LOS ANGELES (CN) — The trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca began Wednesday with a federal prosecutor calling him the “heartbeat” of a conspiracy to obstruct an FBI investigation of brutality in the jail system.
Dressed in a blue-gray pinstriped suit with a small sheriff’s badge on his lapel, Baca, 74, kept his eyes locked on Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox as the prosecutor blasted him for “abuse of power in order to obstruct justice.”
“Nothing to see here,” Fox said repeatedly, as he described an official who “turned a blind eye” to the civil rights abuses and corruption in his department.
“Mr. Baca was the leader of this conspiracy; he was the driving force,” Fox told the jury.
Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman defended the retired sheriff as a man who had been kept in the dark by his second-in-command, convicted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who conspired with other underlings to obstruct the FBI.
It was Tanaka, not Baca, who pulled the strings, Hochman said.
Though Tanaka acted like a subordinate in Baca’s presence, behind his back the undersheriff had “his own agenda,” the attorney said.
Baca had every intention to respect the rights of inmates, Hochman said, and showed it by circulating a set of core values and a mission statement to his department. But Tanaka was “old school,” in his treatment of detainees and made clear his disdain for the FBI, said the attorney.
“His [Baca’s] agenda was not to keep the FBI at bay,” Hochman said.
Baca is accused of conspiring to hide informant-inmate Anthony Brown from investigators after officials discovered a jailer had smuggled an FBI cellphone to the inmate inside the Men’s Central Jail.
In August 2011, Baca asked Tanaka to investigate how Brown had received the phone. The next month, Baca instructed officials to “do everything but put handcuffs” on FBI Agent Leah Marx, who was investigating the case, the government says.
Hochman said in his opening statement that Baca was angry when he learned about the cellphone, but was more concerned about Brown’s safety and jail security.
The attorney singled out Marx as “rookie” agent who was assigned to lead the investigation though she had been with the FBI for only one year.
He questioned the wisdom of choosing Brown, a violent felon, as an informant, and said Marx had exposed the inmate to harm by talking to him about the cellphone on the jail’s public phone system.
Baca was concerned only about Brown’s safety should he be revealed as a “snitch” for the FBI, Hochman said.
Baca also was troubled because illegally obtained cellphones can be used to plan murders or smuggle or other crimes, the defense attorney added.
Hochman said there was scant evidence in emails that Baca had taken part in the conspiracy. He described his client as “open, transparent and direct” in his handling of the FBI investigation.
Fox denied it. He said that when Baca learned about the investigation, rather than clean up his department, he had tried to “sweep it under the rug.”
He was the “heartbeat of the conspiracy,” Fox said, citing a meeting with then-U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte and Steven Martinez, assistant director in charge of the FBI.
At that meeting, Baca told Martinez: “I’m goddamned sheriff” and these are “my goddamned jails,” Fox said.
Baca said at the meeting that he did not know the FBI was investigating the jails, that he was not involved in any effort to keep agents away from Brown, and that he did not know about a plan to approach Agent Marx, the government claims.
If convicted, Baca faces up to five years in prison on the conspiracy charge and 10 years for obstruction.
Baca, who headed the largest jail system in the nation for 16 years before he retired in 2014, faces a second trial on a charge of making a false statement.
Proceedings were separated to bring in evidence that Baca was cognitively impaired when he met with investigators in April 2013. Baca says he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease more than two years ago.
On Wednesday morning, the government called jail chaplain Paulino Juarez-Ramirez, who shook and bowed his head as he recalled seeing jailers brutally beating an inmate during a visit to the Men’s Central Jail in early 2009.
“I tried to say something,” Ramirez said, his voice breaking. “I was horrified.”
Peter Eliasberg, with the American Civil Liberties Union, also testified Wednesday morning, offering testimony that sharply contrasted with the defense’s assertion that Baca and the Sheriff’s Department had “partnered” with the ACLU to tackle civil rights abuses.
Eliasberg said he questioned the Sheriff’s Department’s impartiality after ACLU monitor Esther Lim had watched through Plexiglas as two deputies beat and used a stun gun on an inmate at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
Lim reported that the man appeared to be unconscious, Eliasberg said.
He said that rather than intensify an investigation of the two deputies, the beaten inmate, James Parker, was accused of assaulting the deputies.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore also discredited Lim’s account in public statements, Eliasberg said.
“I had no faith there would be a fair investigation by the Sheriff’s Department,” Eliasberg testified.
The trial continues Thursday in U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson’s courtroom at the First Street courthouse.