Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has accepted gifts from executives seeking his agency’s business, individuals who later received special treatment from him, and even a pair of felons implicated in a massive money-laundering and fraud scheme, according to a Times review of disclosure records.
Donors have lavished on Baca free rounds of golf, meals, fine wines and liquor, and tickets to sporting events.
Since becoming sheriff in 1998, he has accepted more than $120,000 worth of gifts and free travel. In a recent three-year span, he accepted significantly more freebies than California’s 57 other sheriffs combined.
State law allows local officials to accept gifts, with some restrictions. But government watchdogs said Baca’s willingness to accept so many gifts creates potential conflicts of interest.
“Doesn’t he realize the appearance is terrible?” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “When you’re taking gifts from strangers, there’s only one reason. They only give gifts because they want something.”
Baca rejected the notion that donors were looking for special favors or treatment.
“The implication of all these gifts is ‘Well, they’re influence-buying.’ Nothing could be more opposite than that,” he said. “What they’re expressing is appreciation for the respectful way we do business.”
He said that it would not be practical for him to do a background checks on gift-givers and that refusing their tokens would be insulting. Sometimes, Baca said, he passes the gifts along to members of his department. He said he wished there were a state or local law prohibiting people from giving him gifts.
“My life would be much easier if people did not give me gifts,” he said. “I don’t solicit any gifts. I’ve never asked for a gift.… People just do it for me.”
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said they limit gifts from people vying for business from their departments to avoid conflicts of interest.
Hutchens, who once worked for Baca, said she’s wary of accepting gifts from people she didn’t know before taking office — and rules out taking anything from felons and individuals seeking work from her department.
“That’s a very clear-cut one. Anyone doing business or seeking to do business, no way,” she said. Hutchens said she worked out a system with the Irvine Co. so that when she attends the real estate company’s events at private clubs where meals are free, they mail her a bill afterward.
“I try just to make it really clear: When I go out, I will pay for my own lunch or dinner,” she said. “Sometimes they’re a little taken aback.… You can’t always go to everything if you’re paying for yourself, but I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Since becoming sheriff, Baca has accepted 131 rounds of golf valued at more than $10,200 on his disclosure forms. He has taken tickets to 42 basketball games, concerts and other events totaling about $5,000, and accepted 22 bottles of wine and liquor he valued at more than $1,590.
He’s gone on at least 20 free trips, often for meetings abroad, totaling about $65,000. In 2008, he took a seven-day trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, valued at almost $12,000 and paid for by the Saudi Foreign Intelligence Service, for a meeting on law enforcement issues.
Some of the sheriff’s benefactors have received special attention from him.
Last year, Baca raised some eyebrows when he waded into the politics of city golf cart contracts, lobbying the Los Angeles City Council to stick with a firm that had had the deal for years.
“At first, I didn’t get how he knew about golf carts,” said Michael Bernback, the owner of a rival firm. Then Bernback realized the firm the sheriff supported was owned by the family of attorney Michael Yamaki, who lent Baca $20,000 during his initial run for sheriff and has picked up the tab for nine rounds of golf. Baca hired Yamaki as an advisor in 2005, and since then his salary has risen almost 50%, to more than $152,000.
Baca acknowledged that Yamaki asked him for help. But he said he wasn’t performing a favor for a friend. “As a golf enthusiast, independently, I know enough about the subject,” the sheriff said.
Baca said he wanted to prevent the city from signing a bad deal, claiming the rival contractor misrepresented how much his firm would make for the city. Bernback denied the allegation.
In fact, a city audit later concluded that the company owned by Yamaki’s relative had underreported its proceeds and shorted the city thousands of dollars.
For years, Beverly Hills real estate magnate Ezat Delijani presented the sheriff with fine wines and liquor. In 2008, Delijani found himself in a lease dispute with one of his tenants, a pharmacist. When Beverly Hills police said they wouldn’t investigate because the case appeared to be a civil matter, the Delijani family contacted Baca. The sheriff launched a criminal probe that was assigned “rush” status, generally reserved for homicides and other high-priority cases, and was referred to by deputies as a “Sheriff Baca Special Request.”
