Crime & Justice

Baca trial: Prosecutors call FBI agent who led investigation in LA county jails

Former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, center, leaves the federal courthouse on Wednesday, December 14, 2016. His attorney, Nathan Hochman, is on his left.
Former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, center, leaves the federal courthouse on Wednesday, December 14, 2016. His attorney, Nathan Hochman, is on his left.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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The FBI agent who led the investigation into brutality inside Los Angeles County jails testified Wednesday that former Sheriff Lee Baca was well informed about his deputy’s efforts to block that investigation.

Agent Leah Tanner's testimony centered on events in August and September of 2011, when sheriff’s deputies at Men’s Central Jail discovered that the FBI was using an inmate as a secret informant to report on how deputies were beating people up. They had discovered the informant with a cell phone that contained a number for the FBI.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and eight others already have been convicted in a scheme to hide that inmate from the FBI and to intimidate Tanner. The question is how much Baca knew – he’s been charged with conspiring to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice.

Tanner testified that Baca’s county-issued cell phone logs showed a flurry of conversations between Baca and various underlings during the time they were hiding the informant -- and again after sheriff’s detectives showed up outside her home and threatened to arrest her.

Prosecutors played audio of Tanner's FBI supervisor calling the sheriff's detectives, asking them if Baca knew about the arrest threat. One detective is heard saying “yes, the sheriff knows this.”

In an unusual move, the prosecution called to the witness stand a former Los Angeles Times reporter. Robert Faturechi testified that Baca told him in a September 2011 interview that he knew of the detective’s visit with Tanner.

“He told you he directed that to happen?” Assistant United States Attorney Brandon Fox asked Faturechi.

“Yes,” replied Faturechi.

Baca’s defense attorney Nathan Hochman asked Faturechi about Baca’s motives for sending the detectives to the FBI agent’s home. Faturechi said Baca dismissed any suggestion that the visit was intended to intimidate her.

Hochman also sought to show Baca had nothing to hide.

“Baca took absolutely no action to prevent you from testifying today, correct,” Hochman said. Faturechi said that was true.

In fact, Faturechi testified in response to a subpoena from federal prosecutors. He and attorneys for the Los Angeles Times attempted to fight that subpoena, arguing the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protects journalists from being required to help the government.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson rejected the argument, saying the government’s need to present information gathered by Faturechi was paramount. But the judge agreed to Faturechi’s request that he be limited to testifying about what he reported – and not talk about anything that was merely in his notes or to reveal confidential sources.

Faturechi remained defiant.

“Subpoenaing journalists is a threat to media independence,” Faturechi said in a statement issued after his testimony.

Prosecutors also presented former Baca aide Mike Hannemann, who testified that he saw Baca with key players involved in blocking the FBI probe.'

Hochman wondered if Hanneman knew what they talked about: “You don’t know what they were saying when the door is shut, correct?”

“Correct,” Hannemann responded.

At the same time, prosecutors showed jurors an email from former Undersheriff Tanaka to the deputies involved in hiding the FBI's informant. Tanaka told them the case was “consuming his entire thought process,” referring to Baca.

The defense is expected to begin their case on Thursday.

On another note: a federal appeals panel Wednesday rejected Tanaka’s request to remain free on bail while he appeals his conviction.

“Appellant has not shown that the appeal raises a 'substantial question' of law or fact that is 'fairly debatable,'" the panel ruled. It said Tanaka was unlikely to avoid imprisonment, even if he wins part of his appeal.

Tanaka, who once aspired to succeed Baca, was sentenced to five years in prison.