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."
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.
Even after Baca was made aware of the controversies, the two continued to enjoy positions of special standing in Baca's administration. Chang helped organize Baca's "honeymoon" junket to Taiwan, on which Chang accompanied the sheriff and his Taipei-born wife. And even after he removed Leung from the Asian Crime Task Force, Baca gave him an unusual -- and, critics charge, backdoor -- promotion to sergeant.
Sheriff Baca refuses to answer any questions regarding Kenny Chang, Eddie Leung, their support of his campaign or their role in his administration, the Weekly was told by the department's head of media relations, Captain Doyle Campbell. And in what several department insiders called a clear move to intimidate whistle blowers, the department has initiated a criminal investigation into who leaked documents regarding Chang to the press.
The sad irony for L.A. County's Asian-Americans is that what began as an ambitious plan to improve relations with the Sheriff's Department has instead deepened suspicions on both sides, and resulted in a $2.5 million task force that the department's own veteran Asian-crime investigators call "adrift" and "ineffectual."
IN THE STUCCOED, SMOGGY REACHES OF THE San Gabriel Valley, from San Marino southwest through Alhambra, Rosemead, Monterey Park, Hacienda Heights and Diamond Bar, Lee Baca is one of the best-known, best-recognized and most-talked-about politicians. The sheriff may play second fiddle to the chief of the LAPD in the rest of the county, but in the mega mini-malls and neon-lit Hong Kongstyle seafood palaces of L.A. County's sprawling, suburban Chinatown, Baca is something of a star -- especially since his engagement and subsequent marriage to a well-connected Taiwan-born soft-â ware engineer named Carol Chiang. "Chinese people like to have a connection to a candidate," said attorney David Fang, a player in the Taiwanese community and an early Baca supporter. "Son-in-law is a pretty good connection."
As a politically ambitious and farsighted command officer, Baca began reaching out to the Chinese-American community years before he announced his run for sheriff. He was a regular at community festivals and events, making contacts among hundreds of civic and professional associations, and became close friends with former state Treasurer Matt Fong, a relationship that would yield Baca many introductions. "He's been extremely visible in the Asian community from way back," says Judy Chu, mayor of Monterey Park and a longtime Democratic activist.
Baca met his future wife at one such event he attended with Fong, the Chinese Club of San Marino's annual Autumn Club Festival at the Universal Hilton. After emigrating to the U.S. from her native Taipei in 1979, Chiang earned a master's degree in computer engineering from USC, married a man in the computer business and moved into a house in Rancho Palos Verdes. The night she met Lee Baca, she was also one of the most striking women in the room. "Carol looks like a model," recalls one person who was there. "Lee asked her to dance, and that was how the relationship got started."
After they began dating, Chiang introduced Baca to many in the Chinese community, people who became invaluable contacts when he decided to run for sheriff. "Many people know Lee Baca through Carol," said Wen Chang, mayor of Diamond Bar, who himself was introduced to Baca by Carol Chiang.
AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT CONNECTIONS Baca made in the Chinese community was Kenny Chang. Just about everybody in L.A.'s Taiwanese community knew Chang, it seemed, if not personally then from ads for his insurance business, which ran in the Chinese-language media. He was a regular at some of the Chinese nightclubs along and around Valley Boulevard, "a Hollywood-type guy," said the manager at the Rose Room, a dimly lit karaoke/dance bar with a preponderance of young, pretty Asian women. Chang was an active volunteer at the Hsi Lai Temple, the Hacienda Heights house of worship that figured prominently in investigations of Democratic fund-raising abuses during President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign. He was also something of a Sheriff's Department groupie, going back to his days as a volunteer community adviser.
As Baca's fledgling campaign got under way, Chang became the candidate's de facto press agent in Chinatown, organizing media events, and badgering reporters and editors almost daily to ensure the Baca campaign got extensive coverage. "Kenny and Carol called all the time," grumbled one reporter, "telling us, 'You have to cover this,' 'Lee wants you to be here for this or that event.'"
