Crime & Justice

FBI agent: Conspiracy trail leads to former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca

File: Former Sheriff Lee Baca stands behind his attorney Nathan Hochman on the steps of the federal courthouse. Baca has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, obstruction justice and lying.
File: Former Sheriff Lee Baca stands behind his attorney Nathan Hochman on the steps of the federal courthouse. Baca has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, obstruction justice and lying.
Annie Gilbertson/KPCC

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FBI special agent Leah Tanner took the witness stand Monday to walk a federal court jury through her investigation into the Los Angeles County jails — and how it ultimately took her to the door of then-Sheriff Lee Baca. Tanner, who then went by her maiden name Marx, was assigned to investigate the jails in June 2010 after an inmate wrote a letter saying deputies were using excessive force for "no reason." 

"It quickly started to expand," Tanner told the jury, as she identified more inmate sources. Tanner eventually began routine conversations with inmate Anthony Brown and got him a cell phone, smuggled in by a jail deputy bribed in an undercover FBI operation. 

But her investigation came to a halt in the summer of 2011 after other deputies discovered the phone and connected it back to the FBI. Sheriff Baca accused her of being a part of a subsequent scheme to block the FBI's investigation.

He is charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying. He's pleaded not guilty. To prove their case, federal prosecutors must essentially show Baca was part of the conspiracy to block federal investigators and that at least one member of the group acted illegally.

After the phone was discovered, Tanner testified she was "kicked out" of an interview with Brown by Sheriff's Department employees. The FBI attempted to get Brown to testify in front of a grand jury, but he was not handed over by the sheriff's department.  His name disappeared from the inmate tracking system, Tanner told the jury, and it wasn't discovered until later that he was being hidden by department employees under false names.

Knowing the phone had been discovered, she said she contacted the deputy who'd smuggled it in and asked if he would cooperate.

"It was very clear it was a different environment," Tanner said. 

But, the Sheriff's Department had opened an investigation of their own — probing the FBI's involvement in the jails. Prosecutors played tape of Sheriff's internal investigators talking to the smuggling deputy and telling him not to be made a "puppet" of the FBI. "I'm ordering you not to discuss this," one of the investigators told the deputy on tape, except to his attorney and his priest.

Then, sheriff's investigators went a step further. 

"I arrived home from work," Tanner told the jury, and "there were two Sheriff's Department sergeants at my door." Prosecutors played tape of one of the investigators telling Tanner he was in the process of getting a warrant for her arrest.

They could arrest me "in front of my apartment ... in front of my neighbors," Tanner told the jury.

Prosecutors asked Tanner if she'd done anything wrong. "Absolutely not," Tanner replied. 

But by this point in Monday's hearing, Tanner had been testifying for hours and Baca's name had seldom come up. Several department employees have already been convicted or pleaded guilty for their role in this scheme. The question before jurors: How was Baca connected, if at all? 

Tanner testified Baca was in contact with members of the conspiracy. She went through lists of phone records to show communication went all the way to the top.

But what was said in these calls? Those records don’t answer that question.

Tanner told the jury she looked for "the frequency" communication circled back "back to another individual."

Baca’s attorney is expected to raise doubt during cross examination on Tuesday. He has said Baca was not involved in the illegal activity of others and that the scheme was masterminded by Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who worked closely with Baca to run the Sheriff's Department. 

Baca's aide at the time, Mike Hannemann, also testified. He said the sheriff took meetings with Tanaka and other alleged co-conspirators during that time. Hanneman, who is now a lieutenant at the Sheriff's Department's Compton Station, said Tanaka met with the sheriff "every day" and "up to as many as five" times per day. 

"You couldn't hear what was being said, correct?" Baca's attorney asked on cross examination. 

"Correct," Hanneman said. 

During the Sheriff's Department's own probe into the FBI, sheriff's investigators asked an L.A. Superior Court judge to force the FBI to turn over what it had gathered on the jails and identities of their informants. Judge John Torribio denied it and the told the jury why.

"The state has no right over the federal government — it's supreme," Torribio said.