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Baca's Law

(AP/Reed Saxon)

{mosimage} Last Friday, when the psychedelic media circus swirling around Paris Hilton’s early jail release stopped at Sheriff Lee Baca’s Monterey Park headquarters, he told assembled reporters a story filled with gallant compassion for a fallen woman and muted anger for a vindictive bureaucracy. Baca said he sent the delicate heiress home because of an undisclosed medical condition that his county jail system was completely unprepared to handle. Now, however, thanks to an inflexible judge, Eurydice was being returned to the Underworld.

Baca’s version of the events gets a laugh from Sergeant Patrick Gomez, a subordinate who says he knows all about bureaucratic vindictiveness — and the medical capabilities of the jail system. Gomez’s troubles began shortly after the 2002 election in which he took on the incumbent Baca for the Sheriff’s office. Gomez campaigned on the charge that medical care in the jails had fallen to unsafe levels under Baca’s tenure as well as other issues. But Baca vigorously rejected the charges and won in a landslide. After the election, Gomez, who then worked at the main jail in downtown Los Angeles, claims his campaign was used to deny him a promotion, have him transferred and earn him the wrath of Undersheriff Larry Waldie.

There were worse places to spend a December morning than Larry Waldie’s office, but Pat Gomez couldn’t think of many when he was summoned there in 2003. Waldie, who was then an assistant sheriff, is known as a friend and partisan supporter of Baca and does not enjoy a reputation for civility toward subordinates, according to interviews and internal documents obtained by the L.A. Weekly.

“The only time you’re going to talk to Larry Waldie is when something’s wrong,” says Rufus Tamayo, a retired Sheriff’s captain. Today, Waldie is the county’s undersheriff and second only to Baca in the hierarchy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD).

Ever since he was elected in 1998, Baca had trumpeted an open-door policy, allowing anyone in the department to bring complaints directly to the boss. Just prior to being summoned by Waldie, Gomez, who is now 49 and a 26-year veteran, had requested an explanation from Baca as to why he’d been passed over for promotion to lieutenant. He was also refused an overtime-salary request — until he won his back pay through a union grievance. Gomez suspected his 2002 campaign had something to do with both the denial of overtime and his not making lieutenant.

Instead of talking to Baca about this, however, he found himself facing Waldie, who, Gomez had been told by LASD Chief Michael Aranda, had once announced to a gathering of department executives, “Never in my lifetime will Pat Gomez get promoted.”

According to Gomez, his meeting went south as soon as he asked Waldie what criteria were used to judge lieutenant applicants.

“Loyalty to the sheriff!” Gomez remembers Waldie answering as he slammed a fist down on his desk. “When you run against the sheriff, you are not loyal to the sheriff!”

Waldie’s answer was especially painful for Gomez, who’d grown up in Pico Rivera revering the Sheriff’s Department. He’d been a Sheriff’s Explorer at Rancho High School and, after working as an electrician, left the civilian world in 1976 to join the department at the age of 23. And now his career had hit a brick wall, another sign of how the mellow, stoically tolerant Sheriff Baca loses his cool when it comes to public dissent among the ranks.

Further evidence came last June when, with nearly 70 percent of the vote, Baca trounced his competition and was re-elected sheriff. Yet on election night, he announced that two of his four opponents, Captain Ray Leyva and Sergeant Paul Jernigan, should consider looking for other jobs. Another candidate, retired Captain Ken Masse, found his concealed-weapon permit pulled. The next day, the LASD issued a gag rule upon employees considering expressing their criticisms of the department to the media.

Richard Valdemar is a retired LASD detective and veteran of operations against gangs and drug dealers, who, over a 33-year career, observed Baca and former sheriffs Peter Pitchess and Sherman Block.

“Pitchess was a vengeful man, but vengeful behavior is absolutely not typical of the department,” Valdemar says. “Block in his worst day would get strong but was a teddy bear by comparison [to Baca]. If [Baca] perceives that you’re not loyal, the gloves come off, and look out — he’s very vengeful.”

This kind of postelection retribution is hardly unknown to sheriff’s departments even outside of Los Angeles County. The day after his own June 2006 victory, embattled Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona launched an internal investigation into the campaign statements of Lieutenant Bill Hunt, the man he beat to narrowly avoid a runoff, and placed Hunt on administrative leave. (Hunt later resigned rather than receive an anticipated demotion.)

