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L.A. County not investigating special treatment allegations against Baca

The head of the agency that polices the Sheriff's Department says there's no rule prohibiting the elected sheriff from doing favors for campaign donors.

October 26, 2010|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

The public watchdog overseeing the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said Monday it would not investigate allegations that Sheriff Lee Baca improperly used department resources to benefit one of his political donors, stating that the department does not have a policy against special treatment for campaign contributors.

"In the real world there are realities that exist…the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In many ways we live in an unequal society," said Michael Gennaco, the head of the Office of Independent Review. "It's the way of the world."

Gennaco's comments came in response to a Times investigation showing that Baca personally directed detectives to go outside his agency's jurisdiction to launch a criminal investigation of a tenant involved in a lease dispute with Ezat Delijani, a Beverly Hills businessman who has given political donations and expensive gifts to the sheriff.

Gennaco said instituting a conflict-of-interest policy to prevent special treatment for donors would be impractical: "Any time you request an investigation you [would] have to make sure this person isn't a donor, or a friend of yours. I think that's problematic."

But Gennaco's take seemed out of sync with guidelines on ethical policing published in 2004 by a commission that included Baca himself. According to that guide, put out by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, "asking for or giving special favors to family, friends and public officials" is a violation of ethical principles.

Outside law enforcement experts said that the Delijani case was highly unusual, and that ethical guidelines for cases involving donors should be implemented for the Sheriff's Department.

Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies said Baca should have avoided personal involvement in Delijani's case. Delijani received "extraordinary" attention from the sheriff, Stern said, pointing to the "rush" status his case was given and the fact that the Beverly Hills Police Department had already concluded that it was a civil matter.

"Obviously he thinks it's OK to get law enforcement to investigate a case for a campaign contributor," he said.

Experts said Baca's status as an elected official insulates him from potential repercussions.

"My understanding is that the sheriff is an elected official and therefore can't be disciplined for any kind of act unless he decides to discipline himself," Gennaco said.

The Board of Supervisors, which determines the Sheriff's Department's budget, cannot reprimand Baca, and publicly critiquing him could be politically risky, experts said.

For the most part, the only noncriminal penalty elected sheriffs could face is getting voted out of office, Stern said. Baca was re-elected in June to a fourth four-year term.

Joseph D. McNamara, a former police chief who is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, said the concept of an elected law enforcement head, rather than an appointed one, inherently brings conflict-of-interest issues.

"Police chiefs are trained not to accept anything from anyone," he said. "As sheriff, you don't get elected if you follow that rule. … They have to run for office, they have to raise money."

County supervisors either declined to comment or were unavailable Monday. A staff member for Mark Ridley-Thomas said the supervisor planned to consult with county counsel regarding the allegations in The Times' story.

Baca was out of the country Monday on a trip to Egypt and Qatar.

The sheriff has been accused of giving influential and famous people preferential treatment in the past.

In 1999, Baca had to disband his "celebrity" reserve unit, a group of about 20 well-connected community members, after two members got into trouble with the law. In setting up the unit, sheriff's officials acknowledged that they rushed background checks on the reserves and reduced their training requirements.

In 2006, Baca had to recall official-looking ID cards given to members of his Homeland Security Support Unit, a group that included supporters and contributors, amid concerns that the cards could be mistaken for department credentials.

The same year, Baca's department took heat for providing special treatment to Mel Gibson, who had served as a spokesman for a sheriffs-affiliated nonprofit, after his drunk driving arrest. Gibson's anti-Semitic comments were removed from an initial arrest report, he was driven back to his car in a tow yard by a sheriff's sergeant and was allowed to leave without submitting a required palm print.

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