In Sheriff's Case, Low-Level Employees Take The Brunt

Sheriff Lee Baca
Sheriff Lee Baca
Photo by Ted Soqui

On Sept. 26, 2011, Sheriff Lee Baca went on "Good Day L.A." and blasted the FBI for smuggling a cell phone to an informant in one of his jails. "It's illegal," he said. "I think I need to know what the reason is, and quite frankly it's unacceptable regardless."

The FBI had been ignoring the sheriff's inquiries. So that same day, two of Baca's sergeants visited FBI Special Agent Leah Marx at her home. She was involved in the jailhouse investigation, and the sergeants wanted to get some information from her. While they were at Marx's home, the sergeants allegedly threatened to arrest her.

That confrontation is at the heart of an federal case unsealed Monday by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The two sergeants -- Scott Craig and Maricella Long -- were themselves arrested Monday and indicted on charges of obstruction, conspiracy and lying to a federal agent. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in federal prison. 

Another 16 deputies were also charged with crimes ranging from civil rights violations for jailhouse beatings to mortgage fraud. 

The key person who was not charged is Lee Baca. In fact, no one on Baca's executive staff -- not then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, and indeed no one with a rank higher than lieutenant -- was charged with a crime. From reading the indictments, it would appear that the misconduct was confined to low-level employees who went rogue.

And yet, at least in the obstruction case, that seems hard to square with Baca's forceful and public demand for answers from the FBI in the wake of the discovery of the jailhouse informant. It's hard to imagine that Baca and his executive team would have been completely unaware of what his deputies were doing in pursuit of that goal.

"When you're going to go to an FBI agent's home, that's unusual," said Brian Moriguchi, president of the Professional Peace Officers Association, the union which is providing attorneys for some of the defendants. "That would require authorization from higher up, or at least knowledge from higher up."

At a press conference on Monday afternoon, Baca declined to go into any detail about what he knew or when he knew it.

"All this is the result of an investigative process, and today they've made an announcement, and I can't comment on what their facts are," he said.

Tanaka was forced to retire earlier this year, and is now running against Baca for sheriff. He declined through his campaign spokeswoman to comment Monday. But in an April interview with the L.A. Times, Tanaka said that when the informant, Anthony Brown, was discovered, Baca gave strict orders to get to the bottom of the FBI's investigation.

"I want the inmate interviewed. I don't want him leaving our custody. I want the phone, all of the information removed from it and I don't want the phone to go anywhere," Tanaka quoted Baca as saying.

In implementing that order, Tanaka said that he and his colleagues had to be very careful to avoid "cross[ing] the line of doing anything wrong."

Yet now seven underlings have been charged with federal crimes arising from that incident. Lt. Gregory Thompson and three deputies -- Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo and James Sexton -- are accused of conspiring to move Brown to another facility and rebook him under fake names, in order to prevent the FBI from contacting him.

Lt. Stephen Leavins was also charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for, among other things, going to court in an unsuccessful attempt to compel the FBI to disclose information about its investigation. Leavins, who was with the sheriff's internal investigations bureau, also supervised Craig and Long -- the two sergeants who went to the FBI agent's house.

Thompson, Smith, Manzo, Sexton and Leavins each face up to 15 years in prison. Unlike with Baca, the county is not paying for their defense attorneys. Those costs will be borne by either their union or by themselves.

Meanwhile, at his press conference, Baca said that any defendants who remain with the department will be put on unpaid leave.

According to Bob Olmsted, the retired commander now running against Baca and Tanaka, the defendants in the obstruction case would not have had the authority to act on their own.

"Everybody indicted today does not have the authority to do what transpired," Olmsted said. "It had to come from above."

Olmsted said he believed that the prosecutors would pressure the lower-level deputies to testify against their superiors, which would ultimately bring another wave of indictments.

U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte said at his press conference that the investigation is ongoing. However, it is also possible that there will not be another wave of indictments because there is insufficient evidence to charge anyone else.

"Our hope is that those who are responsible are held accountable," Moriguchi said. "If that means somebody higher up in the organization, then that's where the responsibility should lie."


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