Chang proved a shrewd and tireless promoter for Baca. When Supervisor Mike Antonovich endorsed 20-year incumbent Sherman Block for re-election, Chang rallied a call-in protest to Antonovich's office. Following Sherman Block's death, when the supervisors proposed that they might select the next sheriff if voters cast their ballots for Block, Chang organized another protest at the County Hall of Administration. Chang ensured that both events received extensive play in the Chinese media.
Chang also became one of Baca's go-to guys for fund-raising. Baca campaign consultant Jorge Flores identified him as one of the top two or three fund-raisers in the campaign. "Kenny was a very, very key person for Lee," agrees George Bao, a reporter for the Chinese Daily News who covered the campaign extensively. "He organized many, many fund-raising events for him."
ON HAND AT MANY OF THOSE EVENTS, ACcording to Bao, was an ambitious, politically minded deputy sheriff, a close friend of Chang named Eddie Leung. Leung was the best-known Chinese-American officer in the Sheriff's Department, with scores of contacts throughout the San Gabriel Valley, and he didn't shrink at lending that clout to the Baca campaign. According to Bao, Leung and Chang worked closely together marshaling support for the campaign.
It is difficult to understate the importance to the Baca campaign of fund-raising in the Chinese community. Baca's bid was considered a long shot, and he was shut out of campaign financing by many establishment insiders, who were loath to put their money up against a solid incumbent like Block. Instead, Baca had to rely on nontraditional sources of campaign cash, especially among L.A.'s minority communities, including Armenians, Latinos and, especially, Chinese. As Bill Carrick, the lead consultant for Sheriff Block, put it, "Early Chinese money made Baca's candidacy credible."
Jorge Flores called fund-raising by Chang and other Asian-Americans one of the "cornerstones" of the campaign. "Whenever the campaign needed an infusion of money, say, just before a filing deadline," Flores said, "the Asian community came through for us." Chang, Flores said, was at the forefront of that effort.
On October 14, 1998, with only weeks to go in the campaign and polls showing a dead heat, Chang co-hosted a massive fund-raiser. It was one of the biggest political events of the year in the Chinese community, with more than 500 people packed into the Welcome Seafood Restaurant in Rowland Heights. "I'm so pleased that so many people in the Chinese community are supporting me," an ebullient Baca told the crowd. He promised better service for the Chinese community, and to hire 100 new bilingual employees. "Once I become head of the Sheriff's Department, whatever problem the Chinese community has . . . I will help you solve it."
By the end of the night, the Baca campaign had collected upward of $30,000, enough to carry itself over the finish line.
EXACTLY WHERE BACA'S MONEY WAS COMING from troubled some detectives in his own department. Among Baca's contributors were several nightclubs and hostess bars that were well-known to Asian-crime investigators inside and outside the department as hangouts for alleged Asian-organized-crime members.
One was the Turning Point on Valley Boulevard, whose owner, an ammunition manufacturer named Johnny Chiang (no relation to Carol), complained in an interview that "the FBI has been watching me for 15 years." On May 12, the Turning Point gave $1,000 to the Baca campaign.
Another was the Nice Café in Arcadia, scene of a late-December 1997 gangland-style murder, whose owner contributed $800 to the Baca campaign in April 1998.
Then there was the Chef's Hat, a popular karaoke bar on Rosemead Boulevard, which has a metal detector inside the front door because, as owner Suling Wang put it, "We are afraid of the Vietnamese gangs. They like to shoot." Wang didn't think Baca had a chance of winning the election, but he bought $500 worth of tickets to the October 14 fund-raiser from Kenny Chang and an associate. "I want to help my friends because they are customers," Wang said in an interview. "If I said no, maybe they wouldn't come back again." Also buying tickets to the October 14 fund-raiser was another nightclub Chang frequented, called the Rose Room and located on Valley Boulevard. Among the club's other patrons was a Vietnamese heroin trafficker named Keith Tang, whose 1994 assistance helped authorities make cases against leaders of the Wah Ching, United Bamboo and other Asian gangs.
