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Sheriff Lee Baca


Why the FBI Kept the LA Jail Abuse Investigation a Secret from Baca and other Top Brass…and More

July 24th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

FBI DOCUMENTS EXPLAIN WHY BUREAU KEPT SHERIFF’S OFFICIALS IN THE DARK ABOUT JAIL INVESTIGATION

The FBI chose not to tell former LA Sheriff Lee Baca and other top department officials of the bureau’s recent investigation into alleged misconduct in county jails to keep the department from obstructing the probe, according to a packet of FBI documents and emails obtained by the LA Times.

The LA Times’ Cindy Chang and Jack Leonard have more on the matter. Here are some clips:

In explaining the need for secrecy, federal agents wrote that the Sheriff’s Department had interfered with previous FBI investigations. The agents described instances in which sheriff’s officials allegedly retaliated against an informant, denied agents access to a key source in jail and prevented a federal task force from gaining access to “jail communications.”

The FBI documents allege that former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka thwarted an investigation into suspected contraband smuggling by a deputy at Pitchess Detention Facility.

According to one memo, sheriff’s officials prevented FBI agents from interviewing an inmate who had been cooperating.

“LASD, specifically Tanaka, made it difficult for the FBI to pursue an effective investigation and the case was eventually closed,” the memo said.

There are other justifications for the secrecy, according to the FBI documents. For instance, Baca’s nephew, Justin Bravo, a deputy with a questionable past who worked in the jails, was suspected by the FBI of “egregious” inmate abuse:

Jail inmates told the FBI that the nephew, Justin Bravo, was the leader of a group of deputies who carried out unprovoked assaults, according to one FBI record.

Bravo was hired by the Sheriff’s Department despite his alleged involvement in a fight with San Diego police and arrests on suspicion of drunk driving and burglary, The Times reported last year. In 2001 in North Carolina, Bravo pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor involving a car break-in.

More recently, Bravo was put on paid leave in connection with a criminal probe by the Sheriff’s Department into whether he had abused an inmate. He was disciplined and is back on the job, according to a department spokeswoman. She declined to elaborate, citing confidentiality laws.

Richard A. Shinee, Bravo’s attorney, said the description of his client as an “egregious inmate beater” was based on unreliable second- and third-hand accounts.

The documents also pointed to a long-rumored “pay to play” culture within the department, including allegations that Baca handed out concealed weapons permits to campaign supporters, that LASD members pressured tow truck companies for donations in exchange for contracts with the department, and that Tanaka specifically tried to steer garbage removal contracts as a Gardena city councilman:

According to an FBI case summary, sheriff’s captains were ordered to collect $10,000 per station from tow truck companies that had contracts with the stations. The donations went either to Measure A, which would have raised the county sales tax to pay for more law enforcement officers, or to a campaign fund backing Tanaka’s successful run for Gardena mayor, the FBI contended in the documents.

An unnamed towing company official told investigators “it was known in the towing industry that if you wanted a contract with LASD you had to donate money to local politics,” according to the case summary.

Also according to the summary, Waldie terminated a towing company’s contract after the owner spoke to the FBI about the alleged pressure to donate.

Waldie, who retired in 2011, called the allegation “absolutely preposterous.”

In an interview with KPCC’s Frank Stoltze back in May, former sheriff candidate Todd Rogers said as a captain he was leaned on by a superior officer who wanted him to award an exclusive contract to a towing company that had supported Sheriff Baca. Here’s a small clip from the interview:

Rogers says the superior officer, whom he declines to name, noted that captains hold the authority to choose which companies receive lucrative Sheriff’s Department towing contracts in their jurisdictions. He wanted Rogers to “strongly consider” giving an exclusive contract to a company the assistant sheriff described as “very supportive of the department and the sheriff.”

“I didn’t want the one tow company,” Rogers said. “I told him no.”

We took a quick look at Tanaka’s sheriff campaign donation lists. The most recent contribution report (mid-May) available to the public includes a few towing company donations.

And while there may be more, we found entries on pages 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, and 17 of this March 2014 donation report.

Here’s another donation from April of this year.

And if you skim through this 2013 list, you’ll find another towing company donation, and other interesting contributions.

There’s a lot more, so be sure to read the entire Times story. All this information from the FBI cannot help but raise one obvious question: what—if anything—does it suggest about possible future indictments?


FEDERAL JUDGE GIVES LAWSUIT AGAINST CALIFORNIA PRISONS’ RACIAL LOCKDOWN TACTICS CLASS ACTION STATUS

U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley granted class action status to an inmate’s lawsuit challenging a California prison policy of putting prisoners on lockdown by race after a fight breaks out involving even one member of a racial group. For instance, when individual Hispanic inmates fight, all inmates labeled by the CDCR as Hispanic can be locked down and deprived of things like yard and recreation priveleges, phone calls, and family visits.

The Associated Press has more on the ruling. Here’s a clip:

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2008 by one inmate, Robert Mitchell, after he and all other black inmates at High Desert State Prison in Susanville were locked in their cells following a fight. The legal challenge will now apply to all male inmates.

Gangs in California prisons typically are based on race, and fights often involve members of one race against one another. State law says the department can target specific racial and ethnic groups only when necessary to prevent further violence, and the response must be “narrowly tailored.”

The U.S. Justice Department last year intervened in the case, saying the practice violates the equal-protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment. Attorneys say no other state has a similar policy.


PROSECUTORS READING DEFENDENTS’ PRISON EMAILS WITH THEIR LAWYERS

The NY Times’ Stephanie Clifford has a story highlighting the emerging problem of federal prosecutors reading emails between federal prisoners and their lawyers, and using the correspondence to their advantage. Defense lawyers argue that the emails are the only efficient means of communication with the clients to whom they are trying to provide adequate representation, and should remain under the protection of attorney-client privilege.

Here are some clips:

The extortion case against Thomas DiFiore, a reputed boss in the Bonanno crime family, encompassed thousands of pages of evidence, including surveillance photographs, cellphone and property records, and hundreds of hours of audio recordings.

But even as Mr. DiFiore sat in a jail cell, sending nearly daily emails to his lawyers on his case and his deteriorating health, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn sought to add another layer of evidence: those very emails. The prosecutors informed Mr. DiFiore last month that they would be reading the emails sent to his lawyers from jail, potentially using his own words against him.

Jailhouse conversations have been many a defendant’s downfall through incriminating words spoken to inmates or visitors, or in phone calls to friends or relatives. Inmates’ calls to or from lawyers, however, are generally exempt from such monitoring. But across the country, federal prosecutors have begun reading prisoners’ emails to lawyers — a practice wholly embraced in Brooklyn, where prosecutors have said they intend to read such emails in almost every case.

The issue has spurred court battles over whether inmates have a right to confidential email communications with their lawyers — a question on which federal judges have been divided.

[SNIP]

All defendants using the federal prison email system, Trulincs, have to read and accept a notice that communications are monitored, prosecutors in Brooklyn pointed out. Prosecutors once had a “filter team” to set aside defendants’ emails to and from lawyers, but budget cuts no longer allow for that, they said.

While prosecutors say there are other ways for defense lawyers to communicate with clients, defense lawyers say those are absurdly inefficient.

A scheduled visit to see Syed Imran Ahmed, a surgeon accused of Medicare fraud who is being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, took lawyers five hours, according to court documents filed by one of Dr. Ahmed’s lawyers, Morris J. Fodeman. The trip included travel time from Manhattan and waiting for jail personnel to retrieve Dr. Ahmed.

Getting confidential postal mail to inmates takes up to two weeks, Mr. Fodeman wrote. The detention center, like all federal jails, is supposed to allow inmates or lawyers to arrange unmonitored phone calls. But a paralegal spent four days and left eight messages requesting such a call and got nowhere, Mr. Fodeman wrote.

