LOS ANGELES – In testimony that appeared to bolster obstruction of justice allegations against Los Angeles County’s former sheriff, an ex-jail guard who is a convicted felon told a jury Thursday that Lee Baca ordered that an inmate who was working as a secret federal informant should be “isolated” from his FBI handlers.
Mickey Manzo, one of six former sheriff’s department officials to be found guilty of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in July 2014, testified that ex-sheriff Baca tasked his then-undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, with keeping federal investigators away from inmate Anthony Brown, who was providing information to the FBI about deputies who were allegedly abusing inmates.
Baca is facing trial in downtown Los Angeles on obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges for allegedly putting into motion an elaborate plan to “hide” Brown within the jail system during a six-week period in August and September of 2011.
Manzo testified that after jail guards caught Brown with a cellphone smuggled to him by the FBI and a corrupt jail deputy, Baca held a meeting in which he ordered his subordinates to keep Brown hidden and to interview him.
Baca “basically told us what we were going to do,” Manzo said on the stand. The ex-sheriff allegedly told the group that he wanted Brown “isolated and protected,” and that Tanaka would oversee an internal probe of the situation.
After Baca left the meeting, Tanaka said he’d known the then-sheriff “a long time and had never seen him that upset,” Manzo testified.
Baca is accused of committing and conspiring to commit obstruction of justice. He will be tried at a later date on charges of making false statements to the federal government in April 2013. Prosecutors contend Baca lied to the FBI about his knowledge of a wide-ranging department conspiracy to subvert the probe into corruption and inmate abuse in the jail system.
Manzo was sentenced to two years in prison for his part in the conspiracy and testified as a result of a plea agreement in which he pledged to cooperate with prosecutors.
In his opening statement Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the six-man, six-woman jury that county residents entrusted Baca with the power to “bring to light any criminal acts,” but when his own department came under suspicion, the then-sheriff tried to “sweep it under the rug.”
Fox said jurors will be presented with “an overwhelming amount of evidence” to show that Baca was “the heartbeat, the leader of that conspiracy.”
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman countered that Tanaka was largely to blame for the attempt to derail the FBI investigation. He called Tanaka a “man with his own agenda.”
“You will hear that when Baca found out (about the jails probe), he was open, transparent and direct,” Hochman said in his opening statement. “The FBI was his brother in arms.”
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson split the trial into two parts after he agreed to allow testimony by an expert on dementia — but only as it relates to the charges of making false statements.
Anderson agreed to hold a separate trial on those counts, so that the 74- year-old Baca — who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease — is being tried first on the conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges, saying the former sheriff’s mental state is not relevant to those counts. The conspiracy and obstruction charges carry a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years.
A second jury will be selected at a later date to hear testimony on the false statements count, which carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.
The charges focus on the period after guards at Men’s Central Jail stumbled upon the FBI’s secret probe of alleged civil rights abuses and unjustified beatings of inmates within jail walls.
After sheriff’s deputies discovered that Brown was an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators. They also went to the home of an FBI agent in charge of the investigation and threatened her with arrest.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — claims he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that Tanaka was in charge of the operation. Ten ex-sheriff’s officials — including Tanaka – – have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case, and 10 others have been convicted of various charges connected to the overall federal probe.
Tanaka, who alleges that Baca initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison but is free pending appeal.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
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