Los Angeles County’s former assistant sheriff is expected to testify Friday in the federal trial of ex-sheriff Lee Baca about discussions the two had regarding the FBI’s probe of civil rights abuses at Men’s Central Jail.
Cecil Rhambo, now retired from the sheriff’s department, is scheduled to take the stand on the third day of testimony in the closely watched case.
Baca is on trial in downtown Los Angeles on obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges for allegedly putting into motion an elaborate plan to thwart the FBI’s jails investigation in 2011.
The charges against Baca are similar to those brought against Paul Tanaka, Baca’s former undersheriff, who ran much of the department’s day to day operations. Tanaka was convicted after jurors found he had been at the center of the plan to obstruct the FBI.
The indictment against Baca alleges that he conspired with Tanaka and others to keep federal investigators away from a jail inmate, Anthony Brown, who was providing information to the FBI about deputies who were allegedly abusing inmates.
After sheriff’s officials caught Brown with a cellphone the FBI smuggled to him through a corrupt jail deputy, Baca ordered his subordinates to keep Brown isolated and to interview him, according to the indictment.
If convicted of the two felony counts, Baca could be sentenced to as much as 15 years behind bars. He also faces a charge of making false statements at a separate trial.
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.
Anderson agreed to hold a separate trial so that the 74-year-old Baca — who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease — can be tried first on the conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges, after finding that the former sheriff’s mental state is not relevant to those counts.
A second jury will be selected at a later date to hear testimony on the false statements count, which carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.
The charges focus on a six-week period five years ago after guards at Men’s Central Jail stumbled upon the FBI’s secret probe of alleged civil rights abuses and unjustified beatings of inmates within jail walls.
After sheriff’s deputies discovered that Brown was an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators. They also went to the home of an FBI agent in charge of the investigation and threatened her with arrest.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — claims he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that Tanaka was in charge of the operation. Ten ex-sheriff’s officials — including Tanaka – – have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case, and 10 others have been convicted of various charges connected to the overall federal probe.
Tanaka, who alleges that Baca initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison but is free pending appeal.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
—City News Service