Posted in CDCR, FBI, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, race, Sheriff Lee Baca | 85 Comments »

Mystery Message in the Sky Over LASD Headquarters

July 10th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


Around 2 PM Wednesday, just at the time when the Sheriff Department’s executive planning committee was scheduled to meet,
A mystery banner was flown behind a small plane repeatedly over Los Angeles sheriffs department headquarters in Monterey Park.

The banner read: EPC: LEADERS DON’T FEED DEPS TO FEDERAL WOLVES

For those unfamiliar with the term, the Executive Planning Committee, or EPC, is exactly that, the inner circle of command staffers who meet on a regular basis with the LASD’s top brass—the sheriff and assistant sheriff—to talk about the running of the department.

Shortly after the banner appeared a crowd of department members and staffers spewed from the building to gaze skyward and snap cell phone photos.

Rumors circulated quickly about who could have hired the banner-flying airplane, which was in the air a bit over an hour.

Some said it was the LA County deputies’ union, ALADS, which was tired of paying the growing legal bills for deputies who were indicted. (It should likely be mentioned here that, the union has declined to pay any part at all of James Sexton’s legal representation. But that’s another subject altogether. In any case, the illogical rumor circulated.)

Others said it was an ominous warning sent by persons unknown urging department members to return to the code of silence and to cease and desist talking to the FBI “wolves” about any kind of wrongdoing committed by those in the LASD.

Still others said the plane was hired by a group of Tanaka supporters, hoping to protect their man from legal action against him by warning people not to testify or cooperate with the feds against him in any way. (Although how this airborne message would be an effective means of delivering such a warning is unclear.)

Our department sources, however, tell us that these rumors are all complete nonsense, that the banner’s appearance was paid for by an unnamed group of deputies who reportedly work within the LA County Jail system. Their point, as we understand it, was caused by anger that those indicted—and in the case of six of the defendants, convicted—-on the obstruction of justice matter were taking the hit for those higher who gave the crucial orders, all of whom still seem to manage to be in possession of a get out of jail card.

Or something like that.

That’s all we know at the moment.

Posted in FBI, jail, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, U.S. Attorney | 48 Comments »

Childhood Trauma Often Mistaken for ADHD….The Feds Officially to Retry Sexton…..The Question of Charlie Beck’s 2nd Term…NY Wants to Raise Age of Criminal Responsibility

July 8th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


HOW CHILDHOOD TRAUMA IS OFTEN MISTAKEN FOR ADHD

One in nine U.S. Children are diagnosed with ADHD—attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. There have been many theories as to the reason for this consistent rise in the prevalence of the disorder. Now researchers are beginning to wonder if perhaps inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive behavior is often not ADHD at all, but a mirror of the effects of trauma and stress—a form of PTSD—that is misdiagnosed when pediatricians, psychiatrists, and psychologists are simply going for the familiar label rather than seeing the true underlying cause.

Rebecca Ruiz delves into the issue in a story that has been co-published by The Atlantic and Aces Too High. It’s a must read.

Here’s a clip:

Dr. Nicole Brown’s quest to understand her misbehaving pediatric patients began with a hunch.

Brown was completing her residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, when she realized that many of her low-income patients had been diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

These children lived in households and neighborhoods where violence and relentless stress prevailed. Their parents found them hard to manage and teachers described them as disruptive or inattentive. Brown knew these behaviors as classic symptoms of ADHD, a brain disorder characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and an inability to focus.

When Brown looked closely, though, she saw something else: trauma. Hyper-vigilance and dissociation, for example, could be mistaken for inattention. Impulsivity might be brought on by a stress response in overdrive.

“Despite our best efforts in referring them to behavioral therapy and starting them on stimulants, it was hard to get the symptoms under control,” she said of treating her patients according to guidelines for ADHD. “I began hypothesizing that perhaps a lot of what we were seeing was more externalizing behavior as a result of family dysfunction or other traumatic experience.”

[SNIP]

Dr. Kate Szymanski came to the same conclusion a few years ago. An associate professor at Adelphi University’s Derner Institute and an expert in trauma, Szymanski analyzed data from a children’s psychiatric hospital in New York. A majority of the 63 patients in her sample had been physically abused and lived in foster homes. On average, they reported three traumas in their short lives. Yet, only eight percent of the children had received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder while a third had ADHD.

“I was struck by the confusion or over-eagerness–or both–to take one diagnosis over another,” Szymanski says. “To get a picture of trauma from a child is much harder than looking at behavior like impulsivity, hyperactivity. And if they cluster in a certain way, then it’s easy to go to a conclusion that it’s ADHD.”


IT’S OFFICIAL NOW: THE FEDS WILL RETRY SEXTON

In a hearing held at 3 pm Monday in front of Judge Percy Anderson, Prosecutor Brandon Fox announced that, yes, the government had decided to go another round in trying Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy James Sexton for obstruction of justice for his part in allegedly hiding inmate and federal informant Anthony Brown from any and all federal officials.

The trial is set to begin on September 9, 2014.

Fox also notified the judge of his intent to file a motion limiting testimony on Sexton’s contacts and cooperation with the FBI, which the prosecution reportedly believes was much of why six members of the jury in Sexton’s last trial voted to acquit him.

The defense is likely to argue that, since Sexton’s cooperation with the FBI has much to do with the mindset and context in which the deputy made incriminating statements to the grand jury, which are the heart of the prosecution’s case, the facts of Sexton’s extensive cooperation cannot be excluded.

We will know what the judge rules later this summer.

Three more federal trials of LASD department members, all of them indicted for brutality and corruption in the LA County Jails, are scheduled for the coming year, according to the US Attorney’s Office.

In a case that will come to trial November 4, 2014, Deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez are accused of punching, kicking and pepper spraying an inmate who was handcuffed and shackled with a waist chain, then lying about their actions in a report that, in turn, caused the inmate to be falsely criminal charged.

In a case that will come to trial January 13, 2015, deputies Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum are charged in a six-count indictment with civil rights violations, assault and making false statements in reports. The indictment also alleges (among other things) that Brunsting, a training officer, frequently used deputies whom he was training to file reports that covered up abuse. The victims were inmates at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

A third jail brutality trial is scheduled for March 3. This indictment charges a sergeant and four deputies with civil rights violations, alleging that Sergeant Eric Gonzalez, and deputies Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge, and Noel Womack, arrested or detained five victims—-including the Austrian consul general—–when they arrived to visit inmates at the Men’s Central Jail in 2010 and 2011. In one of the four incidents, the victim suffered a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder that has left him permanently disabled. In another incident, the Austrian consul general and her husband were handcuffed and detained.

The six department members convicted last week will be sentenced on September 8, 2014.

Deputy Gilbert Michel, of the phone smuggling case, will be sentenced on September 15, 2014.


AFTER BUMPY PERIOD WITH CIVILIAN BOSSES, LAPD CHIEF CHARLIE BECK IS BACK ON SOLID GROUND

It was assumed that popular LA Chief of Police Charlie Beck would easily get a second term at the job. Then this spring, the LA Police Commissioners started to express concerns about a series of controversies. Between then and now, Beck has done much to mend and strengthen relationships, and thus he seems once again back on solid footing.

He wants a second term because he has a lot more to do, he says. Now it reportedly looks as though he’s going to get one—which is as it should be. (Firm constructive criticism is one thing, however, replacing Charlie Beck at this juncture would have been, in our opinion, unnecessary and destructive.)

The LA Times Joel Rubin has the details on this story of how things got off track, and now are back on. Here are some clips:

Charlie Beck received a blunt message from one of his civilian bosses as he prepared to request a second term as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department: He was no longer a shoo-in for the job.

Police Commissioner Paula Madison demanded a meeting with Beck in April and told him she was concerned about a recent string of controversies and his apparent lack of transparency with the five-member oversight panel he reports to.

“When I stepped into this role, I didn’t expect that we would be looking for a new police chief, but now we may need to consider it,” Madison recalled telling Beck.

