LOS ANGELES – The prosecution rested Thursday in the federal corruption case against Los Angeles County’s former sheriff and defense attorneys called their first witness in an effort to prove their client’s innocence.
Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca is being tried in downtown Los Angeles on federal obstruction of justice charges for his alleged part in what prosecutors contend was a conspiracy to thwart a federal probe into abuses in the jail system. The defense counters that Baca’s former second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, was to blame and the retired lawman is innocent.
The six-man, six-woman jury has been hearing evidence since last week.
Prosecutors called as their 20th and final witness Andre Birotte Jr., a federal judge who was the U.S. attorney for the Los Angeles area during the time the allegations against Baca took place.
Birotte testified that tensions were high between the sheriff’s department and the FBI in August 2011 after Baca was told that the bureau was conducting a secret investigation of possible inmate abuse within county jails, which are managed by sheriff’s officials.
On Aug. 29, 2011, Baca and a cadre of county officials met with Birotte and federal prosecutors. The then-sheriff specifically asked that the FBI not be invited.
At the meeting, Baca expressed his displeasure at the covert jails investigation, but received no assurances that the investigation would be halted or would include the sheriff’s department, according to Birotte.
“Things were tense and tensions between us were building,” the witness said.
The following month — as relations between the two agencies worsened — two sheriff’s sergeants threatened the FBI case agent in charge of the jails probe with arrest.
Prosecutors contend Baca so resented the federal government’s efforts to investigate allegations of civil rights abuses in county jails that he attempted to force the FBI to back down from its probe by illegally having deputies confront the agent outside of her home.
The next day, Birotte, Baca and Steven Martinez — then the top FBI agent in Los Angeles — met in Birotte’s office. The meeting, which had been on the books for some time, was scheduled for Birotte to lay to rest any residual issues since the previous month’s meeting. Because of the threats to the FBI agent, the meeting took on new significance.
Birotte testified he informed Baca that, despite the lawman’s wishes, the federal jails investigation would continue, and the FBI would work with federal prosecutors, not with the sheriff’s department.
Birotte said he told Baca that “we’ll do what we can to keep you as informed as we can, but we’re not going to stop doing this investigation.”
Infuriated, Baca told Martinez, “I’m goddamned sheriff” and these are “my goddamned jails,” Birotte recalled for jurors.
Baca even suggested that the FBI and the sheriff’s department could “gun up” — meaning “go to war” — to settle the matter, Birotte said.
“It got very heated,” Birotte told the panel.
In a letter Baca later sent to Birotte, the then-sheriff called the FBI’s actions in conducting its jails probe “illegal” and “irresponsible,” accusing the bureau of “conspiracy” and “entrapment.”
But, as Birotte told the jury, the power of the federal government trumps state and county authority, so the FBI was “absolutely not” breaking the law by conducting its investigation.
After the prosecution rested, the defense called its first witness, Cecil Rhambo, the county’s former assistant sheriff. Rhambo, who testified for the prosecution last week, began to outline the paramilitary command structure of the sheriff’s department and is expected to return to the stand Friday
Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, told the judge that the defense could conclude its case as early as late Friday, or perhaps Monday — but only if the defendant does not testify.
If Baca testifies, that would add at least a day to the trial. Closing arguments will take place sometime next week.
Hochman also told the court that the defense intends to call five character witnesses, including former district attorneys Ira Reiner and Steve Cooley. He said he plans to call about a dozen witnesses in total, including Martinez and Michael Gennaco, who was running the Office of Independent Review at the time of the allegations.
Hochman said he would tell the court Friday morning if Baca would, in fact, testify.
Baca will be tried separately 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 department efforts to subvert a federal probe into corruption and inmate abuse in the jail system.
The judge 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 the jury could hear the medical testimony. Baca, 74, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
The charges focus on a period of time five years ago when sheriff’s deputies based 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 guards discovered that inmate Anthony 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 and threatened her with arrest.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — says he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that Tanaka was in charge of the operation.
Nine 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 Baca initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison — a term he will begin serving next month.
Baca previously backed out of a plea deal on the lying count — which called for him to serve no more than six months in prison — after the judge rejected the agreement as too lenient. If Baca had not withdrawn from the plea, he could have been handed a sentence of five years behind bars. He was subsequently indicted on the three felony counts he now faces.
Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
Baca retired suddenly in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
A federal appellate panel upheld the convictions of seven former sheriff’s department officials convicted in the conspiracy.
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