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Badges for Baca Backers Prompt Inquiry

The L.A. County sheriff didn't OK the ID cards bearing his signature that were given to donors and business owners, an official says.

April 07, 2006|Lance Pugmire and Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is investigating how identification cards bearing Sheriff Lee Baca's signature came to be issued to members of a citizen support group.

Undersheriff Larry L. Waldie said Thursday that Baca neither authorized nor signed the 48 photo identification cards that tire salesman Gary Nalbandian, head of Baca's "Homeland Security Support Unit," passed out to local business owners and political donors who made up the group. The department has now collected the badges.

Baca told The Times in a November interview that he was aware Nalbandian had issued identification cards but was not concerned about them: "What are you going to do with an ID card that's going to cause someone to help you?"

But on Thursday, Waldie said that Baca "did not authorize him [Nalbandian] to do these cards." Waldie said Nalbandian had Baca's permission to sign the sheriff's name -- but only in letters to the community, not on identification cards.

He said the source of the signature on the cards is under investigation. Baca was attending an official function and unavailable for comment.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors asked county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen to investigate the sheriff's issuing of identification cards to volunteers after a Times story about Nalbandian's group.

In a report issued Thursday, Janssen and County Counsel Raymond Fortner found that "the cards were not issued by the Sheriff's Department, but created by Gary Nalbandian and subsequently distributed by him to other members of the group."

Baca told The Times last fall that he relied on volunteer groups like Nalbandian's "Homeland Security Support Unit" to aid him in the fight against terrorism. "I'm going to build a network that's so strong that any terrorist that thinks they can fly under the radar screen in Los Angeles County, it ain't going to happen," he said. "Gary Nalbandian understands how to do that."

The laminated, official-looking cards were printed with each member's name, date of birth, physical description, signature and the Sheriff's Department's star-shaped seal.

Nalbandian did not immediately return telephone messages left for him Thursday, and Waldie would not speculate as to how the sheriff's reserve deputy had manufactured the cards.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said the county should have more fully investigated how the identification cards were made.

"The report is pathetic," Antonovich said. "It did not even include questioning those involved in the illegal manufacture, printing and distribution of a card containing the sheriff's signature."

He called for further investigation.

During the last nine years, Nalbandian has tapped a network of associates to raise more than $150,000 for the political campaigns of Baca, Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle and San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos.

Doyle created the sheriff's "Executive Council," naming Nalbandian his special assistant, and Ramos created the since-disbanded "Bureau of Justice" in 2003, designating Nalbandian chief. Doyle and Ramos distributed badges to the groups' members, but both have since recalled the badges.

One member of Baca's "Homeland Security Support Unit," Raffi Mesrobian, showed both his Los Angeles County sheriff's ID card and his Riverside County "Executive Council" badge to state agents serving a search warrant at his Glendale naturopathy office during a Medi-Cal fraud investigation last year.

His display of the official-looking identification caused a state Department of Justice investigator to write in his report that the identification card "did not distinguish whether Mesrobian was a sworn peace officer, a civilian employee or volunteer."

"In fact ... the official photo identification card would suggest that Mesrobian was a deputy or official of the Sheriff's Department instead of an unpaid volunteer or member of a support council," Special Agent J. Timothy Fives wrote in his report.

Waldie said his department was investigating and would request a criminal prosecution if wrongdoing was found.

Because he's a reserve deputy, Waldie said, Nalbandian faces reprimand or termination if he's found at fault.

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Times staff writer Stuart Pfeifer contributed to this story.

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