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Sheriff Lee Baca met with Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to discuss donor's case

Baca and Cooley met last April to discuss how a Beverly Hills businessman's forgery case against a tenant could be reopened. Late last year, the forgery case was re-filed.

January 19, 2011|By Robert Faturechi and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca met with Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley in April 2010 to discuss how a forgery case could be reopened for prosecution. The district attorney's office re-filed charges later in the year.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca met with Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley in April 2010… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca personally met with Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to discuss how to appeal a prosecutor's decision to reject forgery charges sought by a well-connected businessman who had given Baca expensive gifts and donations.

Cooley confirmed Tuesday that he and Baca talked about the case, but said it was in the "vaguest sense" and that the sheriff did not ask him to overturn the prosecutor's decision. Instead, Cooley said, the sheriff wanted to know the proper procedures by which he could initiate such an appeal. Baca confirmed that account, adding that he was not trying to pressure Cooley to file charges.

Following the April meeting, Baca's detective — who also attended the meeting with Cooley — lodged a formal request that the case be reconsidered. Prosecutors asked the detective to provide additional evidence, then reevaluated the case and filed criminal charges late last year.

The meeting underscored the lengths to which Baca went on behalf of Ezat Delijani, a Beverly Hills real estate magnate. A recent Times investigation showed that Baca launched a criminal investigation inside another police agency's jurisdiction after a personal appeal from Delijani's son.

Critics have accused the sheriff of giving special access to friends, donors and other influential people. Baca has dismissed those allegations as baseless.

In Delijani's case, an investigation into a 2008 lease dispute between Delijani and one of his tenants was assigned "rush" status, generally reserved for homicides and other high-priority cases. The matter was referred to by sheriff's deputies as a "Sheriff Baca Special Request." The sheriff's investigation began after the Beverly Hills Police Department had concluded that the rental dispute was a civil matter.

In October 2009, prosecutors declined to file charges after the sheriff's investigation, citing a lack of evidence.

Months later, Baca called Cooley's office to ask if he could "drop by," according to district attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons. Baca did not say in advance what he wanted to discuss, she said.

During the brief afternoon meeting, Cooley said Baca and his detective said they believed charges should have been filed against Delijani's tenant, and asked if there was a specific procedure to follow in order to appeal the decision.

"We have a probable forgery here," Cooley recalled Baca saying. "We think the case should have been filed.... Where do we go from here?"

Baca was given a copy of the district attorney's office policy on appealing filing decisions, Cooley said.

The detective appealed soon after, and late last year prosecutors reversed their initial decision and filed a forgery charge against Delijani's tenant. Gibbons said Tuesday that the decision came after the filing prosecutor reviewed transcripts from a related civil case. Cooley said he was not involved in that decision.

In an interview Tuesday, Baca said he called for the meeting because he wanted a better understanding on how to appeal a prosecutor's rejection of a case. Baca acknowledged that his detectives often appeal prosecutors' decisions, but he thought this case was different because it involved a "complex" fraud.

"Basically the detective was astounded the case was rejected," Baca said. "What he did is he messaged up the chain of command that he felt his investigation warranted a filing … and then I … said well I'm sure the district attorney's office has appeals procedures. Let me ask Mr. Cooley if he does. I'd like to know them myself."

Baca said it was the first case for which he'd ever set up a meeting with Cooley to discuss the guidelines for appealing a rejected case.

Despite his personal involvement in the matter, Baca denied that he had given Delijani any special treatment. He also denied that Delijani's gifts and contributions influenced him in any way.

Delijani had regularly given Baca expensive presents: a $150 gift basket in 2003, $200 worth of liquor in 2005, $65 worth of spirits in 2006, $200 worth of wine in 2007, three bottles of wine in 2008 and $88 worth of wine in 2009, financial disclosure records show.

He donated $1,000 to "Friends of Sheriff Lee Baca" in 2005 and another $1,000 to the political committee in 2006 through Delijani's company, Delson Investment, according to records. In one day in 2009, members of the Delijani family donated $5,000 to Baca's officeholder account, $5,000 to his attorneys fees fund and $5,000 to his committee "Friends of Sheriff Lee Baca 2010."

Delijani has contributed to many other politicians. A Delijani-affiliated company donated $1,600 to Cooley's attorney general bid in 2010. Cooley said through a spokeswoman that he was unaware of those donations and that he does not know Delijani.

David Lingscheit, the detective on Delijani's case, declined to comment, saying, "I've been instructed to inform all press matters to our headquarters bureau."

Stephen Kahn, the attorney for Afshin Nassir, the tenant currently being prosecuted for forgery, said he had "never seen anything like this."

"In a case like this, the fact that Steve Cooley would have any involvement is extremely unusual," Kahn said. "That a case involving a forged document would rise to the level that the Los Angeles County district attorney would have any involvement is highly unusual.... This is really a case of selective prosecution."

Baca said the case against Nassir was solid.

"I didn't create new evidence," Baca said. "My investigator didn't create new evidence.... Nobody in the Sheriff's Department manipulated evidence.... The evidence speaks for itself."

Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.

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