Baca ordered criminal probe outside jurisdiction on behalf of political donor
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca directed detectives to launch a criminal investigation outside his agency’s jurisdiction on behalf of a well-connected supporter who has given the sheriff political contributions and expensive gifts, a Times investigation has found.
The sheriff’s investigation targeted a tenant who was embroiled in a rental dispute with Ezat Delijani, a longtime Baca political donor. The sheriff assigned his detectives to the case after Beverly Hills police had concluded that Delijani’s allegations did not amount to a crime.
In an interview, Baca downplayed his personal involvement in opening the probe last year. He said the Beverly Hills business magnate received no preferential treatment.
Sheriff’s Department records, however, show that Baca sent a handwritten note to his then-chief of detectives requesting the investigation. Additionally, records reveal that detectives referred to the case as a “Sheriff Baca Special Request” and gave it a “rush” status, generally reserved for high-priority or time-sensitive cases, including homicides.
According to records, the Beverly Hills Police Department had determined that Delijani’s dispute was a civil matter and did not merit a criminal investigation. After sheriff’s detectives concluded their four-month investigation, they submitted their findings to prosecutors, who declined to file criminal charges, citing insufficient evidence. Baca said the incursion into the Beverly Hills department’s jurisdiction was necessary because the allegations of lease forgery were “too complicated” for the local police force.
Officials at the Beverly Hills Police Department, which handles hundreds of forgery cases every year, dismissed that explanation.
“I’m trying not to say anything that sounds inflammatory,” said Beverly Hills Police Sgt. Shan Davis when told of Baca’s comment about the case being too difficult for them. “That’s not a fair characterization.”
Law enforcement experts said it is highly unusual for one police agency to launch an investigation in another agency’s jurisdiction without being invited in.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the case “smacks of the worst kind of special treatment.”
“It’s incumbent on the sheriff to explain why this case merited this kind of intensive resource allocation,” said O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer. “Not only is it a terrible thing for public perception, it has a very devastating impact internally for the rank and file who swear an oath to protect people equally.”
At the center of the sheriff’s investigation was a 2008 dispute between Delijani and his tenant, a pharmacist named Afshin Nassir. According to records, Nassir requested that Delijani reimburse him for tenant improvements and for rent he had paid while those improvements were being made. Nassir alleged that he was entitled to payment according to his lease; Delijani claimed he wasn’t.
After Delijani refused to reimburse Nassir, lawyers from both sides got involved — and Delijani alleged the lease that Nassir produced had been forged. Both parties sued.
During a deposition, Delijani said he took his complaint to the Sheriff’s Department.
“Do you know the name of the person you spoke to?” asked an attorney for Nassir, according to a transcript.
“Sheriff Lee Baca,” Delijani replied.
Delijani said he told Baca about the lease dispute during a meeting related to an award the businessman was receiving. Baca, he recalled, said “you must report such a crime. You must do it.’”
At some point, the Delijani family went to the Beverly Hills police with the tenant complaint. After officials there determined that the matter did not merit a criminal investigation, Delijani’s son sent an e-mail to Baca’s assistant.
“Hi Susie, Hope you’re well,” Delijani’s son, Shahram, wrote. “Can you please let the Sheriff know that I spoke to … Beverly Hills Police Department and they informed me that they will not investigate the case. Thank you.”
On a printout of that e-mail, a handwritten note from Baca urges action from Chief Willie Miller, who at the time oversaw the Sheriff Department’s detectives division.
“Chief Miller -- This case involves a ‘lease forgery.’ Could you have our people investigate this,” reads Baca’s note, which is signed “Lee B.”
Within days, officials from the department’s commercial crimes bureau were on the case. The lead investigator’s first log entry states the investigation’s genesis: “This entry is being made to show that this case is a SPECIAL and was an investigation requested by Sheriff Baca.”
Records show that when Baca ordered the investigation, a sheriff’s sergeant acknowledged the case was outside the Sheriff Department’s territory and contacted the Beverly Hills police “so as not to step on their jurisdiction.”
