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U.S. appears to expand probe of L.A. County jails

A federal grand jury has demanded that Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials turn over all correspondence they have had with a county commission created to examine allegations of excessive force by deputies in the county jails, according to a sheriff’s email obtained by The Times.

The subpoena suggests that federal authorities, in the midst of a widespread investigation of the jails, are expanding their probe to include allegations unearthed by the commission.

In recent months, that county panel has heard testimony from current and former sheriff’s supervisors who have publicly alleged that top managers fostered a culture of abuse inside the jails.

But many more sheriff’s employees have spoken to the commission privately. The subpoena could inadvertently force those sheriff’s officials to out themselves to the department as informants.

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In addition to seeking documents, federal authorities have been conducting interviews with current and former sheriff’s officials, some of whom have told The Times that the questions have gone beyond jails issues to include other allegations of misconduct.

Federal prosecutors last year subpoenaed The Times for information about online commenters who complained about jailer misconduct, but that subpoena was withdrawn after the newspaper’s attorneys objected.

The FBI’s secret investigation of the jails was revealed last year when The Times reported that the bureau had smuggled a cellphone through a corrupt jailer to an inmate working as a confidential federal informant inside Men’s Central Jail.

Since then, public scrutiny of the jails has intensified. Among the revelations was that top sheriff’s officials had raised alarms in internal memos about jailers crafting narratives to impose “jailhouse justice” and supervisors allowing the behavior to go unchecked by conducting shoddy investigations. A retired jail commander told The Times that he tried to take his warnings about gang-like deputy cliques to Sheriff Lee Baca but was ignored.

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Alarmed by the allegations, the county Board of Supervisors created a commission to examine jail abuse. The panel has not yet issued its findings, but its ongoing investigation has included dozens of interviews with sheriff’s officials and others. Only a handful have testified before the commission publicly.

The email about the subpoena was sent to a wide range of Sheriff’s Department supervisors, telling them that those at the rank of lieutenant or above will have to turn over their correspondence with the commission to the department so the agency can comply with the subpoena.

“It is of the utmost importance that we comply fully with this subpoena,” the email said. It’s unclear from the email if sheriff’s supervisors are expected to turn over correspondence conducted via personal email and other non-county channels.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said he was unaware of the subpoena. He said Baca has made it clear to his deputies that they are allowed to cooperate with the commission.

“It would be a shame if those who wanted to be anonymous were exposed, but we didn’t do that,” he said. “And we wouldn’t hold that against them.”

As the commission was beginning its work, its members anticipated that they would not be able to guarantee confidentiality to witnesses because a court could compel them to provide names during a criminal investigation or civil litigation.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the commission, said Friday that the panel’s investigators made that clear to their witnesses.

“Every witness we’ve spoken with has been informed ... that we don’t alone determine whether witnesses’ identities are going to remain undisclosed,” Krinsky said.

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The U.S. attorney’s office could not be reached for comment about the subpoena.

robert.faturechi@latimes.com


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