None of the contributions was illegal, and none of the club owners has been convicted of a crime, according to law-enforcement sources. But they raised eyebrows in the local law-enforcement community, and questions as to exactly whom Baca had indebted himself to in the campaign. "I would be concerned by that list if it was my department," said a veteran Asian-crime investigator at the LAPD. "There is always a fear of being compromised."
Baca's forays into Chinatown for campaign cash had by this time also come to the attention of Kerry Smith, head of the FBI's local Asian-crime detail. Smith saw Kenny Chang's name listed as sponsor in an advertisement in the Chinese Daily News for the October 14 fund-raiser.
The name was familiar to Smith. Four years earlier, Chang had surfaced in an investigation, headed by Smith, into a massive international bookmaking ring which, Smith said, had fueled an "epidemic of sports betting in the San Gabriel Valley" in the mid-1990s. According to several detectives who worked with Smith on the case, some members of the ring had ties to both the Wah Ching gang, Southern California's largest Asian crime syndicate, and United Bamboo, Taiwan's largest criminal "triad."
On September 20, 1994, an FBI wiretap intercepted a conversation between Chang and one Jaw Yung "Paul" Fang, a massage-parlor operator and a leading figure in the ring. According to an FBI report of the conversation, Chang bragged to the bookie about his relationship with the Sheriff's Department, and mentioned giving boxes of "moon cakes" to members of the Sheriff's Asian Crime Unit during the mid-Autumn festival, a traditional time of gift-giving in the Chinese community. Chang "wanted to make himself look important," the report stated. A government source who heard a tape of the conversation agreed: "He was insinuating that he had the department in his pocket."
The investigation culminated in a dramatic series of raids launched against 33 suspected gaming sites on Super Bowl Sunday, 1995. In a proffer Chang gave to the United States Attorney's Office a few months later, he told how he became "like partners" with Fang, a fellow member of the Hsi Lai Temple. Chang referred large bettors, who in turn represented "groups of people who pooled their money together to make bets," to Fang and other bookmakers, and was paid a commission for referrals. He also "frequently handled the collections" for the bettors he referred, delivering cash payments to Fang's Wong Shin Health Spa and an associated stock brokerage, according to an FBI report. In the case of one unfortunate bettor who piled up $50,000 in gambling debts, Chang gave the bettor's address, as well as his family's address in San Francisco, to one of the ring's enforcers, whom Chang understood would "beat people if they didn't pay up," according to the report.
When the list of 15 indictments stemming from the Super Bowl Sunday raids came down a year later, Chang's name was not on it. In fact, Chang has never been indicted for or convicted of any crime.
However, the FBI was sufficiently concerned about Chang's associations, and his proximity to Baca, that according to a Sheriff's Department source, Smith forwarded a copy of the newspaper ad for the Baca fund-raiser to his counterpart in the Sheriff's Department, Lieutenant Bob Cook. This was standard practice, as Smith explained over coffee at a Carrow's restaurant near the bureau's West Covina office. â
Smith declined to discuss the Chang referral specifically. He then explained, "One of the things you have to remember about people affiliated with organized crime, whether Chinese or Italian, is that they want to make themselves legitimate. One of the ways they do that is by getting close to politicians and other prominent people. And one of the things we can do is let those politicians know who they are dealing with."
At some point after the election, Baca was personally briefed about Chang's background by the FBI, according to a statement given to KCOP, Channel 13 news by Tim McNally, former head of the Los Angeles office. "The sheriff was new, and our concern was this individual was involved in his campaign effort, supporting him," said McNally. "And we wanted to let him know he [Chang] came up in an investigation."
In a subsequent interview with the Weekly, McNally said he made his contact with Baca in January. But in the weeks and months that followed, Baca appeared wholly untroubled by Chang's background. Chang was welcomed into Baca's inner circle and, with the sheriff's blessing, quickly took the lead in forming LACASA.
