LOS ANGELES – An FBI agent told a jury hearing evidence against Los Angeles County’s former sheriff Wednesday how she was illegally threatened with arrest by two sheriff’s sergeants who appeared to be acting as part of a plan set in motion by the department’s highest-ranking officer.
Leah Tanner, the case agent on the FBI’s civil rights investigation into excessive force and corruption among jail deputies, testified that on Sept. 26, 2011, two sheriff’s investigators confronted her in the driveway leading into her apartment and told her that they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest.
Prosecutors contend ex-Sheriff Lee 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 Tanner outside of her home.
“It was defendant’s way of showing the drastic measures he was willing to take and the risk the federal government was facing if it had the audacity to continue to investigate his department,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox wrote in a trial memorandum.
Baca — who is being tried in downtown Los Angeles on conspiracy and obstruction counts — denies knowing in advance of the attempted intimidation of Tanner and claims then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka oversaw the department’s response to the once-secret federal investigation.
However, Robert Faturechi, formerly of the L.A. Times and currently a journalist with the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica, told jurors he wrote a story published Sept. 29, 2011, in which he quoted Baca admitting he knew ahead of time that sheriff’s deputies were being sent to the FBI agent’s home.
Fox asked Faturechi if Baca said he directed deputies to approach Tanner.
“Yes, that he did,” Faturechi responded.
The taped encounter between Tanner and sergeants Scott Craig and Maricela Long played for the jury.
After Tanner tells the sheriff’s officials that she was not going to make any statements,” Craig falsely informs the federal agent that she was a “named suspect in a felony complaint.”
Craig then states that he was “in the process of swearing out a declaration for an arrest warrant” for her.
A short time later, two FBI officials — then-Supervisory Special Agent Carlos Narro and Special Agent Teresa Tambubolon — called Long. Tape of that conversation was also played for jurors.
Narro is heard saying that Tanner told him that “you guys indicated to her that there’s going to be a warrant for her arrest?”
“There’s going to be,” Long responds.
Narro: “Does the sheriff know this?”
Long replies, “The sheriff knows this, sir.”
After the call ended, the recording device captured laughter and Long telling Craig, “They’re scared.”
Craig and Long were among seven sheriff’s officials previously convicted of obstruction of justice charges in the case and were sentenced to 33 and 24 months behind bars, respectively.
The jury also watched tape of a Sept. 26, 2011 appearance Baca made on TV’s “Good Day L.A.” in which the anchors asked him about allegations of brutality within the jails and the FBI’s investigation.
Asked if he resented the FBI’s “intrusion” into the jail system that his department oversees, Baca responded “Oh, yeah.”
A second anchor then asked, “Well, if you don’t want the FBI in there, then who polices the police?”
“We police ourselves,” Baca said.
Prosecutors hope to prove that Baca ordered his underlings to stymie federal scrutiny of the jails and keep any investigation of misconduct within the department.
The former sheriff is facing a second trial — on a charge of making false statements to federal authorities — following the conclusion of proceedings now in their second week in the new federal courthouse downtown.
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 lying charge. Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Last week, two ex-deputies who were convicted of obstructing the FBI jails investigation told the jury that they believed they were following orders from Baca when they worked to derail the federal probe by hiding an inmate-turned informant in various spots within the jail system.
Former deputies James Sexton and Mickey Manzo testified about the steps they took to conceal the whereabouts of Anthony Brown, who was working for Tanner as a federal informant. Both ex-lawmen said that they believed their orders came from Baca and Tanaka.
Tanaka, who alleges that Baca initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison after his April conviction on conspiracy and obstruction charges and is expected to begin serving his sentence next month.
Baca suddenly retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
Prosecutors said they could wrap up their case Thursday, followed by the defense case.
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