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Grand jury probes L.A. County sheriff's handling of FBI informant

When Los Angeles County jail officials learned last year that one of their inmates was a secret FBI informant, they launched a plan.

Sheriff's officials moved the inmate from the downtown lockup, where he was surreptitiously collecting information on allegedly abusive and corrupt deputies, to a cell in a patrol station in San Dimas. Jailers kept him under constant watch, sources said, and listed the informant, a convicted bank robber, under a series of aliases — including Robin Banks.

Now, a federal grand jury is investigating whether sheriff's officials moved the informant to hinder an FBI investigation into alleged jail abuses.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

Several sheriff's employees have testified at recent grand jury hearings about the handling of the informant, sources said. At least one witness testified that moving the inmate and changing his name was an attempt to hide him from federal agents, and that top officials, including the department's second in command, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, played a role in the plan, according to a source familiar with the testimony.

Sheriff's officials insist that they were not hiding the informant, Anthony Brown, from the FBI but protecting him from other deputies.

Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said Brown wrote a letter after his identity was discovered, complaining that he feared for his life and felt abandoned by the FBI.

"He was frightened not of inmates but of deputies because he was snitching on deputies," Whitmore said. "We were moving him around to protect him from any kind of retaliation."

The grand jury investigation underscores the rift that developed last year between the Sheriff's Department and federal authorities after deputies discovered the FBI had cultivated an inmate informant as part of a wide-ranging inquiry into the department's jails.

After news broke about the incident, Sheriff Lee Baca publicly accused an FBI agent of possibly committing a crime by smuggling a phone to the informant. He dispatched investigators to the agent's home before determining the case was "not worthy of pursuing."

The grand jury hearings suggest that the federal investigation extends beyond alleged jailhouse abuses by deputies to include the actions of high-ranking members of the department. So far, the U.S. attorney's office has brought charges against only one deputy, who pleaded guilty to bribery for taking money to smuggle the cellphone to the informant.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor, said obstruction of justice cases typically involve intimidation or violence against potential witnesses. But she said prosecutors could build a criminal case against sheriff's officials if they can prove the department's goal in moving Brown was to hinder the FBI's investigation of the jails.

"The biggest challenge is probably to show... the purpose of that was to interfere with the investigation as opposed to other legitimate purposes," she said. "If they can show that there was a conspiracy to hide the informant, they'll find a statute that fits."

Sheriff's officials discovered the informant's identity after jail deputies found his phone during a cell search in August 2011. The phone included calls to the FBI. In an interview with The Times earlier this year, the informant said he had been using his phone to take photos and document excessive force inside Men's Central Jail. Brown said FBI agents regularly visited him in court and at jail, where he supplied them with the names of corrupt and abusive deputies.

Brown said FBI agents rushed into the jail to visit him soon after they learned his cover had been blown. But as the meeting began, Brown said, a sheriff's investigator came in and ended it. "This…visit is over," the official said, according to Brown.

Brown said sheriff's officials moved him, changed his name several times and grilled him about what he knew and whether he would testify in the federal investigation.

"I didn't know it then, but they were hiding me from the feds," said Brown, who is serving 423 years to life in prison for armed robbery.

Whitmore, the sheriff's spokesman, disputed Brown's account of the FBI visit, saying it never happened. Federal agents, he said, never asked to visit Brown and would have been given access to the inmate had they requested it.

Sources who were briefed on the department's handling of the informant said the decision to move Brown was made at a meeting attended by Tanaka. One sheriff's employee testified that supervisors made it clear after the meeting that the intent of moving Brown was to hide him from the FBI, according to a source.

Whitmore said Tanaka played no role in Brown's move.

"That is an absurd allegation," he said. "Were the higher-ups briefed about this? Absolutely. But he had nothing to do with this decision other than the fact that he was aware of it."

In the year since the jail abuse scandal erupted, Tanaka has come under heavy criticism. A county commission created to examine the jails accused Tanaka of exacerbating problems in the lockups by encouraging deputies to push legal boundaries and discouraging supervisors from disciplining deputies involved in misconduct.

The undersheriff admitted some fault, but denied that he turned a blind eye to abuse. In testimony before the commission, he accused his detractors of having personal agendas and trying to discredit him by misinterpreting his actions.

At least one witness has told the grand jury that another top sheriff's official — Lt. Greg Thompson, formerly in charge of the jailhouse intelligence team — was also involved in hiding Brown, according to the source.

Thompson was placed on leave last month. Sheriff's officials are investigating whether Thompson had his son, who is also a deputy, confront another jailer to find out what he had told the grand jury about the elder Thompson, according to several sources who asked to remain anonymous because the investigation is ongoing.

Representatives for the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment. Whitmore said that Tanaka and Thompson also declined to comment.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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