Federal authorities tried to get the son of a high-ranking Los Angeles County sheriff's official to secretly record conversations with his father and then-Sheriff Lee Baca, according to the son's attorneys.
This is the first indication that FBI agents tried to enlist deputies to record conversations with Baca as part of their ongoing investigation of inmate abuse and corruption inside the Sheriff's Department.
Deputy James Sexton is one of seven current and former sheriff's officials who have been charged with obstructing the federal probe of the jails. The details about the FBI's attempt to covertly record Baca were found in declarations filed Monday by Sexton's attorneys.
Sexton's father, Ted, served as a sheriff in Alabama. Baca, a friend of the elder Sexton, recruited him to move out to Los Angeles and serve as homeland security chief at the Sheriff's Department.
Around that time, the younger Sexton was working as one of Baca's jail deputies and was part of a team of jailers assigned to watch over an inmate after it was discovered the inmate was informing on deputies for the FBI. Their handling of that inmate — allegedly changing his name, moving him around and hiding him from federal authorities — was being investigated by the FBI.
Sexton was cooperating with that probe, according to his attorney, and during a meeting with federal authorities, he was asked if he would wear a wire to record his father and Baca.
"Deputy Sexton and I were both shocked and surprised and reacted indignantly," Sexton's attorney, Mays Jemison, wrote in Monday's declaration. "The meeting got heated and I asked for a break to let everyone calm down."
A source with knowledge of the meeting told The Times that Sexton did not wear a wire.
In their filings Monday, Sexton's attorneys say the deputy was otherwise cooperating with the federal investigation and was assured he was not a target but was indicted anyway.
The filings included text messages between Sexton and a friend who is an FBI agent and apparently served as a go-between to set up the initial meeting between Sexton and the agent handling the jails investigation.
In those messages, Sexton's friend assures Sexton that his colleague has no ulterior motives.
"We are genuinely concerned for your safety. That's all bro. Please don't think this was ever about the case, more like she found out some stuff that makes her think you are in jeopardy. She's a good person and so is... [her partner]). I've drank, played vball, hung out with both of them, and I trust them like I trust you," the text message reads. "They know we are friends and are trying to do the right thing by me; ie warning my friend who may need some help. Seriously, bro, there's no ulterior motive here."
Among Sexton's attorneys' complaints is that the deputy testified before the grand jury without being notified that he was a target, and now that testimony might be used to prosecute him. Sexton has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Rebecca Lonergan, a USC law professor and a former federal prosecutor, said prosecutors cannot lie to people and tell them they're not targets when they are. But she said there's generally no problem with telling cooperating witnesses that they are not targets, then charging them if new information comes to light. Lonergan said that in cases such as that, there's typically nothing to keep prosecutors from using statements made by witnesses before a grand jury against them in a subsequent prosecution.
The FBI and U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the filings.
Twenty-one current and former deputies have been charged in connection with the FBI's investigation of the department, and the probe is ongoing.
This year, amid a string of scandals, Baca retired.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office said Monday that federal authorities did not push for Baca to step down, and they didn't offer any deal for him to retire in order to avoid prosecution.
Baca has said that he was assured that he was not a target of the probe.