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Baca plays favorites again

The sheriff, who has a history of special treatment of VIPs, went too far in aiding a longtime donor.

October 26, 2010

It's always disgraceful when a politician uses the power of office to do special favors for big campaign donors, but when those favors involve criminal probes by people carrying guns and badges, it's even more outrageous. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca appears to have crossed that line.

Times staff writer Robert Faturechi reported Monday that Baca sent a note to his chief of detectives asking him to investigate a routine lease dispute in the city of Beverly Hills, which is outside the sheriff's normal jurisdiction. It was a highly unusual move; law enforcement agencies typically only cross jurisdictional lines when they're invited to do so, and the Beverly Hills Police Department had already dismissed the case as a matter for the civil courts. It's probably not coincidental that the dispute involved one of Baca's longtime donors, Ezat Delijani, who has contributed thousands of dollars to Baca and regularly sends the sheriff expensive gifts such as fine wines and spirits. Delijani has acknowledged that he personally spoke to Baca about his dispute with a tenant who was demanding payment for improvements the tenant made to Delijani's building.

This isn't the first time Baca has been accused of giving special treatment to VIPs and donors. In 1999, he was obliged to stop giving guns and badges to a "celebrity" reserve unit after two members were arrested, but he continued to give out Sheriff's Department photo IDs to political donors until controversy erupted over the practice in 2006.

But those look like minor lapses in judgment compared with the allegations over Delijani, which are backed up by solid evidence including court depositions and Baca's own handwritten note. A deputy for the cash-strapped Sheriff's Department dedicated more than 115 hours to the case, and dozens of hours were put in by other department personnel — time that should have been spent investigating genuine crimes. This kind of political favor is particularly egregious because it corrodes the very heart of our legal system; if wealthy individuals can bend public justice to their private interests, it ravages public confidence in the rule of law and has a corrupting influence on law-enforcement personnel at all levels.

Among other things, the case illustrates why it's dangerous for county sheriff to be an elected post. Besides the opportunity that presents for backroom deals, there's the fact that the power of incumbency gives sitting sheriffs name recognition and fundraising clout that competitors can seldom match, making Baca more like a rajah than an elected official. He ran unopposed for reelection to his fourth term in June.

The public deserves a better explanation for Baca's behavior than he has delivered so far. If he can't produce it, hopefully the controversy will at least spur some competition for his job the next time around.

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