Other commissioners shared her concerns. Some were displeased enough with Beck that they alerted Mayor Eric Garcetti, who appoints the commissioners and wields considerable influence on their decision. The mayor, in turn, summoned the chief.

[SNIP]

Before the recent tension with his bosses, Beck had cruised relatively unscathed through his first term in a period of relative calm for the scandal-prone LAPD. Beck established himself as a capable leader and oversaw continued declines in crime, according to department statistics.

He guided the department through budget cuts that included the near elimination of cash to pay officers for overtime. As many of the department’s roughly 10,000 officers accumulated hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime, Beck oversaw a plan that forced large numbers of them to take time off each month in lieu of being paid cash. The strategy strained resources as Beck and his commanders scrambled to make do with a depleted force.

Beck, when he thought it was necessary, did not shy from confrontations with his officers and the union that represents them.

[SNIP]

Decisions Beck made on discipline set off his recent clash with the commission. In February, he opted not to punish a group of officers involved in a flawed shooting, which drew a public challenge from Soboroff. A few weeks later, members of the oversight board, along with many officers, criticized the chief for not firing Shaun Hillmann, a well-connected cop who was caught making racist comments.

Those controversies were followed the next month by revelations that officers in South L.A. had been tampering with recording equipment in patrol cars to avoid being monitored. Commissioners demanded to know why Beck had left them in the dark about the matter and questioned whether the chief was committed to working with his civilian bosses….

Read on.


NEW YORK GOVERNOR DETERMINED TO RAISE THE AGE OF CRIMINAL RESPONSIBILITY

Supporters of raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York have science and statistics on their side when it comes to the reasons to avoid trying most youth as adults, but will they manage to get legislation passed to actually raise the age?

Roxanna Asgarian from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange explores the pros and cons of raising the age in New York.

Here’s a clip:

In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the members of the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice, created in part to address raising the age of criminal responsibility. Today, New York and North Carolina are the only two states where young people 16 and older are automatically treated as adults.

“Our juvenile justice laws are outdated,” Cuomo said in his State of the State address this year. “It’s not right, it’s not fair — we must raise the age.”

The commission is tasked with serving up concrete recommendations about raising the age and juvenile justice reform by December. Alphonso David, the governor’s deputy secretary of civil rights, said the commission has to strike a balance.

“When we think about criminal justice reform we are addressing two platforms: reducing recidivism and ensuring public safety,” David said. “We are very focused on advancing both objectives, so recommendations would likely factor in both goals.”

Posted in Charlie Beck, FBI, juvenile justice, LA County Jail, LAPD, LASD, PTSD, Sheriff Lee Baca, Trauma, U.S. Attorney | 2 Comments »

Feds Plan to Retry LA Sheriff’s Deputy James Sexton (But Will There Ever Be Indictments Up the Ladder?)

July 7th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


On Thursday of last week, two days after a federal jury found six members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department guilty of obstruction of justice,
attorney Thomas O’Brien learned that federal prosecutors are planning to retry O’Brien’s client, Deputy James Sexton.

Sexton, if you’ll remember, was tried in May of this year on the same allegations of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice for which the six were just convicted. But in the case of the 28-year-old deputy, the jury hopelessly deadlocked, 6-6, producing a mistrial.

In many ways Sexton’s case is similar to that of Mickey Manzo and Gerard Smith, the two deputies who were just convicted (along with two sergeants and two lieutenants).

Like Manzo and Smith, Sexton works for Operation Safe Jails (OSJ), the elite unit tasked with, among other things, developing informants among the various prison gang populations inside the county’s jail system.

And, like Manzo and Smith, Sexton was an active part of the team that hid federal informant and inmate, Anthony Brown, from his FBI handlers, albiet, at a far more junior level.


AND YET THERE ARE DIFFERENCES

Despite the similarities, Sexton’s case also is significantly different from the case arrayed against Manzo and Smith in several ways. For instance, unlike the recently convicted deputies, Sexton originated no relevant emails, he never interrogated federal informant Anthony Brown, he was not present at high-level meetings, like the meeting on August 20, 2011, called by Sheriff Lee Baca, with former undersheriff Paul Tanaka and other command staff in attendance, where Smith and Manzo were also present, and crucial discussions occurred. Unlike Smith or Manzo, his name is never listed in pertinent emails as being someone in a position of authority.

Perhaps most importantly, unlike Smith and Manzo, Sexton cooperated with the FBI for more than a year, reportedly submitting willingly to 37 different interviews with the feds, many of the interviews with FBI special agent Leah Marx.

The deputy talked with Marx and company so much, in fact, that, according to agent Marx’s testimony, in order to make communication with the feds easier and safer for Sexton, she and her team gave him a cell phone that he could use solely for his calls to them. (The FBI reportedly grew concerned after it learned of what it believed were genuine threats against Sexton and his OSJ partner, Mike Rathbun, by department members, due to the two deputies’ whistleblower actions on another unrelated LASD case.)

In addition to providing information and documents to the feds, Sexton also testified twice in front of a grand jury, and did so without any apparent effort at self-protection.

In short, Sexton fully admitted his part in the operation that came to be known as Operation Pandora’s Box—obligingly describing the hiding of Brown in colorful detail. Sexton also characterized the hiding of Brown as being part of an “adversarial” attitude in which “the adversary was the U.S. government”—aka the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“It was ‘bring out the smoke and mirrors’” he said.

The center of the prosecution’s case at the last trial was this grand jury testimony along with similar statements Sexton made to special agent Marx.

After the last trial resulted in a hung jury, juror Marvin Padilla said that it was Sexton’s grand jury testimony that got him and some of his fellow jurors to vote for acquittal.

“I just did not find it credible,” said Padilla. “I think these are conclusions he reached in hindsight a year later,” not when the actions were actually occurring. “Nearly all of Sexton’s narrative at the grand jury seemed like 20-20 hindsight.”


CRIMINAL CONDUCT & A TOXIC CULTURE

After the verdict came in last Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte held a short press conference on the court’s steps in which he talked about a “criminal conduct and a toxic culture” at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

“While an overwhelming majority of law enforcement officials serve with honor and dignity,” said Birotte, these defendants tarnished the badge by acting as if they were above the law.”

Monday at around 3 pm, James Sexton and his attorneys will meet with government’s prosecution team before Judge Percy Anderson to discuss whether or not the government will indeed refile charges on the deputy in the hope of convincing a jury that, Sexton, like the other six, acted as if he was “above the law.”

If so, a new trial could take place as quickly as this September.


LOOKING DOWN & LOOKING UP

Meanwhile, Miriam Aroni Krinsky, a former Assistant United States Attorney and the executive director for the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, explained why the government has likely decided to have another go at Sexton, and what to expect at a second trial.

“It is not surprising that the government would elect to retry Deputy Sexton given the decisive conviction of the other six defendants on all counts,” said Krinsky.

“The government may well believe that equities support a retrial and that a new jury should have the opportunity to determine whether Mr. Sexton should also be held accountable for his alleged participation in this conspiracy.”

Krinsky noted, however, that any retrial of Sexton will be “challenging” in the light of what she described as the deputy’s “limited role in the conspiracy and his immediate and prolonged cooperation with the government.” It was these factors, she said, “that undoubtedly resulted in jury nullification that accounted for the first jury’s inability to reach a verdict.”

The next time around, Krinsky said, “we can expect the government to present more robust evidence at any retrial (just as they did at the trial of the other six defendants) regarding the backdrop of excessive force in the jails and the systemic failures at LASD” that “…didn’t simply justify, but in fact compelled, the FBI to engage in an undercover operation that involved the unorthodox smuggling of a cellphone to an inmate.”

Of course, the mention of “systemic failures” and “a toxic culture” at the LASD cannot help but raise the question that must loom as a backdrop to any discussion of refiling on Sexton, namely whether or not the government intends to move up (instead of merely down) the ladder of command to file on those who actually gave the orders, and set the cultural tone that has, thus far, resulted in seven federal indictments for obstruction of justice, and six felony convictions.

