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Sheriff's indictments: Can Baca survive latest challenge facing his department?

Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca held a press conference Monday to respond to the Department of Justice's indictment of 18 current or former department members.
Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca held a press conference Monday to respond to the Department of Justice's indictment of 18 current or former department members.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC

When Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca woke up Monday morning, he was probably looking forward to the fundraiser being held that very evening for his 2014 re-election campaign.

But his mood probably changed about 9:30 a.m., when news broke that the U.S. Department of Justice had indicted 18 current or former members of the Sheriff's Department on a wide range of misconduct charges that include excessive force, unlawful arrests and obstruction of a federal investigation.

At a morning press conference, United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. pointedly said the incidents "did not take place in a vacuum – in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized."

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Still, Baca remained steadfast when he faced the press later in the afternoon, saying there is "no institutional problem" in his department.  And he added the indictments should have nothing to do with his re-election chances.

"I don't have any thought about that," said Baca, as a couple of dozen department employees stood behind him. "This is not a political matter to me. This is an organizational matter."

But the sheriff faced a daylong deluge of criticism from various corners. 

Former federal judge and former U.S. attorney for Los Angeles, Robert Bonner, served on a blue ribbon commission that just over a year ago issued a report that faulted both Baca and his former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka.

"I think [the charges] are reflective of what we found on the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence," said Bonner, "that there has been, in the past, a culture within the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department that fosters the use of unreasonable and unnecessary force." 

Bonner called the indictments something akin to a thermonuclear bomb delivered by the U.S. attorney, noting how unusual it is for the federal government to indict law enforcement officials.

A former member of Baca's senior staff, Robert Olmsted, testified before the citizens commission. On Monday he said he was not surprised by the indictments. He raised the question of whether higher-ranking officials should have been indicted, as opposed to just two lieutenants — one of whom no longer works for the department — who are accused with five deputies of obstructing the FBI's investigation. 

Low-lying fruit

"Lieutenants do not have the capability to make decisions," Olmsted said. "Those came from higher-ups. Being an investigator for years and years and years, I can tell you what's going on: The Feds grabbed the low-lying fruit."

Olmsted, a former sheriff's department commander, is running against Baca next year, as is Tanaka.

Two members of the County Board of Supervisors, Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas, issued statements Monday decrying the indictments and Baca's leadership. But because Baca is an elected official, the board has no power to oust him. The supervisors have appointed an inspector general to oversee the sheriff's department. Creation of the position was a recommendation of the  Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

Baca and his department face a litany of other problems:

Whether Baca's usual backers stay in his corner remains to be seen. Monday's fundraiser at the downtown restaurant Engine Co. No. 28 was co-chaired by former California Gov. Gray Davis, former City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and prominent defense attorney Mark Geragos.

Speaking outside the restaurant, Geragos argued Baca has performed well during the federal investigation of his department.
“Clearly, the sheriff cooperated, the sheriff held these guys accountable, cooperated with the Feds in making sure that the people they think engaged in activities were held accountable in a federal court,” Geragos said.
Baca, however, initially claimed the FBI was operating an illegal undercover operation inside his jails. 

Former L.A. County Public Defender Robert Kalunian also attended the fundraiser. He, too, was reluctant to hold Baca responsible.
'Although the buck stops at the top, he can’t control everybody of every minute of every day,” Kalunian said.
Kalunian called Baca “a progressive sheriff.” He pointed to Baca's support of special courts that offer rehabilitation programs for drug addicts and military veterans: “I think the sheriff isn’t just concerned about locking people up, he’s concerned about solving problems.”

Tickets for the event  were $1,500 a person. Baca is seeking his fifth four-year term in office.