On the day that 18 sworn sheriff's deputies were indicted or charged with various abuses and arrested — crimes that U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. stressed did not occur in a vacuum — Sheriff Lee Baca said it's a "sad day" but not evidence of a larger problem with his department.
His statement clearly sought to soften two of the most damning allegations made by federal prosecutors: that sheriff's deputies actively tried to hide a jail inmate from federal investigators, and that jail deputies who abused inmates and visitors — including the consul from Austria — were part of a law-breaking culture in LASD.
While the indictments were not unexpected, it is nevertheless a sad day for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. We do not tolerate misconduct by any deputies. This department is grounded in its core values, namely to honorably perform our duties with respect for the dignity of all people, and integrity to do right and fight wrongs. We have cooperated fully with the federal investigation and will continue to do so.
Please know that I respect the criminal justice system. No one is above the law.
Baca seemed to be downplaying the incidents as aberrations. All along, however, there have been suggestions that the sheriff has been at best lax in dealing with continuing reports of abuse and coverups by his jail deputies and their supervisors.
Birotte in announcing the grand jury indictments unsealed today and criminal complaints filed:
The five cases allege a wide scope of illegal conduct. This investigation started by focusing on misconduct in county jails, and we uncovered examples of civil rights violations that included excessive force and unlawful arrests.
Our investigation also found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum. In fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized.
"The pattern of activity alleged in the obstruction of justice case shows how some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law," Birotte said. "Instead of cooperating with the federal investigation to ensure that corrupt law enforcement officers would be brought to justice, the defendants in this case are accused of taking affirmative steps designed to ensure that light would not shine on illegal conduct that violated basic constitutional rights.”
"This is a difficult day for law enforcement and for me personally," said Bill Lewis, assistant director in charge of the FBI's L.A. field office. "It's never a pleasant thing to arrest a fellow law enforcement officer who is alleged to have committed serious criminal violations."
Baca's response is that "there is no institutional problem within the Sheriff’s Department when it comes to correcting itself."
From the LA Times story:
[Baca] also declined to answer questions about whether an inmate was hidden from the FBI.
Federal authorities allege that officials hampered the federal investigation after the Sheriff's Department discovered that an inmate was working as a federal informant.
The officials moved the inmate — identified only as AB in the indictment — and changed his name, even altering the department's internal inmate database to falsely say that he had been released, according to the indictment.
In addition, sheriff's officials confronted one of the lead FBI agents outside her home and falsely claimed that they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest, the indictment alleges.
The actions were taken despite a federal judge's order that the informant appear before a federal grand jury as part of the FBI's investigation, the indictment alleges. The Sheriff's Department was served with the judge's order Aug. 25, 2011.
Celeste Fremon at Witness LA, who has been reporting on the sheriff's probes for years, puts the charges in some perspective:
Among the five criminal cases announced Monday, is the case known as United States v. Thomson, et al, which has to do with the department’s hiding of FBI informant Anthony Brown. Seven people were indicted with regard to the operation in which two LASD teams allegedly hid and/or aggressively debriefed federal informant Anthony Brown who, while an inmate in the jails, was recruited to report on possible wrongdoing by deputies.
Among those indicted Monday on the Brown matter are Gregory Thompson, Steven Leavins, Gerard Smith, Mikey Manzo, James Sexton, Scott Craig and Marcella Long.
Thompson, now retired ahead of being fired by the LASD, was the lieutenant whose team of more than a dozen deputies did the physical (and cyber) hiding of informant Brown. Smith, Manzo, and Sexton worked under Thompson.
Leavins was the leader of the team that reportedly did the secret debriefing of Brown.
Craig and Long are the two sergeants in the Internal Criminal investigations Bureau (ICIB) of the LASD, who were allegedly sent out to threaten and intimidate Brown’s FBI woman handler, showing up at her private home late at night, hoping to get information out of her.
Many LASD watchers were surprised to hear that James Sexton was on the indictment list since, along with his LASD work partner, Mike Rathbun, he was—and still is—a whistleblower, both in the Anthony Brown federal case and in another case involving a jails deputy who was allegedly doing favors for an inmate who was reportedly a shot caller in the jail for white supremacist groups.
Clearly Thompson, Leavins, the two ICIB sergeants, and the deputies working under Thompson, did not take it upon themselves to hide Anthony Brown. They were ordered to do so.
According to multiple sources, the person to whom Thompson and Leavins reported on the operation was former LASD undersheriff Paul Tanaka. However there are several reports that Sheriff Lee Baca was briefed on the operation all along the way.
It is unclear who ordered Sergeants Craig and Long to go to the FBI agent’s home to allegedly try to get information from her using threats and intimidation, but according to our sources, at least one of the sergeants reported about the trip to Sheriff Lee Baca.
Tanaka had a recent falling out with Baca and is raising money to run against the sheriff when Baca stands for reelection next year. After today's arrests, another ex-LASD official running against Baca, Bob Olmsted, released a statement. It says in part:
It's bad enough that the obstruction of justice happened, but what's worse is that former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and Sheriff Lee Baca did nothing to stop it....
Federal charges made today allege that when the FBI attempted to locate an inmate informant, the Sheriff's department hid that inmate from the FBI and rebooked him under a different name. The Sheriff's department has acknowledged that Undersheriff Tanaka and Sheriff Baca were aware of this, and Tanaka has claimed that Baca ordered him to hide the prisoner.
"Just following orders" is the easy way out, but it's not the right thing to do. When I saw corruption going on in the Sheriff's department, I could have also "just followed orders" and left it alone - I was a Commander with a lot to lose. But being Sheriff is about having the integrity to do what's right, and that is why I came forward and blew the whistle on Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka.
I never had the intention of running for Sheriff, but when nobody stepped up to challenge Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka - who were responsible for the culture of corruption that I blew the whistle on - I realized that I had to do something.