DEPUTY EDDIE LEUNG HAD BEEN AUDITIONing for his role as "Sheriff of the San Gabriel Valley" for years before Baca tapped him to be a key player in the Sheriff's Department's new Asian Crime Task Force. A regular on the social scene, fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese, Leung's name was in the Chinese-language newspapers so often that he needed no introduction when mentioned in stories. The 10-year department veteran even hosted segments of a weekly cable-access show, A Week in Walnut. "Eddie was a big shot," said one person who followed Leung's career. "He acted like he was the only Chinese police officer in the department."
He was one of the most political cops as well. Aside from his friendship with Chang, Leung cultivated contacts among groups like the Chinese-American Association of Walnut, where he was community relations officer, according to Walnut mayor Joaquin Lim. Leung also backed the successful City Council bid of his captain, Larry Waldie, viewed by insiders as Baca's right-hand man.
Baca acknowledged Leung's prominence when he named him to lead the department's new Asian-crime initiative at the Hsi Lai Temple luncheon in December. This is what Baca had promised the Asian community: more Asian faces in leadership roles. Eddie Leung would be a role model in the community, Baca told the audience, "an example for Chinese adolescents."
Among the old hands in the department's existing Asian Organized Crime Unit, however, Baca's announcement was met with something like disbelief. "One of the guys in the office had an informant who called and said, 'Hey, in the Chinese newspaper it says Eddie Leung is going to be head of the new unit,'" recalled one detective. "We all laughed." The joke was that Leung was seen as patently unqualified for the job. He was a mere deputy, with limited skills as an investigator and no management experience.
The joke, it turned out, was on them. Baca soon assigned Leung -- with the help of two other young, bilingual deputies, David Do and Thanh Ly -- the task of drafting a formal proposal for a unit he called the Asian Liaison and Investigation Team (ALIT). As the detective put it, "The next thing we heard, Eddie was meeting with the sheriff and management, and this new concept was formed."
The scheme played up the need for policing of Asians by Asians, who, because of language and cultural barriers, it stated, "have not been receiving adequate law-enforcement services" from the department. The task force would respond through "hands-on interaction and cultural sensitivity to the needs of this very important constituency." Specifically, Leung called for the "creation of a team of investigators comprised of bilingual and bicultural Asian-American deputy sheriffs," "independent" of the existing organized-crime unit.
Among several veteran detectives interviewed for this article, Leung's plan for staffing the unit with predominantly Asian deputies was viewed as wrong-headed and setting a bad precedent. "That's a very bigoted way to look at things," said one veteran minority officer. "In other words, only black officers can work black gangs, only white officers can work white gangs, and only Mexican officers can work Mexican gangs. Just because you are Asian doesn't mean you know how to work Asian gangs." Indeed, at the time, the department's existing Asian Organized Crime Unit -- which had been recognized internationally as a topnotch outfit -- was staffed entirely by white, non-Asian-language-speaking investigators.
But in a politically adept move, Leung enlisted the help of the then-head of that unit, Sergeant Thomas Budds, to develop a management structure for his plan. Technically, Leung, with the rank of deputy, could not lead the task force -- that job would go to another Baca loyalist, Lieutenant Michael O'Brien. But it was made clear to Budds that Eddie "was going to be [the sheriff's] go-to guy on what to do in the Asian community."
WHAT MADE LEUNG'S CENTRAL ROLE IN the department's Asian unit even more controversial was the fact that he had interviewed for an assignment with the unit several years earlier, and been turned down. "Eddie Leung came in here and tried to get into Asians," recalls one veteran detective who worked closely with the squad. "He tried real hard. But he had baggage."
Leung's "baggage" went back to his early years in the department. Reports had circulated among local Asian-crime investigators that Leung associated with certain members of the Wah Ching gang, in particular the reputed head of the organization, Joe Hoe "Tony" Young, a.k.a. Tony "Sweet Plum" Young.