More as we know it.

Posted in FBI, jail, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, The Feds, U.S. Attorney | 27 Comments »

WLA on Which Way LA? on KCRW 89.9 FM

July 2nd, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


On Tuesday night, WitnessLA was on KCRW’s Which Way LA? with the always excellent Barbara Bogaev
(who was standing in for Warren Olney).

It was a quick news segment in which we talked about the just handed down six guilty verdicts in the LASD federal trial, recorded as I was standing outside in the hot, noisy and windy steps of the federal courthouse after the verdicts had come in.

So if you’d like to listen you can find the podcast of the broadcast here.

KCRW FM is at 89.9 FM.

Posted in FBI, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, U.S. Attorney | No Comments »

THE JURY SPEAKS: Six Guilty On All Counts – What the LASD Verdict Means

July 2nd, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


THE JURY SPEAKS

After nearly five days of deliberation—which included twice having to start over when first one panel member had to be replaced, then a second—the federal jury delivered its verdict: Each of the six sworn members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department on trial for obstruction of a federal investigation were found guilty on all counts.

Those convicted include deputies Gerard Smith, 42, and Mickey Manzo, 34, sergeants Scott Craig, 50, and Maricela Long, 46, Lieutenant Stephan Leavins, 52, and Gregory Thompson, 54, a now-retired lieutenant.

All six defendants could face a maximum of fifteen years in federal prison. Scott Craig and Maricela Long could have an extra five years tacked on for the charges of making false statements to federal agents.

After the verdict was announced, the defendants reacted with expressions that ranged from stunned to stoic. Many of the family members who had attended every session of this fascinating but emotionally grueling month-long trial, struggled with tears.


“WE DIDN’T WANT TO HARM ANYBODY….BUT WE HAD A JOB TO DO”

According to the trial’s Juror No. 1, a truck driver named Ron (who declined to give his last name), he and his fellow panel members did their own wrestling with the human side of the verdicts.

“The biggest thing was how it was going to affect all these people’s lives,” he said. “Each of us went through that. We didn’t want to harm anybody.”

Yet, once they removed emotions from their task, Ron said, he and the rest had little difficulty with the facts of the case. “We had a job to do. And the evidence we had was pretty definite. They went over the line.”

Ron said that the jurors understood the contention of the defense that the various defendants were simply carrying out the orders of others. “But once your orders become you breaking the law,” he said, “that’s a problem. They went over the line when they began to hide “AB” as we got to call him, [federal informant] Anthony Brown, they began to do things outside the law.”


CRIMINAL CONDUCT AND A TOXIC CULTURE

At 4 pm on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte emerged with the prosecution team beside him, and made a statement on the steps of the courthouse in which he talked about “criminal conduct and a toxic culture” inside the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

“These defendants were supposed to keep the jails safe and to investigate criminal acts by deputies,” said Birotte. Instead they “took measures to obstruct a federal investigation and tamper with witnesses…. While an overwhelming majority of law enforcement officials serve with honor and dignity, these defendants tarnished the badge by acting as if they were above the law.”

In May, the trial of a seventh defendant, Deputy James Sexton, who was also accused of obstruction of justice in the hiding of FBI informant Anthony Brown, had ended in a mistrial with the jury hopelessly deadlocked, 6 to 6. In the case of Sexton, however, jurors voting to acquit pointed to the fact that the deputy had cooperated with the FBI for more than a year.


GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS

One of the reasons this trial has been important is that, in both both content and outcome, it points beyond itself to a host of additional issues.

As a consequence, in the days before the verdict, some of the trial watchers familiar with the workings of the U.S. Attorney’s office talked about the larger implications of possible verdicts. For instance, as one trial watcher explained, Tuesday’s string of guilty verdicts strongly suggests that a local agency should not attempt to derail the investigation of a federal agency into wrongdoing by the locals simply because the locals don’t like the way in which the feds are poking into their affairs. A string of innocent verdicts could have set a very different kind of precedent.

Another thing this trial has done is to paint yet one more vivid picture of–as U.S. Attorney Birotte put it—the “criminal conduct and a toxic culture” that was, and still is, corroding the innards of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, despite the majority of decent cops who fill its ranks.

Candidate for sheriff, Jim McDonnell, issued a statement Tuesday that pointed to this issue. “This is a devastatingly sad day for our entire County,” said McDonnell. “The LASD has lost the respect of too many in our community as well as the confidence of the dedicated men and women within the Department itself….”

The big question is, of course, now that they have this matched set of six convictions, will the federal prosecutors move up the LASD ladder and attempt to indict those who—according to testimony by multiple witnesses heard throughout this trial—actually gave the orders that resulted in six department members losing their careers and potentially facing serious prison terms?

Specifically, will the feds try to indict former sheriff Lee Baca and former undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is now running for sheriff?

Plus there are others like ICIB Captain William “Tom” Carey who are hard to ignore.

It is likely that, as the trials for some of the others of the total 21 department members indicted for brutality in the jails or other forms of corruption unfold in the coming year, the pressure on federal prosecutors to bring cases against those recently at the department’s top will continue to grow stronger.

Manzo, Smith, Craig, Long, Leavins and Thompson remain free on bail, and are scheduled to be sentenced on September 8 by United States District Judge Percy Anderson.


AND FOR OTHER ACCOUNTS OF TUESDAY’S VERDICTS BE SURE TO CHECK STORIES BY:

Lisa Bartley and Miriam Hernandez for ABC7

Rina Palta for KPCC

Victoria Kim and Cindy Chang for the LA Times

Posted in 2014 election, FBI, jail, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, U.S. Attorney | 103 Comments »

LASD Obstruction of Justice Trial: Closing Arguments, Part 2

June 25th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


SIX SEPARATE DECISIONS

Monday was the second and final day of closing arguments in the obstruction of justice trial in which six members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department are accused of deliberately getting in the way of a federal grand jury investigation into widespread brutality and corruption in the LA County jail system.

On Friday, the prosecution delivered its initial closing followed by hour-long presentations by each the attorneys for three of the six defendants, Lt. Greg Thompson, Lt. Steve Leavins and Deputy Mickey Manzo.

Monday, attorneys for Deputy Gerard Smith and Sgts. Maricela Long and Scott Craig presented closings for their clients, followed by a rebuttal by the prosecution.

(Since the prosecution has the burden of proof, prosecutors get the last word.)

A trial of this kind is a challenging one for the jury because, although it is a single proceeding in which all six defendants are charged with the offenses of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, the prosecution’s allegations of how that obstruction took place are substantially different for each of the six. This means, of course, that the jury must make an individual decision for each defendant about guilt or innocence. In other words, all could be found guilty, or all acquitted. Or the jury could come up with mixed results, finding some guilty, others innocent.


NOT HIS CALL

The first up among Monday’s lawyers was Bill Genego, the attorney for Gerard Smith.

In August 2011, said Genego, Deputy Smith’s commanding officer directed that Anthony Brown be isolated, that no one have access to him without the okay of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

(The suggestion that Tanaka loomed over much of the action as an unseen shot caller was something that Genego made reference to several times.)

“Gerard Smith did his job. He did not obstruct justice. He did not commit a crime.”

Interestingly, both Genego and Deputy Mickey Manzo’s attorney, Matt Lombard, have not spoken much throughout this trial, and their clients names have been largely absent from testimony, at least when compared to mentions of the other four. It is a strategy that the defense clearly hopes will pay off for the two deputies who, although they have now been placed in the narrative during the government’s closing, still could seem to the jury to be peripheral, because of their absence from much of the action described during these last three weeks of trial.

In his closing on Friday, Lombard labeled Manzo as “the fall guy,” a low-ranking department member taking orders from his superiors — orders that came from the very top of the sheriff’s department.

Monday, when Bill Genego’s turn came, he painted a similar picture of his client for the jury, contending that, while Smith was a trusted deputy, he was nothing close to a decision maker, that over and over again he had to ask his boss, Greg Thompson, about anything outside the scope of his orders.

