“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.
TALKING TO THE GRAND JURY
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.
THE TANAKA POLITICAL FACTOR
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.
Reed Galen, Tanaka’s campaign spokesman said he has no intention of doing so.