In 1990, one Sheriff's detective who spoke on condition of anonymity was sufficiently troubled by information he received regarding Leung's associations and actions that he referred it to Internal Affairs. Nothing came of the probe, according to the detective.
Four years later, another department source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, was told by an informant for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration that Leung had been a guest of Tony Young's at a Chinese-music concert, and afterward at a dinner banquet. The source said he passed the information on to his superiors and heard nothing more of it.
Leung didn't deny knowing Tony Young to several department sources interviewed for this article, but he disputed the significance of the association. He told Sergeant Budds, for instance, that he had attended school with Tony Young and other individuals who later got involved in the criminal associations that wove themselves deep into the fabric of the Chinese community. He still ran into them from time to time in the community, but he had no dealings with them. Period. Budds, who had run the Asian-organized-crime unit since its inception in 1991, looked into some allegations himself -- including the one that Leung attended a concert with Tony Young -- and was inclined to believe Leung.
"I'm not sure there isn't a stereotypical prejudice out there that everyone who is Asian is a crook," said Budds. "We used Eddie as an interpreter in some of our most confidential investigations, and we were never compromised." Leung told the Weekly that he had been barred by the department from talking about these issues with the press. However, he intimated that he believed members of the department were trying to smear him. "It's been going on for 15 years," he said.
The reputation, in any case, followed Leung around, and it made for some awkward introductions when Leung joined the new Asian Crime Task Force. "You've probably heard some stories about me," he told detective Mike Soop, a veteran Asian-crime investigator with whom Leung was initially partnered when he joined the unit.
Soop had, in fact -- and only a few weeks before. An informant had told him that he knew the new guy coming in to the unit, and that he was "dirty."
"Let's go talk to him," Leung said. Soop was impressed as he watched Leung confront the informant with the allegations and challenge him to come up with proof. In the end, the informant admitted he "didn't have anything on him except rumors," Soop said.
THE RUMORS ALSO DIDN'T trouble Lieutenant Mike O'Brien, whom Baca brought in to manage the new unit. "Eddie told me himself," O'Brien recalled, "'Other law-enforcement agencies are not going to want to work with you because of what they perceive to be my reputation.'" To O'Brien, the allegations regarding Tony Young were meaningless. He had so little experience in the world of Asian organized crime, as he admitted in an interview, that he had never even heard of Tony Young, Southern California's most notorious alleged Asian-organized-crime figure.
What did trouble O'Brien, however, was Leung's friendship with Kenny Chang. O'Brien knew Chang, and he didn't like him. The two had met before, five years earlier, when O'Brien was a lieutenant in the Community Relations Office at Industry Station. Chang, a volunteer "community adviser," had asked O'Brien to meet a business owner who was being extorted. O'Brien agreed, and was surprised when Chang led him to an area hostess bar. Already, O'Brien says, he was out of his element: "I go in there, walk in, it's dark. A lady comes up, hugs Mr. Chang, and he points to me and says, 'Hug him.' And she hugs me. And he hands me a credit-type card, a VIP card, and he says, 'Here, she is yours.' And I tell you, I turned around and ran out of there like a scalded rabbit."
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 News casting 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.
"The issue with Eddie was the hanging out with this character [Chang]," O'Brien said in an interview. "Eddie and Kenny, they were associates, and I wanted them both gone because I wanted to give [Baca] what he wanted, the best Asian-crime task force in the world . . . I told him, 'Give me a chance to do that for you.'"
As O'Brien tells the story, "The sheriff looked at me and said, 'You're a police officer, lieutenant. If you've got a case to make, make it. Nobody has immunity in this department, inside or out.'" By the end of the meeting, O'Brien's transfer had been rescinded. Baca agreed to reassign Leung, and gave O'Brien the green light to go after Chang.
O'Brien wasn't the only law enforcer to raise concerns with the sheriff about Chang and Leung. Last spring, Baca was informed by the FBI that its agents were actively looking at Kenny Chang. And in an interview with the Weekly last week, Captain Sam Dacus, head of the Sheriff's Internal Criminal Investigation Bureau, said the department had been informed of an FBI inquiry into Eddie Leung, which was being led by the FBI's public-corruption unit in West L.A.