It was not Smith’s decision to move federal informant Anthony Brown nor to change his name, Genego said. When Brown’s inmate file—his “jacket”—was moved and given to Lt. Leavins (which the prosecution has suggested was done to make it un-findable by the feds), “that was not Deputy Smith’s call.”

At the August 20, 2011, meeting called by the sheriff that set the hiding of Brown in motion, Smith was present but mostly as a bystander, said Genego. “The sheriff was upset,” he said, “and Paul Tanaka said this is one of the most important investigations in the history of the department…” But Smith was not involved in all the communications that followed.

When, three days later—after the FBI managed to get in to see Brown and was tossed out—”Greg Thompson and Paul Tanaka decided to move him. That was not Deputy Smith’s call.”

to be on Brown at all times, he organized the detail.

“Could he choose not to follow that order?” asked Genego.

“Not his call.” It was a mantra Genego repeated throughout the closing.

“He wasn’t on the task force. He’s not on any of those emails. He had no corrupt purpose. Gerard Smith did his job,” attorney Genego concluded. “He did not commit a crime. He is not guilty.”


WHERE IS BACA? WHERE IS TANAKA?

Michael Stone, Scott Craig’s bow-tie sporting attorney, and Maricela Long’s attorney, Angel Navarro, continued the defense theme of officers following what they believed were lawful orders, stressing that Sheriff Baca and Paul Tanaka were briefed all along the way.

“On August 18, a lawful criminal investigation was ordered,” said Stone, referring the initial meeting in which Baca set in motion the hiding of Brown, ostensibly for his protection, and the probe into the undercover operation led by FBI special agent Leah Marx.

“Conducting a lawful investigation is not a conspiracy.”

After Scott Craig and Maricela Long were assigned to that criminal investigation, “…did you ever hear any evidence that Baca put the brakes on? ” Stone asked. “No. Because it didn’t happen.”

The two sergeants were “worker bees” doing what they were asked to do, he said.

Stone had a somewhat harder time defending Craig against the government’s allegations that he had deliberately tried to persuade deputies Gilbert Michel and William David Courson not to talk to the FBI. The jury had, by this time, had clips of Craig’s and Leavins’ interviews with both men played for them repeatedly. Craig’s interactions with Michel, were particularly hard to dismiss as nothing more than interview techniques designed to get Michel to feel comfortable, which is how the defense portrayed Craig’s side of the conversation.

Both Craig and Long alone are also charged with lying to federal agents, an allegation that stems from the twosome’s visit to Marx’s home where Craig told the FBI agent that he was “in the process of swearing out a declaration for an arrest warrant for you,” a threat that Long later repeated in a phone conversation with Marx’s FBI boss.

Craig and Long’s attorneys claimed that the arrest threats were were genuine, even though the sergeants would later learn that they had no jurisdiction to make such an arrest (and their grand jury testimonies on the matter were somewhat contradictory).

After all, said Stone, “Baca believed that the FBI agents violated the law.”

It was time for Sheriff Baca to put on his big boy pants and take control of the situation,” said Stone, as he came to the end of his closing.

And then he repeated the question that continues to hang like smoke over this trial.

“Where is Baca? Where is [ICIB Capt. Tom] Carey? Where is Tanaka?”


FOREST GUMP

When prosecutor Brandon Fox began the government’s rebuttal, he talked at first, not about the allegations at hand, but about the “widespread abuse of inmates,” about “jail visitors being assaulted” when they came to see family members, about “false cases” filed against inmates to cover up assaults by deputies, and other allegations by such groups as the ACLU “going back years.”

“Deputies knew they could beat inmates with impunity” said Fox, because LASD executives “didn’t know or didn’t care about the abuse—either possibility equally damning.”

And so the federal government investigated.

“Mr. McDermott said that there was no evidence that this investigation needed to be done,” Fox continued, referring to Lt. Greg Thompson’s attorney, Kevin McDermott, whose closing was Friday.

And once the LASD learned that the feds were probing, “their purpose was to get the federal government out, to get the grand jury out.”

But “that’s not their choice,” said Fox.

And if the LASD felt “disrespected” because they weren’t told all about the government’s undercover investigation…

“That’s not their choice.”

Agent Leah Marx’s investigation was an operation that was approved all the way up to Washington D.C., Fox told the jury.

“It was her work that helped open up Pandora’s Box.”

This was no “turf war” as some of the defense attorneys had argued, he said. It was “a one-sided war on the FBI, on the federal grand jury, and the US Attorney’s Office.”

Fox recapped the government’s reasons for the charges against each one of the six but he was the most scathing when it came to Lt. Steve Leavins.

On Friday, Leavins’ attorney, Peter Johnson told the jury that his client represented “leadership, integrity, excellence and service.”

Fox now listed the words for jury members:

LEADERSHIP
INTEGRITY
EXCELLENCE
SERVICE.

Then he went about dismissing Leavins’ claim to the qualities, erasing all but the first letters of each word as he did so, leaving only….

L
I
E
S

It was a parlor trick, but an effective one when followed up by an account of how Leavins gave misleading testimony about the supposed approval of his actions by deputy county counsel Paul Yoshinaga, and the OIR’s Mike Gennaco, claims that fell apart under further examination, and rebuttal testimony from Gennaco. After that, Fox reminded the jurors how, in another instance, Leavins tried to change his testimony altogether to claim that a significant meeting in late August 2011 between Baca and U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte and others—in which Birotte had told the sheriff in so many words to “But out” of the federal investigation—-had occurred instead, a month later, at the end of September,* when it would have better suited Leavins case, nevermind that Leavins appeared not to have been present at the second meeting at all.

Leavins was “the Forrest Gump” of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, quipped Fox, claiming to be everywhere, whether he was or not.

As for the fact that, as defense attorney Stone had pointed out, the primary order-giving higher-ups of the LASD remained conspicuously unindicted, Fox said, “to the extent they’re ever charged, that’s for another jury to consider on another day.”

The case went to this jury of six men and six women on Tuesday.


*We originally wrote that the second meeting Leavins said he’d attended was in early October, which was not correct. He testified that it was at the end of September.

Posted in FBI, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, U.S. Attorney | 38 Comments »

LASD Obstruction of Justice Trial – Closing Arguments: Part 1

June 23rd, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


“Hide the informant, silence the witnesses, and threaten the federal investigator,
” said prosecutor Maggie Carter on Friday morning as she laid out the government’s case in three hours of detailed chronology. “”The defendants declared war on a federal grand jury investigation. And they can’t do that.”

And so closing arguments began in the obstruction of justice and corruption trial in which six members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department are accused of hiding a federal informant from his FBI handlers, endeavoring to prevent witnesses from cooperating with a federal grand jury investigation into corruption and brutality in the LA County jails, and threatening an FBI agent with arrest.

Defense attorneys arguing in behalf of three of the six defendants, told the jury on Friday that the men they represented were following legal orders given them by then Sheriff Lee Baca and former undersheriff Paul Tanaka, orders that they had no cause to doubt, and that they were in no position to challenge or refuse.


THE GOVERNMENT’S CASE

The government, on the other hand, worked to show that each defendant made a conscious choice to participate in actions that deliberately and repeatedly attempted to derail a federal grand jury investigation into alleged widespread corruption and brutality inside the LA County jails, an investigation that included the undercover operation in which an LASD deputy smuggled a contraband cell phone to federal informant Anthony Brown in return for a bribe.

“They wanted to clean their own house,” said Carter of the LASD. Sheriff’s officials did not want another agency opening up their “Pandora’s Box,” which would release a multitude of ills, thus embarrassing the department,” Carter said. “Troubles would be exposed and the LASD would look bad.”

And so the defendants and others repeatedly—and illegally—threw rocks into the path of a federal investigation, according to the government.

