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Ex-L.A. County sheriff knew about a scheme to obstruct an FBI probe and helped plan part of it, reporter testifies

In the corruption trial of retired Sheriff Lee Baca, a former Los Angeles Times reporter’s testimony dealt a heavy blow.

A former Los Angeles Times reporter who uncovered a scheme by L.A. County Sheriff’s Department officials to interfere with an FBI probe into abusive deputies testified Wednesday that retired Sheriff Lee Baca was aware of the scandal as it unfolded and helped plan part of it.

Robert Faturechi, who spent several years reporting on the Sheriff’s Department for The Times before joining another news organization, was called to the witness stand against his will by federal prosecutors who have accused Baca of conspiring with a group of subordinates to obstruct the FBI investigation.

While brief, the reporter’s testimony dealt a blow to Baca.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox questioned Faturechi about an interview he conducted with the then-sheriff in August 2011 about steps he and other Sheriff’s Department officials had taken after learning FBI agents had been looking into allegations of deputies beating inmates in county jails.

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In response to questions, Faturechi told jurors Baca had said he was behind a decision to send a pair of Sheriff’s Department investigators to the house of the lead FBI agent in the case in order to question her about the investigation.

“He told you he directed it to happen?” Fox asked.

“Yes,” Faturechi responded.

Faturechi also recounted how Baca had talked during the interview about what had first alerted Sheriff’s Department officials that something was afoot: the discovery a few weeks earlier that a sheriff’s deputy had smuggled a cellphone to a jail inmate who was working as an FBI informant.  

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Under cross-examination by Baca’s attorney, Faturechi said Baca in the interview dismissed the notion that he had dispatched the investigators to the agent’s house with the intent of intimidating the agent, as prosecutors now allege.

The appearance of a reporter injected an element of controversy into the trial, which has run five days and is expected to conclude early next week. Faturechi, who now works for ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative organization, had tried to avoid testifying. Lawyers for the Los Angeles Times argued on Faturechi’s behalf that the Constitution’s 1st Amendment protected him from having to assist the government in making its case. 

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson rejected the claim, saying the prosecution’s need for disclosure outweighed Faturechi’s protections as a journalist. Anderson, however, agreed to set strict limits on the testimony, ordering that Faturechi only had to answer questions about material he published in the newspaper or elsewhere.

“Subpoenaing journalists is a threat to media independence,” Faturechi said in a statement. “Our attorneys fought back to ensure … I would reveal absolutely nothing about anonymous sources or confidential materials.”

Fox’s decision to call Faturechi to the stand — and Faturechi’s reluctance to testify — reflected a point of deep friction for journalists that has become heightened over the past several years as Justice Department officials in the Obama administration have aggressively sought information from news media organizations to aid in investigations.

In one high-profile case, justice officials subpoenaed James Risen, a New York Times reporter, and pressured him to identify his confidential sources as part of a prosecution of a former CIA agent charged with leaking to Risen classified information. Risen refused and, under direction from then-Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, prosecutors backed off, declining to force him to testify.

The cases led to renewed calls for Congress to consider a federal shield law that would establish a reporter’s right to refuse to testify. While many states have such laws that offer varying levels of protection to journalists, there continues to be no federal law.

On Wednesday, jurors also heard from one of Baca’s former aides, who testified to seeing Baca hold several closed-door meetings with top officials in the weeks after the FBI investigation was discovered. 

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Those officials, including Baca’s second-in-command, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, as well as a handful of low-level deputies, have been convicted or pleaded guilty for the roles they played in the obstruction. On Wednesday, Tanaka lost his bid to remain free on bail while he appealed his conviction, clearing the way for him to begin serving the five-year sentence Anderson handed down in his trial.

Fox also called Leah Tanner, the lead FBI agent in the case, to the stand. Along with recounting how she and other agents were prevented from meeting with the informant, Tanner discussed voluminous phone records, emails and calendar entries that showed the flurry of communications top Sheriff’s Department officials exchanged as they worked to derail the FBI.

At several crucial points, Tanner testified, the records show Baca spoke with Tanaka on the phone or attended meetings with others who have been convicted in the case.

 

joel.rubin@latimes.com

For more news on federal courts in Southern California, follow me on Twitter: @joelrubin

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