ON MAY 22, THE CHINESE DAILY NEWS reported that Eddie Leung, the community's star officer, had been promoted to sergeant and transferred out of the Asian Crime Task Force. The move came as a surprise to members of the Chinese media, and it put Baca at pains to put a positive spin on it. He was paraphrased in the article as saying that Leung would continue to be one of his major advisers on Asian affairs, and promised that within a year or two, "Leung will be back to the task force."
There was considerably more to getting Leung a last-minute, face-saving promotion than Baca let on. In fact, a backroom deal was orchestrated to get Leung promoted. In the opinion of the plaintiffs' attorney who monitors Sheriff's Department hiring practices pursuant to a court settlement in a sexual discrimination case, Baca and his top executives violated a federal court order in their efforts to do so. "It appears," Pasadena attorney Dennis Harley wrote in a motion to the federal court in late June, "that the highest levels of defendant Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, including defendant Sheriff Leroy D. Baca, have manipulated the sergeant promotion process."
Promotions at the L.A. County Sheriff's Department are governed by a 1988 federal court judgment in the sexual-discrimination class-action lawsuit. As part of its court-ordered remedy, the Sheriff's Department instituted a formalized promotions process to ensure that more promotions went to women.
Deputies were required to take a series of sergeant exams and undergo an "appraisal of promotability" by station supervisors, usually captains, on the basis of performance, disciplinary history and other factors. Only those who scored 90 percent or better moved on to what was called Band 1. Department commanders then sat down together and picked a "consensus list" of those eligible for promotion by the sheriff. When the list of 151 deputies was issued on March 15 -- before Baca's showdown with O'Brien -- Eddie Leung's name was not among them.
What happened next, internal Sheriff's Department documents show, appeared to circumvent the rules mandated by the court. Baca quietly issued a new, supplemental list of 37 candidates and added it to the initial consensus list, for a total of 188 names. Eddie Leung's name was one of the 37.
When the first round of promotions was announced on May 4, 32 deputies had been elevated to the rank of sergeant -- Leung among them. "For him to go from not even being on the list to getting promoted is like getting hit by lightning," said one union source. "It just doesn't happen."
When attorney Dennis Harley raised questions about the process, Tracey Kennedy, outside counsel for the Sheriff's Department, told him that not only had Baca added names to the list, but so had Assistant Sheriff Bill Stonich and Assistant Sheriff Larry Waldie -- Baca's right-hand man and Leung's old patron from Walnut Station.
The court order, Harley contends, made it clear that neither Waldie nor â Baca "had the right to add names to the list," nor to promote those named. According to a complaint filed by the Sheriff's-deputy union, the supplemental list stirred objections even among Baca's top staff. Harley says he intends to get to the bottom of the controversy by asking U.S. District Court Judge Robert M. Takasugi to compel Sheriff Baca and other department personnel to give sworn depositions in the matter.
Baca has issued a stock memorandum of denial. "There was no manipulation of sergeant candidates by me or anyone else in the department," he insisted. "No candidates were selected over the objections of commanders or chiefs."
Judge Takasugi is, so far, unimpressed by Baca's statements. Takasugi issued an order September 8 demanding Baca and the department "show cause in writing . . . why they should not be held in contempt for their failure to comply" with the consent decree. If Baca does not respond by September 28, the department could be fined $10,000 per day for noncompliance.
KENNY CHANG HAS NOT FARED quite so well as his friend Eddie Leung.
At the time Baca was informed by the FBI of their continuing interest in one of his top supporters, Chang's schedule was jammed with projects for Baca. He helped to handle arrangements for Carol Chiang's May wedding to Baca. "If you wanted an invitation to the wedding," said one attendee, "Kenny Chang was the guy to see." And when Baca was invited to Taiwan by government officials there, Chang worked his contacts to help arrange an expense-paid trip for the sheriff and his new bride. It was portrayed as an effort to coordinate the fight against organized crime on both sides of the Pacific, but wags in the press called it a "honeymoon junket."
