Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca personally launched a criminal investigation in another police agency's jurisdiction after a request from a millionaire businessman who later contributed $100,000 to two sheriff's charities, according to civil court testimony, law enforcement records and interviews.
The Sheriff's Department spent well over a year probing allegations by Guess Inc. co-founder Georges Marciano that his employees embezzled $1.4 million, despite several outside accounting audits showing that no money had been stolen. In fact, evidence suggested Marciano himself spent the money on young, foreign au pairs he flew into Los Angeles for brief, luxurious stays.
Sheriff's Det. Alex Gilinets testified in subsequent civil proceedings that he investigated the allegations despite a lack of cooperation from Marciano. The case was given "special" status, which Gilinets said is typically reserved for high-profile victims and, in this case, signified his supervisors' expectations that detectives "dot our i's and cross our t's above and beyond the normal investigation." The detective said he devoted about 500 hours to the case — more than he spent on any other probe.
Eventually, the detective and prosecutors found no criminal wrongdoing. A judge in the civil proceedings ordered Marciano to pay his employees $260 million in damages for making the unfounded claims.
In an interview, Baca said the probe was justified because of the "magnitude" of Marciano's allegations. The sheriff said that when he ordered the investigation, he had no knowledge of the accounting audits that showed no theft. Donations and political contributions were not discussed, Baca said, and any relationship he had with the fashion magnate did not factor into his decision-making.
But the sheriff's critics say the case is an example of special access Baca has provided donors and other influential individuals in law enforcement matters.
In October, a Times investigation detailed a similar case in which Baca launched a criminal probe inside another agency's jurisdiction on behalf of Ezat Delijani, a well-connected Beverly Hills businessman who had given the sheriff political contributions and expensive gifts.
In that case, a lease dispute was assigned "rush" status, generally reserved for homicides and other high-priority cases, and was labeled by sheriff's deputies as a "Sheriff Baca Special Request." The Beverly Hills Police Department had earlier concluded the case was a civil matter. Prosecutors initially declined to file charges after the sheriff's investigation, citing a lack of evidence. That decision was reversed after an appeal from the Sheriff's Department.
"You'd hope the elected sheriff in the county would be sensitive to the appearance that everything has to be dropped, all eyes must go to the cases he finds important because he has a rapport with someone who has this kind of access to him," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The guy seems to not get this."
Baca has the legal authority to launch investigations throughout the county, even in the jurisdictions of other police departments. But law enforcement experts say it is highly unusual for one police agency to launch an investigation in another agency's jurisdiction without being invited.
Following The Times' story about the Delijani investigation, Baca asked his department's watchdog to review his handling of that case and consider guidelines for his personal involvement in pleas from donors, celebrities and friends. That probe has yet to be completed.
In 2009, The Times looked into Marciano's case and was told by sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore that Baca had been unaware of his agency's probe until it was already underway. In an interview last month, however, Baca confirmed that Marciano had reported the allegations directly to him and that Baca personally had sent the case over to his chief of detectives.
The case was then assigned to Gilinets. The detective testified that the "initial jurisdiction" of Marciano's complaint was in Beverly Hills, which has its own police force. He said Marciano told him that "because he was a good friend of Sheriff Baca, I was supposed to…help him out."
Baca said the investigation should not have been given "special" status.
"I've never designated any inquiry as being a special," Baca said. "I would discourage anyone from using that phraseology on any case, other than perhaps a murder."
Sheriff's officials were unable to estimate how much the investigation cost, but based on the detective's salary and other resources that were used, tens of thousands of dollars were expended.