Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has agreed to cooperate with federal… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
Federal prosecutors filed their first criminal charge in the ongoing investigation of deputy misconduct in the Los Angeles County jails, saying that an ex-guard has agreed to plead guilty to felony bribery and is cooperating with the FBI.
The case involves former Deputy Gilbert Michel, who admitted smuggling a cellphone and other contraband into Men's Central Jail last year for an inmate who promised him a total of $20,000. Michel, 38, didn't know that the inmate was an informant helping the FBI and that the person who eventually handed him money was an undercover agent.
Federal officials on Friday declined to detail the information Michel has provided. But the Sheriff's Department has acknowledged that Michel implicated several other jailers in "improper" uses of force against inmates. Michel spoke to investigators at least twice over the last few months, beginning in September, according to court papers.
U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. said Friday that the investigation into alleged brutality and other misdeeds by L.A. sheriff's deputies is continuing. The FBI probe has looked into claims that deputies carved racist initials into one inmate's head and broke the jaw of another inmate, among other allegations.
"Obviously it's important that corruption and any criminal misconduct in any law enforcement agency get rooted out, not just for public safety but, frankly, for the sake of the organization," he said.
Discovery of the smuggled cellphone by sheriff's officials sparked tensions between the department and the FBI last year. Michel's involvement in the federal sting was first reported by The Times in September and helped spark intense public scrutiny of how the Sheriff's Department has managed the nation's largest jail system.
Sheriff Lee Baca initially condemned the tactics of federal investigators, accusing them of breaking the law and creating a serious safety breach inside the jails. Since then, he has toned down his criticisms and agreed to cooperate with federal agents as they examine allegations of inmate abuse and other deputy misconduct inside his jails.
The sting that ensnared Michel began when the FBI's informant inside Men's Central Jail approached several deputies about smuggling in a cellphone in return for cash, according to federal court documents filed Friday.
The informant, who is not named in the records, let it be known he had access to large sums of cash that he illegally obtained. He gave some deputies — the exact number was not specified — a telephone number to follow up on his offer. Michel called the number on July 7 and left a message, the court records said. The documents do not say whether any other deputies also called.
The informant agreed to pay Michel $700 when he was given the cellphone and an additional sum once the inmate had received it, according to the documents. On July 20, Michel met an undercover FBI agent at a parking lot near Vermont Avenue and the 105 Freeway in South L.A. and was given the phone and the money.
The informant used the phone to contact his federal handler but could only do so while Michel was on duty, the court records said. Before the end of the deputy's shifts, the inmate returned the phone to Michel so that the deputy could charge it.
The informant, the documents show, told the deputy he would have his associate give Michel $2,000 every time the deputy gave the inmate the phone. The informant promised a total of $20,000 in a cashier's check as long as the deputy continued to bring the phone and other contraband, including cigarettes and written messages, federal authorities said.
At an Aug. 4 meeting, the undercover FBI agent gave Michel an additional $800 to give the telephone and a written note to the inmate, court records show. The deputy explained that he was owed far more, given what the inmate had promised, according to the documents.
Four days later, the scheme unraveled when sheriff's deputies discovered the cellphone among the inmate's belongings. Sheriff's investigators interviewed Michel, who admitted bringing the phone as well as cigarettes and a lighter to the inmate but denied bringing in other contraband, Baca said last year.
Along with the phone, sheriff's deputies also discovered a handwritten note listing names of deputies among the inmate's possessions. Baca said the informant had been gathering the names of deputies thought to have used excessive force against inmates.
Baca suspected the inmate was compiling the list for the FBI. Later, agents showed up at Michel's home and tried to "flip him" — get him to work for them as an informant, Baca said in the interview last year.
In a letter to an L.A. County supervisor, Baca said Michel also "made statements which implicated him, along with several other jail employees, as having participated in four prior unreported incidents of improper uses of force."