Debra DiPaoloA FEW MONTHS AFTER LEE BACA TOOK OFFICE AS SHERIFF OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, HE moved up to a tony San Marino address. He left behind the Pasadena bachelor's condo he'd been living in since his 1994 divorce and bought a rambling Mediterranean-style home for himself and his soon-to-be bride, Carol Chiang.
Baca's real estate upgrade has raised questions, however, particularly in regard to the sheriff's relationship with a wealthy Beverly Hills mortgage broker named Robert "Bob" Weiss. Weiss, through his company, the Richland Group, helped arrange for Baca to buy the $750,000 house for no money down, which several experts interviewed for this article called an unusually generous financing package.
At the same time, Baca took it upon himself to help Weiss promote a new program marketing home loans directly to cops, called the PRIDE Program. Baca joined the PRIDE Program's so-called "Advisory Board," and lobbied county officials to let Weiss' marketing teams set up sales booths and make presentations in department facilities across the county. Baca also talked up Weiss and the PRIDE Program to other top law-enforcement officials across the state.
"Something stinks here," says Bud Treece, head of the department's largest employee union. "Why would a professional cop want to endorse a commercial enterprise?"
Even one of the sheriff's inner circle seems taken aback by the arrangement. "I don't think Lee should get involved in something like that," says Dan Bryant, a Pasadena real estate broker who calls himself Baca's "personal, political and spiritual" adviser. "I don't know what the hell he is doing that for."
Baca, for his part, isn't saying. His spokesman, Captain Doyle Campbell, says the sheriff has "no comment" regarding his relationship with Weiss, his endorsement of the Richland Group's products or his lobbying on the company's behalf.
Likewise, after the Weekly made repeated attempts to contact Weiss and other Richland executives by telephone, a spokesperson for the Richland Group said that the company had "no comment" on his relationship with the sheriff, and declined to provide any information about his company.
But a review of real estate records, court documents, financial-disclosure filings and other public records, supported by interviews with key participants, confirms Weiss' role in financing Baca's house, and Baca's activities on behalf of Weiss' PRIDE Program.
Moreover, in the glad-handing and back-scratching circles of police boosterism, it's not hard to turn up anecdotes about Weiss' relationship with the sheriff. Weiss has worked hard to ingratiate himself -- and his company -- into that world. And Baca has worked those same networks, using his office and its prerogatives to help those who help him, while cultivating political and financial supporters across the Southland.
"THE KEY TO SUCCESSFUL COMMUNITY LAW ENFORCEMENT," BACA LIKES TO SAY, "IS GETting everyone involved." It is one of his mottoes, featured on department letterhead. Since taking office as sheriff 11 months ago, Baca has pursued that ethos with the boundless enthusiasm he is known for, organizing "community involvement" groups, networking with businessmen, leading charitable fund-raising campaigns. "The guy has never stopped campaigning. He's everywhere," marvels political consultant Joe Cerrell. "He would attend the opening of a door. He loves it. He gets to wear the uniform and play the big shot. He doesn't miss an opportunity."
Indeed, Baca has demonstrated a gusto and flair for patronage unseen since Eugene Biscailuz was sheriff in the 1940s and '50s. He has even taken up Biscailuz's old practice of issuing "juice badges" -- bona fide department shields doled out to celebrities, wealthy supporters and department boosters -- to people like Bob Weiss.
The venue for these favors was Baca's Executive Reserve Co., known derisively among department insiders as the "Badge and Gun Club." Weiss was among the first class of "recruits"; 20 in all, most of them campaign contributors, businessmen, socialites and community figures, were issued not only badges, but uniforms and a Berretta 9mm semiautomatic pistol, after only a few weekends of training and cursory background checks.
The program was suspended in October after two of its badge-carrying members were arrested in as many months. In September, chicken-heir Scott Zacky made headlines when he brandished his gun and yelled "Stop! Police!" at a terrified couple he mistakenly thought were stealing a car from in front of his Bel Air home. And just last month, another member of the program, Elie Abdalnour, a Cypress jewelry dealer and prominent member of the local Lebanese community, was charged in connection with a six-month federal money-laundering probe.
Bob Weiss is another Baca backer in the badge-and-gun club. Weiss co-hosted a big, $250-a-plate fund-raiser for Baca last March; at the same time, Baca was promoting Weiss' PRIDE loan program with all the subtlety of a used-car salesman.
The skein of connections between Baca and Weiss troubles Dan Bryant, the sheriff's friend and confidant, who sees it as a question of priorities. "Lee may think this loan deal is a great program for cops, but it would be just as well that he didn't get involved with things like that," Bryant says. "He's got a full plate with the things he wants to do in the department, and I don't want to see him sidetracked."