An FBI agent who was illegally threatened with arrest by Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeants who showed up at her home in September 2011 is scheduled to testify Wednesday in the federal corruption trial of former Sheriff Lee Baca.
Leah Marx, the case agent on the FBI’s civil rights investigation into excessive force and corruption among jail deputies, is expected to tell the jury that two sheriff’s investigators confronted her in the driveway leading into her apartment and told her that they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest.
Prosecutors will use Marx’s testimony to illustrate what they contend was the sheriff’s department’s intent to block federal scrutiny of the jails and keep any investigation of misconduct within the department. They allege that orders to confront the agent came directly from the top and that Baca knew about the plan in advance.
The latest of three former deputies testified Tuesday that orders to stymie efforts by the FBI to investigate allegations of inmate abuse by jail guards five years ago came from his superior officers. Prosecutors contend the effort to impede federal authorities started at the top of the department.
Gilbert Michel, 43, was the first sheriff’s official to be charged in a wide-ranging FBI investigation into misconduct and corruption in the jails after he was caught in a sting operation smuggling a cell phone to an inmate in return for a $1,500 bribe.
Michel was sentenced to six months behind bars in June after pleading guilty to the bribery charge and agreeing to testify against other sheriff’s officials in subsequent trials, including the current case against Baca.
The August 2011 discovery of the cell phone by sheriff’s officials exposed the FBI’s secret investigation inside the jail and disrupted the bureau’s plans to carry out a larger probe of corruption inside the Sheriff’s Department.
The finding of the phone hidden within a jail informant’s bag of Doritos also set into motion a secret program known by participants as Operation Pandora’s Box, a conspiracy by sheriff’s officials to thwart the FBI probe. As a result, 10 sheriff’s officials were convicted of obstruction of justice or other charges. Baca is being tried on conspiracy and obstruction counts in connection with the case.
The former sheriff is facing a second trial — on a charge of making false statements to federal authorities — following the conclusion of proceedings now in their second week in downtown Los Angeles.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson split the trial into two parts after he agreed to allow testimony by an expert on dementia — but only as it relates to the lying charge. Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Last week, two other ex-deputies who were convicted of obstructing the FBI jails investigation told the jury that they believed they were following orders from Baca when they worked to derail the federal probe by hiding the informant within the jail system.
Former deputies James Sexton and Mickey Manzo testified about the steps they took to conceal the whereabouts of Anthony Brown, who was working as a federal informant. Both ex-lawmen said that they believed their orders came from Baca and then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
Tanaka, who alleges that Baca initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison after his April conviction on conspiracy and obstruction charges.
Prosecutors allege that Baca put into motion the scheme — overseen by Tanaka — to derail the investigation by intimidating the lead agent in the case, pressuring deputies not to cooperate and keeping Brown hidden.
Baca suddenly retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
Prosecutors said they could wrap up their case Thursday or Friday.
—City News Service
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