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Bad timing for Sheriff Baca's fundraiser

Baca, who's running for reelection next year, holds a $1,500-a-head event Monday, hours after the U.S. attorney accused staffers of beating inmates and obstruction of justice.

December 10, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said at a news conference Monday that 99.9% of the agency's employees were on the right track.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said at a news conference Monday that 99.9%… (Christina House, For The…)

When I got to the fundraiser Monday night for L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, I was told the press was not welcome.

Why not? I wondered.

You'd think Baca would want the world to know that, despite one debacle after another in his department — including the indictment of 18 current and former staffers earlier Monday for alleged beatings of inmates and other crimes — he still had supporters who were willing to be seen in public.

The cost of Monday night's love-in, by the way, was $1,500 a ticket.

"Help Re-Elect Our Friend," the invitation said.

It listed former Gov. Gray Davis, celebrity attorney Mark Geragos and former City Atty. Carmen Trutanich as hosts.

OK, so that's not exactly an A-list of backers. Two of them were unceremoniously voted out of office and the other one simultaneously defended Michael Jackson against molestation charges and Scott Peterson against murder charges.

Still, I was looking forward to asking them how they figure that Baca deserves a fifth term at the helm of what might be the most mismanaged, scandal-plagued public department in all of California.

"Don't harass these people," Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore warned me and TV reporter Dave Bryan outside Engine Company No. 28, a downtown L.A. restaurant owned by Geragos.

Harass them? I just wanted to hear their logic because, who knows? Maybe I'm missing something.

Whitmore said Davis would not be attending, but it wasn’t clear why not. Did his car break down? Did he
have a headache? Did he come to his senses? Maybe Baca had come to his senses and decided that after a day like the one he’d had,  he should be in hiding rather than asking for money.

For a while, it looked like nobody would be attending. A waiter told me 25 to 30 people had been expected, but the number was scaled back to about 15.

But, for all his problems, Baca is going to be hard to beat in 2014.

Why?

Because he's already raised a few hundred thousand dollars and has made a ton of connections after being in office so many years.

Because the opponent with the most name recognition, Paul Tanaka, was Baca's right-hand man for many years and bears some responsibility for the department's problems.

Because Baca will run on a decline in crime rates.

And because a lot of voters can't get too riled about guards roughing up inmates.

When Linda Dolson and Trish Steele arrived at the fundraiser and I asked why, Dolson had a simple answer: "Because he's a big supporter of our charity," she said, referring to Safe Passages, which assists victims of domestic violence and their children.

"Baca is a very meek, humble, wonderful man," Steele said.

And yes, that's very much a part of who Baca is. He's culturally curious, sensitive and community-minded.

But that doesn't mean he's competent to manage a 7-Eleven, let alone a department with 18,000 employees and roughly as many inmates.

When Trutanich arrived, I mentioned that it seemed odd to turn out for a candidate whose department was having one of the most humiliating days in its long history.

"There's no allegations against the sheriff," Trutanich said.

Huh?

Baca runs an agency in which the U.S. attorney's office says it has found a "wide scope of illegal conduct," including the beating of inmates and visitors by Baca's employees and obstruction of justice by the department.

And that doesn't even cover the many examples of inexplicable bungling. Just last week, for instance, Baca seemed caught by surprise when a Times investigation revealed his department had hired dozens of knucklehead deputies accused of misconduct and other transgressions while working for other agencies.

"He is, I think, one of the most impressive law enforcement types we've had in L.A. County in a long time," said Geragos upon his arrival at the fundraiser, adding that Baca is "a stand-up guy who takes responsibility."

Yeah, when he's forced to by lawsuits, the media or federal investigators.

And either he didn't know about all the festering problems on his watch, which makes him an incompetent manager, or he knew and didn't do anything about it until he was pressured, which would be worse.

Geragos argued that the bank manager can't always know what the bank tellers are doing.

Excuse me, counselor, but if the tellers are beating up the customers and the bank keeps getting sued, he knows. He also gets fired.

Baca can't be fired, though, except by voters. And one of his former commanders, Bob Olmsted, is hoping he can make that happen.

"How much more of this stuff do we need to take? There's no accountability and no transparency," said the retired Olmsted. The candidate claims that three years ago, when he worked in the jails, his warnings about problems there were ignored by Baca.

"Deputies were breaking bones purposely in order to get a tattoo" that gave them membership in a guard subculture of thugs, Olmsted said.

How could this go on for years?

Because the understood rule among ranking staff was: "You don't want to bring bad news to the sheriff," Olmsted suggested.

Olmsted has a long way to go before proving that he's a viable candidate, but he says he's running out of a sense of "duty to oust both Baca and Tanaka. These two guys are peas in a pod, and shame on them for creating this culture of corruption."

Baca, who seems to reside in a parallel universe at times, said on Monday that "there's not an institutional problem within the Sheriff's Department when it comes to correcting itself."

And he said that "99.9% of our employees are on the right track."

Well, certainly most of the employees do a tough job with professionalism and integrity. And it's for their sake that Baca should bow out of next year's election.

As long as he's in charge, they're all working under a cloud.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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