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LA Sheriff: 7 defendants in obstruction of justice case plead not guilty

Thomas O'Brien

Ric Francis/AP

Thomas O'Brien, a former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, is representing a sheriff's deputy who has been indicted on obstruction of justice charges. The deputy claims to actually be a whistleblower.

UPDATE: Deputy James Sexton pled not guilty in federal court Monday afternoon.

At the request of Sexton and with the consent of federal prosecutors, the judge is allowing Sexton to keep two firearms at home. Neither his defense attorney nor prosecutors would say why. All other defendants in the case have been ordered to surrender their weapons.

Sexton’s father was in court. Ted M. Sexton is one of 13 high ranking chiefs within the Sheriff’s Department. He heads the Homeland Security Division. Sexton declined to comment on the charges against his son.

Eleven other defendants in various other indictments have all entered pleas.

ORIGINAL STORY: Six of the seven former and current Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department employees accused of trying to block an FBI investigation into the jails have entered not guilty pleas in federal court.

Former Lt. Gregory Thompson, Deputy Gerard Smith, Sergeant Scott Craig and Sergeant Maricella Long appeared in court Monday. Lt. Stephen Leavins and Deputy Mickey Manzo pleaded not guilty last week. An initial trial date was set for Feb. 4.

All those still with the department have been suspended with pay.

The seventh defendant in the case, Deputy James Sexton, is due in court Monday afternoon. He is being represented by Thomas O'Brien, a former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles.

In an unusual twist, Sexton claims he was also a whistleblower.

In a civil lawsuit filed against the Sheriff’s Department last month, Sexton said he raised concerns about the misconduct of colleagues inside the downtown Men’s Central Jail two years ago – only to face retaliation and harassment from superiors.

Attorney Bradley Gage, who represents Sexton and Deputy Michael Rathbun in the civil lawsuit, said both faced the wrath of department brass for their whistleblowing.

“They would be denied promotional opportunities, and they would be given bogus internal affairs complaints against them,” Gage said.

Sexton said he went to the FBI with his concerns about misconduct, and has testified before a grand jury.

The FBI won’t comment, but federal prosecutors have named Sexton as a participant in a scheme to hide an FBI jail informant. That informant was helping federal investigators identify rogue deputies.

So Sexton stands as accuser and accused, said former federal prosecutor and Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson.

“It’s a bit unusual,” she said. “But it may come down to how truthful he was in what he said when he came forward – and  how much he was trying to deflect from his own involvement.”

Levenson said federal prosecutors also may believe Sexton knows more about superiors who might have been involved. The indictment, she said, may be an effort to pressure him to give up more information in exchange for a lighter sentence.

“Unless you can successfully defend that case, you may be looking at a substantial amount of prison time.”

Prosecutors regularly try to pressure people who may be involved in criminal wrongdoing by filing criminal charges against them, said Mike Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor who now heads the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review.

“That is a strategy that not only federal prosecutors but all prosecutors have used successfully,” he said.

Federal prosecutors have convened a grand jury to hear evidence in the FBI’s wide-ranging investigation into the Sheriff’s Department – another advantage in their ongoing probe, said Gennaco. Federal grand juries wield enormous subpoena power.

“Any document they want, they get. Any witness they want, they get,” he said. Gennaco pointed out witnesses also testify without their attorney present.

The grand jury has indicted 13 in connection with misconduct at the jails.  It continues to work on the investigation, according to federal prosecutors, and one of the questions is whether the grand jury will issue more indictments. To date, a sheriff’s lieutenant is the highest-ranking officer facing charges.

Will Sheriff Lee Baca or former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka end up in criminal court? Levenson said it would be extraordinary, and doubts it will happen.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t hold your breath right now that you’re going to see the very top officials charged with any type of federal crime,” she said. “I think the federal authorities have been looking at this a long time and they haven’t found that yet.”

In his civil suit accusing the department of retaliation for his whistleblowing, Sexton paints a different picture.

He claims it wasn’t just a lieutenant who orchestrated the plan to thwart the FBI investigation in the jails. He claims that lieutenant acted at all times “under the auspices, direction, command, instruction, and/or control” of Baca and Tanaka.

Baca has said prosecutors have told him he is not a target of the investigation. Tanaka could not be reached for comment. He has issued a statement that did not address the indictments.

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