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PANDORA’S BOX: After Closing Arguments the Sexton Case Goes to the Jury


“Mr. Sexton is nothing more than collateral damage” in a conflict involving “two massive law enforcement agencies fighting like children,” said former U.S. Attorney Tom O’Brien as he delivered closing arguments in the week-long corruption of justice trial of his client, Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputy James Sexton.

Sexton is one of seven members of the LASD who have been federally indicted for having allegedly hidden convicted bank robber/inmate turned federal informant Anthony Brown from his FBI handlers. Brown was part of a then-widening civil rights investigation by the FBI into corruption and brutality inside the LASD run county jails.

The weeklong trial went into the hands of the jury at around 11 a.m. Tuesday, after the prosecution and the defense each presented very different views of the defendant’s alleged crimes.

O’Brien painted both the LASD and the FBI as engaging in a huge “jurisdictional turf war” in which Sexton, who had actually cooperated extensively with the FBI for more than a year, was scapegoated, while those who actually gave the orders for the actions for which the deputy has been charged remain unindicted.

“Not [former undersheriff Paul] Tanaka, Not [LASD Captain Tom] Carey. Not the Sheriff,” O’Brien told the jury.

The events that underlie the case against Sexton were triggered in the summer of 2011 when, in the course of an undercover sting initiated by the FBI’s Los Angeles office, inmate-turned-informant Brown asked a sheriff’s deputy named Gilbert Michele to smuggle a contraband cell phone into Men’s Central Jail in return for money. Brown was then to use the phone to report back to his federal agent contacts about alleged wrongdoing by deputies he observed inside the jail.

After a few weeks of use, however, the phone was discovered hidden among Brown’s possessions (inside a Doritos bag) by a sheriff’s deputy in the course of a routine search. When sheriff’s investigators subsequently discovered that the contraband phone contained a call and text log devoted almost exclusively to contacting the FBI, a firestorm erupted among the sheriff’s department’s top brass, in particular then Sheriff Lee Baca and then undersheriff Paul Tanaka. They reacted by ordering Brown to be hidden away from the FBI’s reach in farflung corners of the jail system, while he was questioned by LASD investigators. They also ordered covert surveillance, along with some in person bullying, of Brown’s main handler, Special Agent Leah Marx, who headed up the corruption investigation of which Brown was a part.

The government’s charges against Sexton are obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Conspiracy to obstruct means, loosely, that he was part of a group that knowingly tried to subvert a federal grand jury investigation. It also means that, if one of the members of the group did something that knowingly subverted the investigation—-like, say, harassing Marx—then all the conspirators are responsible for the action. According to the prosecution, the task with which Sexton was most involved was hiding Brown, as he was the one on the team with computer skills and thus was able to suggest how to game the LASD jail system database so that Brown appeared to vanish from it.

O’Brien maintains that the above actions of Sexton’s and his alleged coconspirators were lawful, even if foolish, as in the case of going after Marx. More importantly, he contends that Sexton was merely doing what he was ordered to do by his superiors, as is required in a paramilitary organization.

The prosecution believes they have proved that the actions and the rest of his team were not lawful, that they were specifically designed to impede the FBI’s investigation, and contends that just following orders is no excuse.


A large part of government’s case comes down to what Sexton said in his grand jury testimony, in which he fully admitted his part in the operation that came to be known as Operation Pandora’s Box. In fact, he obligingly described the hiding of Brown in colorful detail, and acknowledged there were elaborate attempts to keep Brown away from the feds specifically through the use of “smoke and mirrors.”

O’Brien, Sexton’s lawyer, also agreed that his clients grand jury testimony was crucial. But his take on how jurors must see Sexton’s statements was very different than that of the government.

“This is the crux of the case,” he said. “It is about how an over eager deputy agreed to cooperate with the FBI, and did work with the FBI.” Special agent Leah Marx even gave him a cell phone so as to be able to get in touch with her and her colleagues without fearing the LASD would overhear and retaliate against him.”

Sexton was interviewed by the FBI 37 different times, O’Brien pointed out. And he appeared before the Grand Jury twice.

“He was trying to please the FBI,” O’Brien said in his closing. And indeed, the tone of Sexton’s testimony that was read at trial leaves that impression. Sexton seemed, as O’ Brien suggested, “eager to please.”

All Sexton did, O’Brien said, was what he was asked to do by the FBI, or in the case of his superiors in the LASD, what he was ordered to do.

“The people giving the orders here, they’ve not been indicted. Not Tanaka, Not Carey. Not the sheriff.”

But those higher ups were harder to indict, O’Brien said.

“What’s easier? Get the over-eager kid, meet with him, give him a cell phone, get him on board, ask him some sloppy questions…..and then let’s indict him, based only on his words.”

After the discovery of the existence of Anthony Brown’s informant status, his contraband cell phone, and the FBI’s part in the undercover operation, “Sheriff Baca spun out of control,” said O’Brien. “And then the FBI refused to talk to him.”

Instead of paying attention to the “business of law enforcement,” O’Brien concluded, the two behemoth agencies “got into a tiff each other.”

“Now it’s led to a young deputy sheriff facing the fight of his life.”


The jury made up of five women and seven men appeared to listen very closely and seriously to the presentations by Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Carter for prosecution, former U.S. Attorney O’Brien for the defense and then the prosecution’s rebuttal to the defense’s closing present, presented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox.