KABC’s Lisa Bartley and Miriam Hernandez have an unusually good take on the first half of closing arguments that occurred on Friday and will conclude on Monday. Here are some clips:

Carter described to jurors how the discovery of a contraband cell phone at Men’s Central Jail in August of 2011 went from “not that big of a deal” to something one defendant called “the important investigation in LASD history.”

What changed? Sheriff’s Department investigators had linked the smuggled cellphone to the FBI and learned it was part of their federal civil rights investigation at the jail. FBI agents had recruited inmate Anthony Brown to become their informant. Brown would use the smuggled cellphone to report to his FBI handlers in real-time and document any brutality he witnessed by jail deputies.

Once the phone was found and Brown’s cover was blown, high-level meetings were convened, policies were rewritten, and unlimited overtime was authorized for a team of deputies tasked with guarding the inmate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There is no real dispute in this case that inmate Brown was hidden, his name was changed and records were falsified. The question is why? What was the intent? Did the six defendants conspire to keep Brown away from his FBI handlers, and stop or delay his testimony before a federal grand jury? Or were they simply trying to guard Brown against possible retaliation from deputies and inmates who might view him as a snitch?

By late August 2011, “the witness tampering was in full swing,” according to Carter, who argued the defendants wanted to discourage witnesses from cooperating with the FBI.

In one recorded interview, Sgt. Scott Craig can be heard telling Deputy Gilbert Michel that the FBI is “screwing with you,” and “is going to manipulate you like you’re a (expletive) puppet.” Jurors heard Craig giving Michel a direct order: Do not talk to the FBI.

Three more defense arguments will be heard on Monday, after which prosecutor Brandon Fox will present the government’s rebuttal.


WE’LL HAVE MORE ON OTHER TOPICS TOMORROW….BUT IN THE MEANTIME, THERE IS THIS FROM THE LAT’S JIM NEWTON:

PROTECTING KIDS HAS TO COME BEFORE WORRIES ABOUT COUNTY LIABILITY. (IT’S SAD THAT SUCH A THING HAS TO BE STATED, BUT REGRETTABLY IT DOES.)

Here’s a clip from Newton’s excellent column:

Twenty years ago, in a closed court session convened to decide parental visitation issues for a young boy, a Los Angeles County social worker made a statement that startled even the judge. The social worker described a meeting on the boy’s situation in which a question was raised about whether a county report gave sufficient weight to allegations that the boy had been molested. At that point, she said, county lawyers intervened to warn that changing the report could raise “concerns for liability against the department.”

In this case, the social worker’s supervisor changed the report despite the warning. But the notion that county attorneys would raise an issue of financial liability when a child’s well-being was at stake disturbed the judge that day, according to a transcript of the session, and it continues to enrage the boy’s mother.

The proceeding, like almost all such hearings at the time, was not public, and I can only report on it now because the boy’s mother last week provided me with that transcript. (At her request, I’m withholding the names of those involved, because of the sensitivity of the subject.) Her son is now grown, but the shattering experience shadows his mother’s life even today, as does her lingering worry that the county might care more about protecting itself than it does about the best interests of children.

She’s not alone in that concern. The question of county counsel’s role in protecting children while also defending the county from liability remains at the center of a long quest to improve services for abused and neglected children in Los Angeles. The County Counsel’s office wouldn’t agree to talk to me about the issue, but as recently as April, a blue ribbon commission charged with looking at the county’s foster care system included this observation in its report: “Protection of the county from perceived liability at times trumps protecting children.”

I remember when I first sat in on a such a court session and was flabbergasted when I realized that there was an attorney for each one of the parents, an attorney for the kids, and a fourth attorney whose sole job it was to protect the interests of county, whether or not the county’s interests reflected those of the children involved.

A big thank you to Newton for focusing on this important issue.

Posted in DCFS, FBI, Foster Care, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, The Feds, U.S. Attorney | 17 Comments »

As the Complicated LASD Obstruction of Justice Trial Speeds to a close, Some Additional Back Story

June 22nd, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


On Friday morning, closing arguments commenced in the trial of the six defendants
who are all members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and all charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Yet, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of last week, Lieutenant. Steve Leavins and Sergeant Scott Craig, both defendants in the trial, went on the stand to testify.

This six-defendant trial is a complicated one that is difficult to reduce to bullet points. Thus as we analyze the closing arguments, it might help to take a look at some of the previous testimony that the jury has heard—which likely both helped and harmed the defense.

With that in mind, here’s a rundown of the testimony of Lt. Steve Leavins.

On one hand Leavins and Craig were able to articulate some points that supported a part of the defense’s theory of the case, namely that they believed that the hiding of Anthony Brown and the investigating, surveilling and threatening to arrest special agent Leah Marx were necessary and righteous acts. (Both Leavins and Craig worked at the time for ICIB, the department’s unit that investigates criminal wrongdoing by department members.) They also made clear that, in most cases, they were generally ordered to do what they did by others, which is another part of the theory of the defense. Yet, at the same time, they each may also have damage to their respective and and collective cases in the ways they handled the prosecutors’ more discomforting inquiries.

But first to recap a bit:

In the first part of his testimony (which began the Friday before last on June 13) Leavins had reported very convincingly that, in most instances, he was ordered by then-Sheriff Lee Baca and/or former-undersheriff Paul Tanaka to do the things that are the basis for the charges against him—at least in the broad strokes. The details of his actions, Leavins reported, he discussed with either Tanaka or Baca, or both, usually at in person meetings where he received his bosses’ approval and, often, their input and direction. In many cases, he also got approval or direction from his immediate boss, Captain Tom Carey.

Paul Tanaka and Carey each testified still earlier in the trial and reinforced much of what Leavins contended when he took the stand, although Tanaka in particular employed a lot of protective “I don’t recalls,” when asked if he had approved or directed anything that might be legally borderline.

Since Baca and Tanaka, and Carey are—for now—unindicted-–and in Tanaka’s case, actually running for sheriff—-one wonders exactly what the jury will make of this troubling discrepancy when it comes time to decide on verdicts.

Another big score Leavins made during the first half of his appearance on the stand came when he testified that he met frequently with two attorneys who have an association with the sheriff’s department and that they essentially cosigned on his crucial courses of action when it came to participating in hiding federal informant Anthony Brown, and in launching a criminal investigation into the actions of FBI special agent Leah Marx, causing her to be surveilled and confronted at her home with the threat of arrest by ICIB Sergeants Scott Craig and Maricela Long, who work directly under Leavins.

Here’s a clip from WLA’s account:

One of the attorneys Leavins said he consulted multiple times was Paul Yoshinaga, a deputy county counsel who was assigned to the sheriff’s department and had his office in the sheriff’s headquarters in Monterey Park. (Yoshinaga is reportedly also a long-standing personal friend of former undersheriff Tanaka, with the friendship dating as far back as high school when the two were in the same 1976 graduating class from Gardena High.)

The other attorney with whom Leavins said he consulted on repeated occasions about the legality of his actions was Mike Gennaco, head attorney for the Office of Independent Review (OIR). According to Leavins, at one point in a meeting in which the sheriff was also present, Gennaco said that “the FBI was going to be in trouble for smuggling that phone,” meaning the contraband cell that LASD deputy Gilbert Michel had brought in illegally to informant Brown as part of the FBI’s undercover sting. Baca, said Leavins, was in agreement.

“This furthered my belief that we were on firm legal ground to proceed,” Leavins testified of that meeting with Gennaco and Baca.

The matter of the attorneys’ reported approval is a big deal, because if Leavins acted in good faith on the advice of counsel, even if those actions turned out to be legally problematic, the approval of counsel—and as Leavins told it, not any counsel but two knowledgeable and experienced attorneys who both were at the time employed by the County of Los Angeles, would be something the jury members would have to consider, and they would likely be instructed to do so by the judge.