Last year, a state agency discovered a group of 99 sheriff’s reserve deputies who were granted badges or promoted despite flunking mandatory law enforcement tests and attending classes at unauthorized locations like the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
The department has refused to name the 99 reserves. But records obtained by The Times show that Stan Schuster, the owner of an exclusive Beverly Hills cigar club who paid for a round of golf for Baca in 2008, was among them.
Baca also accepted gifts from executives at companies that have sought business from his department. He received a gift basket from the president of California Litho-Arts, which has since been paid almost $115,000 for providing the Sheriff’s Department with printing services. Another gift basket came from a representative of Global Tel* Link, which the county selected to provide some inmate phone call services. Since 2008, the company has been paid more than $216,000.
An executive with Aon Corp., a risk management company, has paid for 10 rounds of golf, each ranging from $40 to $100, as well as sports tickets and meals since 2000. The firm has been paid nearly $500,000 by the Sheriff’s Department.
The gifts, Baca said, do not present a conflict because he does not personally get involved in deciding which companies do business with his agency. He said the department’s process for purchasing goods and services is rigidly defined, and delegated among his employees and county staff. Baca said a member of his command staff assesses the value of presents he receives and “ensures that gifts are not an influence on department operations.” The sheriff said he rejected a pair of golf memberships and an electric bicycle that were over the legal limit in value.
From 1999 to 2004, Baca accepted multiple gifts from Commerce Casino officials, including sports and concert tickets, golf and a $1,500 sculpture as a wedding present.
In 2004, the sheriff became an outspoken supporter of a state measure that would have allowed Commerce and other card clubs to install hundreds more slot machines. Although some other law enforcement leaders backed the measure, it was opposed by the California Police Chiefs Assn., with critics arguing that gambling breeds crime.
Around the same time, Baca and his top executives were also booking quarterly conferences at the casino’s ballroom.
Last year, Baca accepted facial creams, teas and vitamins from a husband and wife who run a health supplements business. Tei-Fu Chen and Oi-Lin Chen were accused in 1995 of masterminding a scheme to avoid $38 million in taxes in what was called the largest individual tax-evasion case ever filed in federal court in Los Angeles. Tei-Fu eventually pleaded guilty to tax evasion and making false statements, and Oi-Lin to causing the filing of a false tax return.
Two other businessmen became embroiled in public corruption scandals shortly after bestowing gifts upon Baca. Elliott Broidy, a politically connected L.A. venture capitalist, gave the sheriff three boxes of expensive chocolates. The presents stopped coming in 2009, when Broidy pleaded guilty to bribery in New York. He allegedly paid $1 million in bribes to state pension officials in exchange for business in what New York’s then-Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo called “an old-fashioned payoff.”
Baca took a gift basket, nuts, candy and fruit from attorney Joseph Cavallo. A few years later, Cavallo was convicted of three felonies for paying bail agents to steer clients to his law firm. He later became a key witness in the trial of disgraced former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona, whom prosecutors accused of steering business to Cavallo in exchange for kickbacks.
Although state law allows local officials to accept gifts, there are restrictions. Officials must declare gifts adding up to $50 or more in a public report each year. Presents from a single source cannot exceed $420 in the span of one year, although some items aren’t subject to that cap, such as wedding gifts and certain types of travel reimbursements.
Baca’s gift-givers are an eclectic group. He received a BB gun set from a former showgirl. A doctor who specializes in sex changes picked up his golf tab. So did actor Michael Douglas and the founder of fast-food chain Panda Express. Action star Steven Seagal gave the sheriff a gift basket. Soul singer Chaka Khan presented him with flowers and chocolates.
Beck, the Los Angeles police chief, declined to comment specifically on Baca’s gift records, but said that when it comes to individuals and businesses that might be seeking work from his department, he only accepts plaques and other inexpensive tokens.
“We recognize organizations give each other awards and recognitions. That’s the normal flow of business; you don’t want to affect that. But you wouldn’t want gifts that can influence people’s decisions,” Beck said. “Generally for the head of an agency, it’s a conflict of interest.”
Beck received a flurry of gifts from well-wishers during the two months after he was picked to lead the LAPD in 2009. But even then, his haul didn’t compare to Baca’s. During the same two months, which were relatively uneventful for Baca, the sheriff brought in five times more than Beck.
Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.