“You may believe others may be guilty of the crime,” Fox told the jury, in response to O’Brien, “but that’s for another jury on another day.”

Before the jurors went home on Tuesday afternoon, they asked to hear Sexton’s hour-long plus grand jury testimony read back to them in its entirety.


Former undersheriff Paul Tanaka, now one of seven candidates for sheriff, was a witness for the defense, and he maintained during his testimony last Friday, and cross examination on Monday, that all of his orders relating to the Anthony Brown matter were lawful. (Although he dodged quite a few other questions.)

On Monday, however, he conceded that he was the subject to an ongoing criminal investigation.

Since his appearance in court, there has been much speculation that his testimony and the outcome of the case could have an affect on his political candidacy.

Three of his fellow candidates—Robert Olmsted, Jim McDonnell, and Todd Rogers-–have called for him to withdraw from the race.

(You can find their statements here and here and here.)

Reed Galen, Tanaka’s campaign spokesman said he has no intention of doing so.


  • I seriously question the reasoning of any candidate squandering campaign momentum to focus on calling for Tanaka to drop out of the race.
    What difference would it make?
    The ballots are printed, every candidate’s name will be there whether they drop out or die of a heart attack this afternoon.

    In fact, each candidate already has votes sitting at the registrar’s office from absentee ballots already voted and returned, waiting to be opened and tallied on June 3.

    If Tanaka declared himself officially out – what do you other candidates want?

    Do you want Tanaka’s campaign funds?
    You might as well publicize that you are taking a big donation from Donald Sterling.

    Do you want Tanaka’s votes?
    Which of you wants to tell Tanaka voters that you come closest to the choice which they lost when he drops out?

    Calling for Tanaka to drop out drives the voter’s attention into a cul-de-sac. That only helps a frontrunner. Its not good strategy for anyone else.

    The Tanaka call-out implies a fundamental lack of confidence in the voters and in your own campaigns. If anyone hasn’t got the message about Tanaka by now, they will never get it. In fact, by trying to force him out – you may simply harden the resolve of his base.

  • Haven’t heard anything we didn’t already know.

    I pissing contest between the FBI and Leroy.

    The whole fiasco is a waste of tax payers money.

    This could have all been handled civil without the FBI jumping the gun.

  • Pretty sad, Sheriff Ted Sexton befriends Sheriff Lee Baca. Ted’s son James Sexton becomes LASD deputy. Ted accepts Baca offer to be a chief and resigns as Sheriff in Alabama. James indicted. Baca quits. Ted’s fired by John Scott.

    No matter how you feel about the Sexton’s , Baca ruined their lives.


  • “Overeager Deputy” sums it up right. As I said in previous post Mr. Sexton did whatever it took to be “in the car”. Quite frankly he goes wherever the wind blows. When being a Baca boy didn’t work out and he got caught, he was eager to tell the FBI everything.

    How long did it take him to get on that specialized team after graduating the academy? And what we’re some of the things he did to get there? And what kind of pull did he have with the Baca and Tanaka camp? I bet it was nice being one of the cool guys until you were forced to step up and do the right thing by way of threats of indictment.

    And now you realize all that prestige meant nothing to the executives when it came down to whose careers they’re going to save.

    By the way, did anybody catch that? That swift appointment of his father to Chief with no California POST experience and swift exit the week of Baca’s resignation? Or did I just dream that?

  • James Sexton is a stand up guy! He tried to help the FBI and got screwed. The jury is deadlocked and have twice told the judge there is no way for a verdict. How long will this judge keep making them go back??? Until he gets the verdict he wants???? Something isn’t right here.

  • First thing they tell you and teach you when you get promoted is it is not about you anymore. It’s about your people, your subordinates. The people who rely on you for guidance and leadership.

    Paul Tanaka and Lee Baca completely failed their people and The Department. If there are any LA County voters out there listening. DO NOT VOTE FOR Tanaka. He is the root and sole cause for all the corruption, deputy gangs, lawsuits, grey police work, and most importantly THE ENABLER, who allowed the young jail deputies to break bones of inmates. Tanaka hamstrung good supervisors, like Bob Olmsted and others from stopping the brutality. He not only enabled them to break bones, he glorified them with ink into his fraternal order of grey police work. Pathetic!

    Lastly, all you Tawnected idiots who either associate with him, support him, or share his twisted morals and principles, I hope you have an exit strategy. God be with you, because no one else will be.

    And yes, I’m mad. I’m mad because I’m ashamed at what my Department has become. I just want to be a proud deputy again and a member of a proud Department.

  • Prophet, good perspective, but I’m inclined to disagree with you. First, Tanaka’s base is a group of t-shirt clad folks who benefited from pay to play, they won’t swing any election in any direction. Tanaka’s name recognition is purely negative, which means he has to spend ten times the amount of money another candidate has to persuade a voter. There are too many choices on the ballot that are not grimy.

    I don’t think any camp lacks confidence in their campaign, this is a very low-information voter base. An an example, Block in his prime mustered a mere 11% name recognition as the sitting sheriff. At this point it’s all about earned media, and Tanaka provides ample opportunity for his rivals to beat the dead horse.

    Tanaka’s base, if he even has one, is built on voter ignorance – not exactly a winning strategy.

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