In a memo, the sergeant details his conversation with Lt. Steve Seeger of the Beverly Hills Police Department. When he pointed out that Baca requested the case directly, the Beverly Hills official said he was already made aware of the sheriff’s interest by the Delijanis but still considered the case a civil court matter. After the sheriff’s sergeant pressed ahead, Seeger responded: “If your boss wants it that bad, then go ahead.”
According to that memo, the Delijani family was pleased to have the sheriff take over the case.
“I asked Shahram [Delijani] if he would let the BHPD work the case, if they now said they would work it,” the sheriff’s sergeant wrote. “Shahram answered ‘Yes, but I prefer that the Sheriff’s Department do it.’ ”
For nearly four months afterward, a detective for the cash-strapped department devoted more than 115 hours to the case. According to testimony, a sheriff’s handwriting examiner devoted about 60 hours to the investigation — in addition to time she spent working with another sheriff’s employee to make charts used before the jury in the civil case. At one point in the investigation, four sheriff’s investigators went to the Westwood office of Nassir’s attorney to serve a search warrant, records show.
In an internal memo to Baca after the case was rejected by prosecutors last year, a department official assures the sheriff that “this matter is currently in civil court and may receive some type of resolution there.” The lead detective on the case, according to records, later met with Delijani’s son to discuss “possible options,” including advice on subpoenaing the department’s criminal case file for use in the family’s ongoing civil suit.
According to sources, the Sheriff’s Department recently appealed the district attorney’s rejection of the case, prompting prosecutors to take a second look. Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Katz said he could not discuss the details of the case because it is now under review.
A jury in a civil trial on the lease dispute recently found in favor of Delijani, deciding the landlord did not have to reimburse his tenant. Nassir and his attorneys declined to comment for this story.
Delijani’s attorney, Bill Steckbauer, said his client did not receive special treatment from the Sheriff’s Department.
When asked about the criminal investigation, Baca — who oversees a sprawling agency that takes on thousands of criminal investigations each year — was immediately familiar with the details of the Delijani case and defended his actions.
“Being the sheriff of this county, we can investigate any crime in this county,” Baca said. “That’s a county-wide service we do. You can’t say no to anybody.”
Baca described Delijani as a friendly acquaintance whom he talks to once every couple of years. Delijani, an Iranian immigrant who amassed a fortune as a real estate developer and a pioneer in the city’s fashion district, is a well-known political contributor in L.A. County.
Delijani regularly gives Baca expensive presents: a $150 gift basket in 2003, $200 worth of liquor in 2005, $65 worth of spirits in 2006, $200 worth of wine in 2007, three bottles of wine in 2008 and $88 worth of wine in 2009, financial disclosure records show.
He donated $1,000 to “Friends of Sheriff Lee Baca” in 2005 and another $1,000 to the political committee in 2006 through Delijani’s company, Delson Investment, according to records. In one day in 2009, members of the Delijani family donated $5,000 to Baca’s officeholder account, $5,000 to his attorneys fees fund and $5,000 to his committee “Friends of Sheriff Lee Baca 2010.”
Baca said his relationship with Delijani, and the gifts he’s received from him, did not affect his decision to order an investigation. “I like Mr. Delijani,” Baca said, adding that he also likes “people who are homeless” and makes no distinction in his policing.
“I get more calls from the Joe Shmoes out on the street than any law enforcement figure in California. So this was one of many,” Baca said.
Baca said it is not uncommon for him to personally request criminal investigations into relatively low-level crimes such as forgery, but he could not quantify how many other times he had done so in the past.
Davis, the Beverly Hills sergeant, said his department handles simple forgery cases along with “very, very complex” ones. The Delijani case, he said, appeared to be neither.
“It was a civil matter, not in fact a crime. We cleared it as such,” he said. “This is a civil matter, so it needs to be handled in civil court.”
David Lingscheit, the lead sheriff’s detective on the Delijani case, said he had no choice but to take on the investigation.
“I’m an investigator,” he said. “When a case gets to me, I investigate it. What happens prior to that, I don’t know.” Asked if Delijani was given special treatment, Lingscheit said: “He got no special privileges from me.”