U.S. seeks to expand probe of L.A. County Sheriff’s Department
Federal authorities are seeking to expand their jail misconduct investigation by convincing sheriff’s deputies to provide evidence against colleagues and higher-level officials in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, according to interviews.
Some sheriff’s officials are already cooperating with federal investigators, including at least one who agreed to become a confidential informant earlier in the inquiry. Legal experts who reviewed the indictments unsealed this week said some deputies mentioned but not identified by name are also likely to be cooperating.
Many of the 18 former and current deputies charged in the jail scandal face potentially lengthy prison sentences if they are convicted of crimes that include conspiracy to obstruct justice, lying to federal agents and beating inmates and writing false reports to cover up the assaults. The prospect of tough punishment gives deputies an incentive to help with the investigation in exchange for a deal, legal experts said.
Federal authorities have indicted or charged 13 deputies, three sergeants and two lieutenants but have not named anyone in the upper echelons of the department as defendants.
A federal grand jury has continued to take testimony after the indictments were sealed, according to sources who requested anonymity because the grand jury proceedings are secret. It is unclear what allegations the panel has been focusing on.
Several former federal prosecutors said it makes sense for the U.S. attorney’s office to encourage deputies now charged in the scandal to cooperate by providing evidence against others in the Sheriff’s Department.
Thomas A. Hagemann, who helped prosecute the last big corruption investigation of the Sheriff’s Department two decades ago, recalled that some sheriff’s narcotics investigators accused of helping skim hundreds of thousands of dollars of drug money in the 1980s started cooperating after the first round of charges were filed.
“In our experience, the first indictment was the beginning of the story, not the end,” said Hagemann, who is now a white-collar criminal defense attorney in Houston.
It remains unclear how far up the Sheriff’s Department chain of command the investigation could go. Four sheriff’s employees told The Times earlier this year that Sheriff Lee Baca played a significant role in how his department handled an inmate after discovering that he was working as an FBI informant.
Prosecutors allege that seven sheriff’s officials took part in a conspiracy to hinder the FBI by, in part, hiding the inmate rather than turning him over to federal authorities, who had obtained a court order for him to appear before the grand jury to testify about misconduct by jailers. The inmate was moved out of the jail and sheriff’s employees were told not to allow federal agents to have contact with him, according to the indictment.
As part of the inquiry, federal investigators interviewed Baca in April. The sheriff has not been charged. Baca, who declined a request from The Times to be interviewed, has said he was assured he was not a target of the investigation. A sheriff’s spokesman has said the inmate was moved to ensure his safety and not to hide him from the FBI.
A grand jury has also taken testimony about the role that former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka played in handling the inmate informant, who was caught in possession of a phone that the FBI had smuggled into jail for him. Tanaka told The Times earlier this year that Baca ordered subordinates to keep the inmate from the FBI until the Sheriff’s Department finished with him and denied a request from a federal official to return the phone.
U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr., who announced the charges this week, has said that the investigation of the department is continuing. He declined to elaborate.
The indictments unsealed this week are not the first charges filed in the three-year investigation of the jails.
Federal prosecutors filed a bribery charge against former Deputy Gilbert Michel in January 2012. Prosecutors said Michel delivered the cellphone to the FBI’s inmate informant. An undercover FBI agent gave Michel, then assigned to the Men’s Central Jail, $1,500 before other jailers discovered the cellphone during a search of the inmate’s belongings.
Michel pleaded guilty and has been cooperating with federal authorities as part of a plea deal with prosecutors. He has yet to be sentenced.
Two other deputies who have acknowledged providing information to federal investigators are James Sexton and Michael Rathbun. The men filed a harassment and retaliation lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department in which they said they went to the FBI last year and told agents about illegal acts by the department. The lawsuit did not elaborate on those alleged acts. Sexton and Rathbun also said in the suit that they testified before the grand jury.
Despite cooperating, Sexton was among those recently indicted and faces conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. A U.S. attorney’s office spokesman said he is expected to appear in court Monday. Rathbun was not among those named in the indictments unsealed this week.
Hagemann, the former assistant U.S. attorney who worked on the federal prosecution of more than two dozen sheriff’s narcotics investigators 20 years ago, said building a case against law enforcement officers can be challenging.
In investigations of excessive force, alleged victims and witnesses often have criminal records that the defense can use to attack their credibility, he said. Convincing police officers or sheriff’s deputies to testify against their colleagues is also difficult because of their loyalty to one another, he said.
“It’s a very real thing, the code of silence,” Hagemann said. “I saw it play out before my eyes.”
Joseph Akrotirianakis, who left the U.S. attorney’s Los Angeles office earlier this year for private practice, said any prosecution of Sheriff’s Department executives for obstructing justice would have to prove that their actions were driven by the intent to hinder the FBI’s investigation and that subordinates didn’t simply misunderstand their orders.
“It is possible [the deputies] might have had different intentions in undertaking these acts,” Akrotirianakis said. “That’s why it’s tricky.”
Securing convictions against those already facing charges will not be easy, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and former federal prosecutor.
The obstruction of justice indictment, she said, includes some claims that are usually at the core of such cases, such as lying to federal agents and trying to convince witnesses not to cooperate. But she said she was surprised by some of the other allegations in the indictment, including charges that sheriff’s officials unsuccessfully sought a court order for FBI reports and notes from the jail misconduct investigation.
She said defense attorneys could argue that their clients were not trying to stymie the FBI but wanted to know more about possible criminal activity by sheriff’s employees.
“Sometimes less is more in charges,” she said.
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