Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca admitted Friday that he broke state law by making a political endorsement while in uniform for an online campaign ad touting Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich for district attorney.
Baca's acknowledgment came after inquiries from The Times about a video on Trutanich's campaign website that shows Baca wearing his badge and his department-issued sheriff's uniform.
Although state law does allow sheriffs and other law enforcement officers to make political endorsements, they are not allowed to do so while in uniform. Baca said he mistakenly thought it was only a violation if he asked for campaign contributions while in uniform. He said he took the issue to his attorneys after he was contacted by Times reporters and asked the Trutanich campaign to take the video down soon after.
"There's no excuse," Baca said. "I should've known."
Legal experts said they knew of no cases in which anyone faced criminal charges for such a violation but said the statute should be common knowledge among campaign advisors.
After being asked to review the video, Jim Sutton, a San Francisco-based attorney who specializes in election law, said Baca's actions were a clear violation. "This is exactly what the law is meant to prohibit," Sutton said. "On its face, I have never seen such a blatant violation of state law."
The campaign removed the nearly 13-minute video and a shorter trailer that features Baca in uniform from its website and from the campaign's YouTube channel. Before being removed, the YouTube clips had more than 727,000 views.
Reached on his cellphone, Trutanich said he could not comment. "I'm sitting on City Hall property right now," he said, "and I'm not going to violate any laws talking about any campaign."
John Shallman, a senior political advisor to Trutanich, said he knew rank-and-file officers could not endorse in uniform, but had believed that elected sheriffs could.
He pointed to another online campaign video featuring Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley in his county office endorsing his chief deputy, Jackie Lacey, in the race to succeed him. "We were under the impression because the elected district attorney … recorded a political commercial in the D.A.'s office, the elected sheriff was able to do something similar," Shallman said.
A spokeswoman for Cooley noted that the district attorney does not wear a uniform and said Cooley believed he was not violating either state or county rules. "He believes that … this is well within the law," spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said.
In the Trutanich video, Baca is pictured twice, praising Trutanich as the most qualified candidate in the race. "He's not afraid to sacrifice," Baca says. "No job is too big. No responsibility is too small. Carmen Trutanich is about those values."
At one point, the video includes a close-up of Baca's badge.
Reached Thursday night, Baca told Times reporters that elected sheriffs were exempt from the law. "I wouldn't do this, gentlemen, if I didn't know that."
On Friday, he apologized and blamed himself. He said he had happened to be wearing his uniform on the day the spot was filmed. Asked if he'd done endorsements in uniform before, Baca said, "generally I don't."
An Internet search brings up at least one other occasion, a rally for City Council candidate Bernard Parks, in which Baca gives a speechin what appears to be a sheriff's jacket worn over his uniform.
A Sheriff's Department policy warns deputies they are prohibited from "participating in any political activities of any kind in uniform." A source familiar with internal investigations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter involves confidential discipline, said in recent years one deputy was suspended for three days and another for two days for engaging in political activity while in uniform.
Baca said he planned to take no administrative action against himself because his violation is not related to department business. He said he was unaware what sort of action might come against him by other enforcement agencies.
The sheriff said that he didn't believe the department's uniform added extra heft to his political endorsements because he's already so well known.
"A uniform does not give you credibility," he said. "It is who you are that gives the uniform credibility."
Bob Stern, who helped write the state's landmark political reform act, said he doubted Baca would face criminal sanction but described the snafu as "very embarrassing."
"How ironic," he said, "that the chief law enforcement officer in the county and the campaign for the person who wants to be the chief prosecutor doesn't know what the law is."