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FBI paid deputy to smuggle cellphone in jail sting

The officer allegedly accepted about $1,500 to smuggle a cellphone to an inmate who was an FBI informant, sources say. Sheriff asks whether the FBI is capable of investigating alleged jail abuses.

September 27, 2011|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Sheriff Lee Baca says the FBI investigation into jail conditions is unnecessary, adding: "We police ourselves."
Sheriff Lee Baca says the FBI investigation into jail conditions is unnecessary,… (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles…)

FBI agents probing misconduct allegations in the L.A. County Jail orchestrated an undercover sting in which they paid about $1,500 to a sheriff's deputy to smuggle a cellphone to an inmate, sources said.

The revelation is the first public indication that the FBI's investigations into allegations of inmate beatings and other deputy misconduct in the jails have uncovered possible criminal wrongdoing.

The FBI conducted the cellphone sting without notifying top Sheriff's Department brass, enraging Sheriff Lee Baca and causing a rift between the two law enforcement agencies.

Baca, who is scheduled to meet Tuesday with U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. to discuss the escalating tensions, went on television Monday to slam the FBI, saying smuggling a cellphone inside a secured lockup created a serious safety breach. Baca suggested that the FBI committed a crime by doing so.

"It's illegal," he said. "It's a misdemeanor and then there's a conspiracy law that goes along with it."

Baca has not responded to repeated interview requests from The Times to discuss the federal inquiries into his jails, the nation's largest. When asked about the deputy accused of smuggling the cellphone into the jail, Baca's spokesman Steve Whitmore would only say: "We're going to go wherever this investigation takes us."

The Times reported Sunday that federal authorities are investigating inmate beatings and other misconduct by deputies in the jails. The allegations include deputies breaking one inmate's jaw and beating another inmate for two minutes while he was unconscious.

In addition to the investigations surrounding the jails, federal authorities have two other inquiries involving the Sheriff's Department. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division announced a broad "pattern and practice" investigation into allegations that deputies in the Antelope Valley discriminated against minority residents who receive government housing assistance. Also last month, The Times reported that a Sheriff's Department captain had been put on leave after federal agents suspected hearing her voice on a wiretap of a suspected Compton drug ring.

Sources said Monday that the deputy allegedly caught in the sting accepted the money to smuggle the cellphone to the inmate, who was locked up at the Men's Central Jail. Unbeknownst to the deputy, the inmate was working as an informant for the FBI, sources said.

The deputy, Gilbert Michel, 38, resigned shortly after sheriff's officials put him on leave, , sources said. A source said the deputy, who has not been charged with a crime, is now the subject of a Sheriff's Department criminal investigation. Michel could not be reached for comment.

Federal officials have declined to comment on their investigations and the Sheriff Department's criticisms of their undercover operation.

Baca, however, spoke out Monday on KTTV-TV Channel 11's "Good Day L.A.", defending his department's record in the jails and blasting the FBI. He suggested that the federal inquiry was unnecessary because all allegations of abuse within the jails are thoroughly investigated internally, and vetted by the department's watchdog.

"We police ourselves," he said.

The sheriff also questioned whether the FBI had the know-how to investigate his jails. "What kind of experience do you have in dealing with all this? And to what extent do you know the policies, the procedures and even the law?" Baca asked of the FBI.

He also criticized the FBI's use of an inmate informant, identifying him as a man facing 400 years in prison for armed robbery. "Jailhouse informants quite frankly are problematic," the sheriff said.

It's unclear how Baca's public critique of the FBI will affect the relationship between the two agencies, and more important, the many task forces, including one focusing on terrorism, in which the agencies serve together.

After his criticism of the FBI investigation, Baca went on to promote an upcoming charity run, mentioning that the Sheriff's Department and the FBI would be in attendance.

"Will they be running from you or with you?" asked one reporter.

"Probably do a little of both," Baca responded.

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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