What makes Baca’s actions seem puzzling and petty is his reputation as a man with an almost mystical belief in the ability of others to do good — and the fact that none of his election challengers through the years posed the slightest threat to him. (Some sources familiar with Gomez’s candidacy variously describe it as a symbolic or grudge campaign.) Twice now, Baca’s critics within the LASD, mistaking rank-and-file grumbling for public will, have waged election campaigns against the sheriff, confident that they could transform low morale and resentment about aging patrol cars and alleged cronyism into victory at the polls. These earnest men spent a few thousand dollars on lawn signs and bumper stickers, set up primitive Web sites, and appeared at every voter forum and candidate-endorsement interview. And then marched straight into the propeller blades of one of Los Angeles County’s most well-oiled re-election machines.

Gomez went into his meeting with Waldie knowing that the assistant sheriff had ordered up a criminal investigation of him during the 2002 election. According to the sworn deposition by now-retired Captain Tamayo, Waldie had instructed the captain by phone to open the investigation into Gomez because of the campaign charges he’d made about poor inmate health care in the LASD-administered prison system.

Tamayo refused, believing there was no cause for such a serious measure.

“Internal criminal investigations ruin people’s lives,” Tamayo said in pretrial testimony for a lawsuit Gomez would file against the LASD. “Not just their careers. They ruin lives.” Waldie did not appreciate Tamayo’s stance. “Do what I tell you, motherfucker!” Tamayo says Waldie responded.

“Waldie’s view is, ‘What’s the point of having power if you can’t abuse it?’ ” Tamayo told the L.A. Weekly.

Tamayo says he persuaded the assistant sheriff to let him open a less serious supervisorial inquiry — which turned up nothing in the end.

In 2004, Sergeant Gomez brought a federal lawsuit against the LASD, specifically naming Baca, Waldie and the county for retaliating against him. The suit went through several sets of lawyers and a number of depositions until, on May 10, U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled that the case should go forward to trial, after granting Baca’s petition to be removed as a co-defendant on the grounds that Gomez never had direct contact with the sheriff relating to his failed promotion bid. The county has filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming Waldie enjoys limited immunity from prosecution. The appeal should take anywhere between 18 months to two years to complete. Joseph Y. Avrahamy, one of Gomez’s attorneys, speculates that this will give Waldie, a 39-year LASD veteran, time to retire, even though he will remain as a defendant if the trial goes forward.

Although he won separation from Gomez’s case, there’s no question that Baca will be seen as the one on trial when the case comes before a jury.

“I’m sure [Baca] knew what Waldie was doing,” Avrahamy says. “He obviously condoned it.”

Gomez’s Burbank lawyers, Joe Freeman and Bob Seeman, speculate that the LASD will base its defense on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos to back the silencing of Baca’s dissident employees. That decision, handed down one week before the June 2006 sheriff’s election, enshrined the right of employer retaliation (what the court called “managerial discipline”) — in this case, by the L.A. District Attorney’s Office against Deputy D.A. Richard Ceballos for dissenting, in 2000, against an LASD warrant he believed to be seriously flawed.

LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore said neither Baca nor Waldie would comment on Gomez’s suit. Other sheriff candidates and retired upper-echelon LASD officers declined or did not respond to interview requests for this article. Sergeant Paul Jernigan, who ran against Baca last year, did say on the record that he has no complaints about his job and that he’s suffered no retaliation.

The scope of the LASD’s alleged retaliation is noteworthy. For, while Pat Gomez may have been but a sergeant in the 8,500-strong force, 2006 sheriff candidate Ray Leyva is a captain who was once regarded as a member of Baca’s inner circle. According to sources familiar with Leyva’s career, that changed in an instant when Leyva, prior to his 2006 bid, was asked by some reporters about his political ambitions, and allowed that he might run for sheriff some day — though not against Baca, his boss. These sources claim Leyva was immediately called onto the carpet to explain his comments, which were perceived to mean Leyva would oppose a run by Commander Paul Tanaka, who at the time was widely seen as Baca’s handpicked successor. (Leyva did not respond to repeated phone calls requesting an interview.)

Leyva was soon told to report for a new assignment — at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, which some LASD deputies say serves as a kind of Siberia for exiled Sheriff’s personnel.

“Leyva was an up-and-coming, intelligent man who would have been a great leader,” Valdemar says. “His mistake was talking to the media — as soon as he said that, he was done.”

During their meeting, says Gomez, Larry Waldie told the sergeant he “had embarrassed the boss” by holding press conferences to denounce medical conditions at the downtown jail facilities operated by the LASD. Gomez soon found himself transferred from his longtime post at the jail to the STAR Unit, a program steering youth away from drugs, gangs and violence, in Whittier. The transfer, Gomez says, adds about 50 miles of commuting to his workday.