ATTORNEY APPROVAL, A MEETING WITH THE U.S ATTORNEY, & BEING TOLD TO “BUTT OUT”

The government made points as well during the first day of Leavin’s testimony when prosecutor Brandon Fox showed that, in significant ways, the timeline of events did not support the defense’s contentions that the sole motivation for using such elaborate means to hide inmate/informant Anthony Brown was to protect the man from wrongdoer deputies who might see Brown’s informer status as a threat. Neither did the timeline support the contention that Anthony Brown/Gilbert Michel/cell phone operation was some kind of rogue action as opposed to a legitimate undercover investigation run by Leah Marx, that was both sanctioned and sorely needed.

The contention that Leavins and his team, most particularly Craig and Long, were perfectly justified in investigating Leah Marx had been damaged on Friday when Leavins admitted in cross examination that he’d been present at a meeting in late August between members of the LASD including Lee Baca and members of the US Attorney’s office including Andre Birotte himself who, according to Leavins, said things to Baca and the group that made clear Birotte’s thoughts on the FBI’s investigation:

It was at that meeting that Birotte told the sheriff to—as Leavins put it—”butt out” of the feds’ civil rights investigation into wrongdoing in the LA County Jails. Birotte further said, according to Leavins, that he didn’t want any more discord in the matter, and that he hoped the sheriff’s department would cooperate.

Yet, despite what was made clear at the August 29 meeting, according to Leavins’ earlier testimony, he kept on, as ordered, with a criminal investigation of FBI agent Marx and, in late September, with the sheriff’s encouragement and approval, sent Craig and Long to Marx’ home where the two sergeants falsely threatened to arrest her.


DISMANTLING THE ATTORNEY DEFENSE

So that was part one of Leavins’ testimony.

Then on the following Tuesday, June 16, when the cross-examination of Leavins continued, followed by redirect from the defense, a couple of rather interesting things happened.

The first occurred when Prosecutor Fox questioned Leavins about his conversations with Deputy County Counsel Paul Yoshinaga, whom Leavins had described as having approved his team’s actions regarding Anthony Brown and Leah Marx, and even codified his approval by helping him refine a memo summarizing those actions.

However, it seems, when queried a bit more closely, Leavins admitted that the actions that Yoshinaga “approved” failed to include any discussions of the repeated changing of Anthony Brown’s name, the deliberate failure to allow him to be fingerprinted when he was moved, and the other elaborate strategies that made Brown vanish from the reach of any federal agents who wished to find him.

With regard to meetings with the OIR’s Michael Gennaco, Fox asked if Gennaco had ever told him that Leah Marx had committed a crime. Leavings conceded that Gennaco had not.

Well, Fox wanted to know, did Leavins ever ask Gennaco if it was okay to move Anthony Brown and to change his name multiple times and all the rest. No, Leavins admitted. He’d not mentioned any of that. And, no he hadn’t asked if it was okay to hide Brown from the FBI.

Leavins also had conversations with Sergio Gonzalez, who was at the time, the head deputy of the Justice System Integrity Unit for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, and someone Leavins had worked with before. Fox wanted to know if Leavins actually asked Gonzalez if charges could be filed against Leah Marx for conducting a covert operations in the jails. No, said Leavins, he’d not asked.

Well, did he ask if it was alright to instruct deputies not to cooperate with a federal investigation—as he and Sergeants Craig and, to a lesser degree, Long, appeared to have instructed both Deputy Gilbert Michel and Deputy William David Courson not to talk to the FBI. (In recorded interviews, clips from which members of the jury—along with the rest of us—have now heard played loudly at least three times, they also bad-mouthed the FBI and, with Michel especially, made cooperating with the feds sound like a path that was both disloyal and weak.)

No, said Leavins, he’d not asked Gennaco anything like that.

And did he research the penal codes that he’d contended that Marx had violated, specifically 4575, which is a misdemeanor prohibiting bringing cell phones into jails—unless authorized by a law enforcement agency. With regard to penal code 4575 (a misdemeanor that, incidentally, was punishable with a fine, not jail time), did Leavins ever find out if the FBI could authorize Mr. Brown to possess a cell phone as part of a covert operation?

No, he didn’t.To the extent they’re ever charged, that’s for another jury to consider on another day.”

And so it went. By the time the topic was at last yanked apart, detail after detail, Fox appeared to have demolished the argument put forth in Leavins’ earlier testimony that he had sought and received approval by lawyers Yoshinaga and Gennaco, and had relevant discussions with Gonzalez from the DA’s office.


“IDIOTS” & MORE “IDIOTS”

In an increasingly harsh cross examination, Fox pushed Leavins about his attitude toward outsiders investigating wrongdoing in LASD’s house.

“You testified that deputy abuse [of inmates] disgusted you,” said Fox, and yet in September 2011, you did not want another law enforcement agency shining a light on abuse in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department?….You called Deputy Michel an ‘idiot for admitting to the beating of deputies.”

Fox provided an email in which Leavins also called the FBI agents looking into abuse in the jails “idiots.” In another email, he opined that LA Times reporter Robert Faturechi, was “a young reporter who is [looking] for the next Pulitzer” when Faturechi wrote a story about alleged abuse in the jails.


REDIRECT AND REHABILITATION OF LEAVINS

When Leavins’ attorney Peter Johnson got up for redirect, he asked his client a series of questions about the meeting at which Lee Baca, Andre Birotte and others had been present and that, according to Leavins, who was also at the meeting, Birotte had told the sheriff to, as Leavins paraphrased, to “butt out” from the ongoing criminal investigation that the feds were conducting inside the LA County Jails. This was the conversation that made clear that the FBI’s undercover investigation run by agent Leah Marx and involving Brown and the cell phone, was legitimate in the eyes of the U.S. Attorney’s office, thereby arguably removing any reason for the LASD to investigate agent Marx, much less to confront her outside her home, threatening her with arrest, all of which would occur a few weeks after this meeting that Leavins had said on Friday had occurred in late August. (The meeting date was August 29.)

Under redirect questioning by Johnson, the story Leavins had told on his first day of testimony suddenly changed. Now Leavins said that he had in fact attended, not one, but two meetings with the U.S Attorney, and the the meeting where all this stuff had been said by Andre Birotte was not, in fact, the first meeting on August 29, but at a second meeting in the first week of October—in other words after the surveillance of and confrontation with Leah Marx was already finished.

At this second meeting, Baca had calmed down, said Leavins. And by October 3, Leavins had received an email from Sergio Gonzalez from the DA’s office stating that the District Attorney would be unable to pursue charges against Anthony Brown or any FBI agents regarding the matter of the cell phone due to statute known as the Supremacy Clause, but that he would like to file on Deputy Gilbert Michel for accepting a bribe.

After this series of events, Leavins said he believed he could no longer pursue his investigation.

In further redirect Johnson reestablished that he had moved Anthony Brown out of Men’s Central Jail based on orders from Lee Baca and that anything that he, Craig and Long had said to deputies Michel and Courson was in no way intended to dissuade either deputy from cooperating with the FBI but merely to gain their cooperation.

Finally, Leavins reiterated that he had launched an investigation into the actions of the FBI because the sheriff asked him too and because he thought it made sense, “on the face of it.”


RECROSS ABOUT THAT CRUCIAL MEETING

In recross, prosecutor Fox moved directly to the matter of when the crucial meeting took place with the “three highest people” in the sheriff’s department, the Los Angeles FBI office and the U.S. Attorney’s office, namely Lee Baca, Steve Martinez, and Andre Birotte—in which Birotte told the sheriff in so many words to stand down.

Fox read Leavins’ testimony from the cross examination on Friday, in which he described the meeting as having occurred in late August, and desribed Birotte as saying to Baca “”I don’t want any more talk about the arrest of FBI agents.”

Fox continued to pound. “And yet you continued to investigate Leah Marx until early October, and continued to try to build a case against FBI agents.”

Fox also reread Leavins’ Grand Jury testimony, during which the lieutenant also stated that the meeting in which Birotte laid down his boundaries as having occurred in late August.

