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L.A. County deputies allege department hid FBI informant

A suit by two deputies alleges they were retaliated against for reporting misconduct. They also say the department moved an inmate working as a federal informant to a different jail under an alias.

April 26, 2013|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

Two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies say the department hid an inmate working as a federal informant from the FBI, according to a lawsuit they filed this week.

The allegations are the latest development in the ongoing question of whether top sheriff's officials obstructed an FBI investigation after learning that an inmate at Men's Central Jail was secretly collecting information on allegedly abusive and corrupt deputies.

In the summer of 2011, sheriff's deputies discovered the inmate's cellphone with a history of calls to the FBI. In an unusual move, sheriff's officials responded by transferring the inmate, a convicted bank robber, to a different jail under aliases, including Robin Banks.

Department officials assigned at least 13 deputies to watch the inmate around the clock, according to documents reviewed by The Times, and dubbed it "Operation Pandora's Box."

A federal criminal grand jury has been probing whether sheriff's officials were hiding the inmate and the phone from the FBI, or whether they were simply protecting the inmate from retaliation by jail deputies he was "snitching" on, as a sheriff's spokesman has said.

In the lawsuit, the two deputies, both from the jail's intelligence unit, allege that after the inmate's status as an informant was discovered, they were told by their boss to do things that would "keep the FBI out of the jails." They allege that officials also considered doing surveillance of interview rooms when the FBI or informants were present.

The lawsuit is the first public claim by sheriff's employees that the intent was to hide the inmate, Anthony Brown.

The lawsuit was filed by Deputies James Sexton and Michael Rathbun. Sexton is the son of Sheriff Lee Baca's newly hired homeland security chief.

The Times has previously reported that the two deputies collided with their boss after they reported allegations that another deputy was working as an operative for drug-smuggling skinhead gang members. After writing a memo about the tip, their boss shared the contents of the memo with the accused deputy rather than forwarding it along to internal criminal investigators, who could have conducted a sting operation.

Both men allege they were retaliated against for reporting misconduct to the FBI and others. Sexton says he has been the victim of threats and intimidation.

Rathbun, who is on paid administrative leave, alleges that officials are seeking to fire him over a drunk driving offense. According to the suit, other deputies who committed such misconduct were punished less severely. A video of that incident reviewed by The Times shows the deputy was belligerent as he was questioned by colleagues afterward.

Sexton remains on active duty.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said department officials have cooperated fully with the federal investigation of the county's jails and said the two deputies were not retaliated against.

"The sheriff has made it clear throughout the department that there won't be any retaliation whatsoever," Whitmore said.

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