“Hell, yeah, they retaliate, but they don’t do so openly,” says Sergeant John Stites, president of the Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA), a union representing LASD employees. “They sent Leyva to the ranch, but Pat’s in a better position than most. The STAR unit is a good assignment — if that’s retaliation, I’ll have some.”

One of the paradoxes of Lee Baca is that he would retaliate against his election opponents in the same way his predecessor, Sherman Block, lashed out against Baca during the two men’s acrimonious 1998 campaign, which resulted in a runoff election that Baca won only after Block died before the November vote.

“It could be,” says one sergeant who requests anonymity, “that Baca figures if he went through Block’s retaliation, others should suffer it when they run against him.”

Stites, the PPOA president, is a blunt-speaking man who claims to have lost out on numerous transfers and promotions because of his opposition to Baca’s policies (he ran against the sheriff in 2002), and believes Gomez is being retaliated against. Still, Stites feels little sympathy for the sergeant. Gomez, who once occupied the PPOA position Stites now holds, got into a bitter feud in 2003 with other organization officers, with both sides charging financial improprieties. Gomez ended up being expelled from PPOA in 2004 but currently serves as a vice president of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Professional Association.

And this is where Gomez’s story gets very confusing in the telling, and very quickly. For at the time of his beef with PPOA, in October 2004, his wife, Ana, claims she began receiving intimidating comments while at work from a colleague at LASD, where she worked as a civilian at the downtown jail’s inmate-reception center. Stress and nightmares followed, she says, and that November she filed a worker’s-compensation claim. She left the department three months later.

According to the Gomezes, the harassment didn’t stop there. They claim disturbing messages were left on their phones — not just on their home phone in La Cañada–Flintridge, but on cell phones belonging to Pat, Ana and their son as well.

Sergeant Gomez says he eventually spoke to the caller, a man who in Gomez’s telling said he was a shift commander for the LAPD’s West Valley station, which had received “numerous” complaints about Gomez’s Suburban, parked at the end of a quiet street — even though La Cañada–Flintridge falls under the Sheriff’s jurisdiction and not the LAPD’s. He told Gomez he didn’t have all the information on his computer and told the sergeant to call a lieutenant the next day.

“He ends the call,” Gomez remembers, “by saying, ‘You need to protect your family.’ ”

When Gomez did call the number the man gave, he was told there was no such lieutenant. Gomez believes the caller was someone who had access to LASD computer databases.

The next day, Gomez spoke to his neighbors, only to learn that three of them had received similar calls from a man warning them that Gomez was a cop impersonator. (Efforts to get Gomez’s neighbors to respond to questions were unsuccessful.)

On the day the Gomezes appear at the L.A. Weekly for an interview, they arrive in their son’s car because they fear their own vehicles — the Suburban and a BMW — may be tracked with GPS devices. Their anxiety is palpable, and they claim they’ve returned home several times to find the front and garage doors open. They also say neighbors have told them of a man taking pictures of their house.

They tell of other, less tangible incidents of surveillance. A van with tinted windows was spotted parked either across the street or behind their home. And there was the antenna — a mysterious-looking aerial both Gomezes claim they saw affixed one day to a telephone pole near their home. Ana says she confronted a group of workmen who were installing it. She accused them of being cops before they hastily drove off. Her husband believes it is entirely possible his family is being spied upon by the LASD.

Pat Gomez hadn’t always thought of himself as being at war with the department he grew up admiring as a boy. He remembers his earlier years as a deputy, when, he says, the department’s equipment was new and morale was high. And, although he ran against the terminally ill Sheriff Sherman Block in 1998, Gomez will suddenly become emotional when speaking of the old sheriff as a fair-minded cop who represented a fair-minded department.

Despite Gomez’s nostaglia for the department’s supposedly better days, not everyone interviewed for this article believes Gomez’s accusations — or the uniqueness of his situation. Some have suggested Gomez is overly sensitive.

“Pat’s a victimcrat — everyone’s out to get him,” John Stites says of Gomez’s complaints. To Stites, revenge is part of any Los Angeles County sheriff’s DNA. “You are retaliated against, whether it’s Block or Baca,” Stites says. “If you run against the sheriff, you are considered disloyal.”

Pat Gomez remains unruffled. He’s installed surveillance cameras around his family’s home, while his wife has filed her own lawsuit against the LASD for job-related stress. The sergeant believes he will ultimately triumph and sees his case as being about something more than the department’s culture or bureaucratic vindictiveness.

“It’s about freedom of speech,” Gomez says. “The message Baca’s sending out there is, ‘Don’t even think about running against me or this will happen to you.’ ”


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