Without a blink Leavins continued to insist that, he was not good with dates and that when he was in front of the Grand Jury and when he talked about the meeting on Friday, he had “misremembered” the date. But that now he was sure. The meeting occurred in early October—nevermind his two rounds of earlier testimony.

There were a few more rounds of hammering on such issues as Leavins and company attempting to get the two deputies not to cooperate with the FBI and on meetings with Baca and Tanaka in Tanaka’s bug swept office regarding moving Anthony Brown, the cell phone, Leah Marx, and the FBI. (Leavins finally admitted that the paranoia about listening devices in LASD offices came, not from him, but from the former undersheriff and the sheriff).

After a short re-re-direct by defense attorney Johnson, Leavins stepped downt.


Okay, now onward to closing arguments.

Posted in 2014 election, FBI, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, U.S. Attorney | 4 Comments »

LASD Lt. On Trial Tells of Orders Given by Baca and Tanaka, and Admits to “System Failure” Re: LASD Ability to Investigate Its Own Wrongdoing

June 16th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


Lieutenant Steve Leavins, one of six defendants in the ongoing obstruction of justice trial involving members of the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department,
took the stand on Friday morning in a packed federal courtroom. In the testimony that followed, Leavins described a chain of events that began with a meeting on August 20, 2011, at which Sheriff Lee Baca (whom Leavins said he’d never met before that day) gave him the orders that set in motion a sequence of actions by Leavins and his five fellow defendants—Lieutenant Greg Thompson, Sergeant Scott Craig, Sergeant Maricela Long, Deputy Mickey Manzo and Deputy Gerard Smith—that ultimately led to the charges for which Leavins and the other five are now on trial.

According to the prosecution, those actions include, but are not limited to, allegedly helping to hide federal informant Anthony Brown from his FBI handlers, attempting to threaten and intimidate FBI special agent Leah Marx at her home, and endeavoring to bully and cajole sheriff’s deputy named Gilbert Michel into not cooperating with the FBI.

The jury had already heard in earlier testimony, how the August 20 meeting was called by the sheriff on an emergency basis on the Saturday after Baca and former undersheriff Paul Tanaka first learned that an inmate named Anthony Brown had been found with a contraband cell phone, and that Brown was not any inmate, but an FBI informant. The jury had also heard previously that, two days before the August 20 meeting, Baca had been told by the head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office that the cell phone and Brown were part of an undercover federal investigation into brutality and corruption in the LA County jails, meaning the whole matter of the cell phone was fully sanctioned by FBI higher-ups.

Nevertheless, according to Leavins, Baca ordered him to launch a criminal investigation into the actions of FBI Special Agent Leah Marx, who was the lead agent on the feds’ undercover probe, and thus responsible for Brown and the cell phone. He also ordered Leavins to “safeguard” Brown, which ultimately led to Brown being hidden—using an elaborate strategy of repeated name changes and avoidance of the normal fingerprinting process—from the FBI.


THE RISKS AND BENEFITS OF TESTIFYING

It is usually considered a risk for a defendant to get on the stand because, in cross-examination by the prosecution, the defendant is suddenly subject to questioning that may not be in his or her best interest. Yet on Friday the risk appeared to be mostly paying off for Leavins in that much of what he said bolstered an important part of the defense’s theory of the case, namely that all six defendants were good cops following lawful orders that were not of their own making.

In that vein, Leavins described the meetings subsequent to August 20 in which he said he briefed, got approval, and/or had been given orders by Baca or then undersheriff Paul Tanaka (or sometimes both men) about each action he and other defendants took to hide inmate Brown.

On the stand, Leavins’ painted a picture of a hyper-involved sheriff and equally present undersheriff who collectively directed him to circumvent the normal chain of command and report directly to them in meetings that were generally held in Tanaka’s office.

He also told how he had obtained “authorization” from Tanaka before he ordered surveillance of special agent Marx and how, in a meeting in Tanaka’s office, Sheriff Baca had instructed him to contact Marx at her residence “to get facts and information about the introduction of the cell phone.”

Another significant revelation that came out in Friday’s testimony was the fact that, according to Leavins, at least two department-related attorneys gave advice and signed off on the legality of many of the actions that are the now the basis of the government’s criminal charges. These included the hiding of Brown, and the investigation of FBI special agent Marx.

One of the attorneys Leavins said he consulted multiple times was Paul Yoshinaga, a deputy county counsel who was assigned to the sheriff’s department and had his office in the sheriff’s headquarters in Monterey Park. (Yoshinaga is reportedly also a long-standing personal friend of former undersheriff Tanaka, with the friendship dating as far back as high school when the two were in the same 1976 graduating class from Gardena High.)

The other attorney with whom Leavins said he consulted on repeated occasions about the legality of his actions was Mike Gennaco, head attorney for the Office of Independent Review (OIR). According to Leavins, at one point in a meeting in which the sheriff was also present, Gennaco said that “the FBI was going to be in trouble for smuggling that phone,” meaning the contraband cell that LASD deputy Gilbert Michel had brought in illegally to informant Brown as part of the FBI’s undercover sting. Baca, said Leavins, was in agreement.

“This furthered my belief that we were on firm legal ground to proceed,” Leavins testified of that meeting with Gennaco and Baca.


SYSTEM FAILURE

In another interesting and unexpected feature of both his direct testimony and in cross-examination by prosecutor Brandon Fox, Leavins admitted that he had “become aware that the sheriffs department’s internal mechanism to investigate…abuse” and brutality by deputies toward jail inmates “had failed,” that there was a “systemic breakdown” in supervision, discipline and investigation of abuses “that were occurring on a wide scale.”

Under questioning from Fox, Leavins conceded that, in one instance, he had become aware of a video of an inmate being abused by a deputy while restrained by chains. And yet, despite the presence of the video, both the department’s internal affairs investigators, and an “executive force review panel” concluded that the incident was fine and required no action. Leavins further conceded that, because of the “lack of discipline” signaling “tacit approval” for the deputy’s actions, the man committed more assaults on inmates, and has since been charged with the original assault.

While the theme of deputy abuse of inmates and “systemic breakdown” in the LASD’s ability to investigate such matters was originally brought up during the defense’s questioning of Leavins, it seemed mostly to support the prosecution’s contention that the FBI’s launch of an undercover investigation into abuse and corruption inside the jail system was more than warranted.


BUT WERE THE ORDERS LAWFUL?

Although the just-following-orders part of the defense strategy seemed measurably strengthened by Leavins’ testimony, the contention that these were lawful orders that he and the others were following seemed a harder theme to maintain, due to problems with the timeline in which the actions occurred.

For instance, Leavins had repeatedly insisted that Brown was only moved to outlying areas of the jail system with his name repeatedly changed, not to hide him from the feds, per se, but out of fear for the inmate’s safely because, due to his informant status, corrupt deputies might wish to do him harm. However, in cross examination Leavins conceded that, after Brown stopped cooperating with members of Leavins’ task force in early September 2011, he was moved virtually immediately back to Men’s Central Jail where he remained for 10 days (making him presumably within reach of deputies who might wish him ill) before finally being transferred to state prison.

Also in cross examination, Leavins described his attendance to a meeting on August 29, 2011, that included—among other people—Sheriff Baca and U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte. It was at that meeting that Birotte told the sheriff to—as Leavins’ put it—”butt out” of the feds’ civil rights investigation into wrongdoing in the LA County Jails. Birotte further said, according to Leavins, that he didn’t want any more discord in the matter, and that he hoped the sheriff’s department would cooperate.

Yet, despite what was made clear at the August 29 meeting, according to Leavins’ earlier testimony, he kept on, as ordered, with a criminal investigation of FBI agent Marx and, in late September, with the sheriff’s encouragement and approval, sent Craig and Long to Marx’ home where the two sergeants falsely threatened to arrest her.

Leavins’ testimony will continue on Tuesday morning.

Posted in Courts, FBI, jail, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, U.S. Attorney | 27 Comments »

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