Prosecution Rests in Trial of Ex-L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca

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LOS ANGELES (CN) — The prosecution rested Thursday afternoon in the obstruction trial of former L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca after a sitting federal judge, the former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, testified that Baca had wrongly asserted in meetings that the FBI investigation of his jails was unethical and unlawful.

After the prosecution rested at around 1:15 p.m., Baca’s attorneys immediately began their defense with the testimony of former Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo.

Around 15 minutes later, proceedings concluded for the day. Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman moved for U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson to acquit, saying the government had failed to present evidence that showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Baca had obstructed the 2011 investigation into brutality in the Men’s Central Jail and Twin Tower Correctional Facility.

Anderson said he would rule on the motion Friday morning.

Prosecutors say Baca and his underlings, including convicted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, conspired to hide informant-inmate Anthony Brown from FBI investigators after officials discovered sheriff’s Officer Gilbert Michel had smuggled him a phone.

In his opening statement last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox said Baca was the “heartbeat” of the conspiracy. He said Baca ordered Tanaka to investigate how Brown had received the phone, and the next month Baca instructed officials to “do everything but put handcuffs” on lead FBI agent Leah Marx. Two deputies later approached Marx outside her home and threatened to arrest her.

U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte took the stand as the government’s final witness on Thursday. Birotte was the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles from 2010 to 2014.

The government says the conspiracy to hide Brown was already underway when Baca, Tanaka and other Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department officials met on Aug. 29, 2011 with Birotte and other federal officials.

On one side of the conference table, Baca sat with Tanaka and his cadre. Birotte and his team sat on the other side in what the judge described as a “listening” meeting.

Birotte testified that Baca said he did not want the FBI in the jails and had specifically asked that FBI officials not come to the meeting.

“I knew he was upset. He voiced his displeasure,” Birotte said.

Then on the evening of Sept. 26, Birotte said, he received a call informing him that the deputies had approached Marx.

“I was like, ‘Oh God. OK,’” Birotte said.

Birotte then called Baca.

“Is this what we’re doing here?” Birotte said he asked the sheriff.

He asked Baca if he planned to arrest one of his agents. Baca told him no, he testified.

At a meeting at his office the next day, Birotte brought FBI Agent Steve Martinez and Baca together. Birotte said that as U.S. attorney he felt that part of his job was to “keep the children in the sandbox from fighting all the time,” and that he brought the men together because he wanted to “damp things down.”

A letter that Baca handed to Birotte during the meeting called the FBI’s action in arranging for the phone to get into the jail “illegal, unethical and irresponsible.”

The Sept. 26 letter, signed by Baca, said the FBI was not qualified to investigate the jails, and the Sheriff’s Department would conduct its own investigation. Baca also asked the FBI to withdraw a request for Sheriff’s Department records, calling it a “fishing expedition.”

“The cardinal rule of all law enforcement agencies, local or federal, is simple. One cannot break the law in order to enforce the law,” Baca wrote.

But Birotte said it was clear the government was not going to let the sheriff run his own investigation when his department was the subject of the probe into civil rights abuses. He told Baca that the introduction of the phone into the jail was lawful.

“There’s no question about whether it’s legal or not,” Birotte said. “Everyone knows this.”

Birotte said the meeting “got very heated” and “very tense,” and that he had never seen Baca more upset.

“‘You want to gun up in here. Is that what you want to do?’” Baca told agent Martinez, according to Birotte.

While the prosecution says Baca called the shots, Hochman says his client was removed from the conspiracy to obstruct and that it was Tanaka who pulled the strings behind his boss’s back.

Hochman said his client was concerned about safety in the jails and that Baca was angry when he learned that the cellphone had been smuggled into the jail because it could be used to arrange drug deals or hits on witnesses.

Hochman returned to a theme he’d introduced in his opening argument, asking Birotte if Baca had been “open, direct and transparent” with him during the meetings.

“Yes, he was,” Birotte said confirming that the three men shook hands at the end of Sept. 27 meeting and that Baca did not leave in a “huff.”

Birotte played down the “gun up” comment, testifying that it had less to with the idea of settling matters violently, and was more about staking out turf.

Hochman asked Birotte if the letter Baca had given Birotte was “open and transparent about his feelings.”

“No. He’s expressing his views,” Birotte testified.

Hochman told Judge Anderson the defense expects to finish its case on Friday or Monday. He said Baca will call five character witnesses, including former District Attorneys Ira Reiner and Steve Cooley. Martinez also is expected to testify.

Baca could yet take the stand. Hochman said he would let Anderson know on Friday morning.

The trial was to continue Friday in Anderson’s courtroom at the First Street courthouse, with Rhambo’s testimony.