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Deputies in obstruction case say they were following orders

Crime, Law and JusticeDrug TraffickingCrimeCourts and the JudiciaryJustice SystemFBILee Baca

Former Sheriff Lee Baca and his top aide authorized the controversial handling of a Los Angeles County jail inmate secretly working as a federal informant, according to a court filing by three of the deputies facing federal charges in connection with the incident.

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, which federal prosecutors have not yet responded to, the attorneys for the three deputies 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.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

No one above the rank of lieutenant was charged in connection with the operation, which 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.

After sheriff's officials got wind of Brown's cooperation with the FBI, they allegedly took part in a conspiracy to hinder the FBI. 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 misconduct by jailers.

Brown's name on custody records was allegedly 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 on 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 smuggling of a cellphone into the jail to Brown. According to the filing, the phone had photos of drugs and cash, and Brown told deputies once his cover was blown that he was working with a “fed” who participated in the smuggling of cellphones and drugs.

“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 review of Brown’s history by The Times found that the FBI’s informant was a bank robber and crack cocaine addict who has a history of lying and making dubious allegations against law enforcement.

In the filing, the attorneys argue that the three low-level deputies were acting in good faith, and were listening to orders from officials who outranked them.

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 he is 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 spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said prosecutors would respond next week.

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Twitter: RobertFaturechi

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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