The allegations that the operation, dubbed "Pandora's Box" internally, was directed by Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka are not new. But the claims, filed this week in federal court, give the first indication of the defense strategy that will be used by the jailers accused of helping to hinder a federal investigation.
In the filing, to which federal prosecutors have not yet responded, the three deputies' attorneys argue that their clients — deputies James Sexton, Mickey Manzo and Gerard Smith — were following orders from their bosses and assisting in what they thought was a legitimate criminal investigation.
The operation was launched after sheriff's officials discovered that one of their inmates, Anthony Brown, was using a cellphone to communicate with the FBI and secretly gathering information about deputies suspected of being corrupt or abusive.
The Times first reported in 2012 that when sheriff's officials got wind of Brown's cooperation with the FBI, they allegedly took part in a conspiracy to hinder the probe.
According to federal prosecutors, they hid Brown rather than turn him over to federal authorities, who had obtained a court order for him to appear before a grand jury to testify about jailers' misconduct.
Brown's name on custody records allegedly was changed and he was moved out of the jail to a distant holding cell. Staffers were told not to allow U.S. agents to have contact with him, according to an indictment unsealed in December.
In the defense filing this week, first reported by the website WitnessLA, the attorneys for the three men argue that they "cannot be criminally tried for assisting a law enforcement investigation into what they reasonably thought was potential criminal activity."
The attorneys are referring to the FBI's act of smuggling into the jail a cellphone for Brown. According to the filing, the phone had photos of drugs and cash, and Brown told deputies after his cover was blown that he was working with a "fed" who participated in the smuggling of cellphones and drugs into the jail.
"LASD officials believed that the actions had to be that of a rogue FBI agent, finding it unfathomable that a fellow law enforcement officer would put lives at risk by giving an inmate a cellphone and allowing him to distribute methamphetamines, cocaine and other drugs in the jail," the filing states.
A 2012 Times review of Brown's history found that the FBI's informant was a bank robber and crack cocaine addict who had a history of lying and making dubious allegations against law enforcement.
In the past, Baca has downplayed his involvement, and a department spokesman has said the goal of moving Brown around was to protect him from deputies seeking revenge, not to hide him from the FBI. Baca has said he had been assured that he was not a target of the probe.
Tanaka, who is running for sheriff, has maintained that his role in the Brown case was minimal and that it was being led by Baca.
A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment on the allegations. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office said prosecutors would respond next week.
In a separate case, two deputies pleaded not guilty Thursday in connection with allegations that they assaulted a handcuffed inmate. Deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez are among the 21 current and former sheriff's officials charged in connection with the federal probe into brutality and other misconduct in the Sheriff's Department.
Aguiar and Ramirez are accused of violating the civil rights of an inmate by assaulting him in 2009 inside Men's Central Jail by kicking him in the head, striking him with a flashlight and pepper-spraying his face.