Chang accompanied the official delegation when they departed on June 6, but already his clout was flagging. A case in point: Baca and his party turned down Chang's invitation to visit the Hsi Lai Temple's headquarters outside Taipei, according to Oliver Liao, special assistant to the ambassador of the Taipei Cultural and Economic Office. "Kenny lost a lot of face with people in Taiwan," says another source familiar with the trip.
He was also having trouble with some of his colleagues on the LACASA board, who were concerned to what extent Chang had been using his relationship with Baca to further his own interests, according to a source in the organization. "After you work with [people] for a while, you get to know their m.o., how they operate," the source said. "Kenny's an insurance agent. For him this is a way to get new business, by being a friend of the sheriff."
On July 27, Chang submitted a letter of resignation to LACASA president Joseph Tseng. "Kenny wants to spend more time with his family," Tseng said in an interview. According to another source in the organization, Chang was forced out. "It got to a point where it didn't make any sense for him to stay," the source said. "He knew they wanted him to leave." On the day Chang resigned, Tseng paged Lieutenant O'Brien to share the news, and a week later O'Brien held his first meeting with the advisory group.
Chang kept up a good face, talking up Baca's outreach, still selling the program, even though he was on the outs. "We are not scared for the police now," he said when contacted by phone. "This is a big change. It's good for everybody. For everybody, it is good news." Privately, said a source close to Chang, he feels embittered by the whole experience and told an associate he felt that Baca, now a powerful incumbent who no longer needed Chang's fund-raising, had abandoned him. "Kenny is very sad now. He feels a lot of disappointment," said a source close to Chang. "He feels now like Maria Hsia and John Huang and Johnny Chung," a reference to figures in the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal. "Look at what happened to them. They all helped raise money when politicians asked them. Where are those politicians now?"
On the day Kenny Chang resigned from LACASA in late July, Joseph Tseng paged O'Brien to share the news. A week later, O'Brien held his first meeting with the organization -- more than six months after Baca had promised his department would work closely with them. Both Tseng and O'Brien talked in interviews of making a fresh start, but the high-minded expectations that greeted Baca's Asian-crime initiative have been considerably muted.
For all the hoopla, it is by no means clear that Asian-Americans in the San Gabriel Valley are any better served by the new task force. Where the original Asian crime squad specialized in experienced detectives making major cases against organized crime, in the new unit, staffing priority was given to bilingual, bicultural deputies, with little consideration given to investigative experience. As a result, many of those recruited for the new unit needed training in basic detective work. One day last month when a reporter visited the unit's headquarters, investigators were attending classes on how to write search warrants. Three detectives from the old organized-crime unit were assigned on a temporary basis to show the new investigators the ropes, but O'Brien concedes that his team remains a long way from being able to take on the complex cases -- kidnappings, for instance -- that the old unit handled on a regular basis.
Kenny Chang himself is keeping a very low profile these days. When a reporter approached his office in a shopping center on Hacienda Boulevard south of the 60 freeway, Chang turned down the nameplate on his desk. He didn't want to talk about his relationship with Baca, the campaign, or the LACASA task force, behind which he was a driving force. "At one time I was very active in the community. I opened my heart to the community" is all he'd say. "Now I just have to take care of my business and be 100 percent insurance agent." He repeated this several times: "100 percent insurance agent."
"Lee has a lot, a lot of friends," he said. "I am just one of those friends. I am just small potatoes."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- L.A. Is Next in Line For the Olympics, But Can It Clean Up Boston's Mess?
Wed., Aug. 5, 12:35pm
Wed., Aug. 5, 12:35pm
Fri., Aug. 7, 7:05pm
Fri., Aug. 7, 7:05pm
- State Probes Alleged Foreign Donations in Porn
- Mayor Daniel Crespo Battered His Wife for 28 Years. She Shot Him the Day He Turned on...