L.A. Sheriff Employees Sentenced to Prison for Obstructing Investigations
By Victoria Kim
A federal judge on Tuesday lambasted what he called a "corrupt culture" within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as he sentenced six current and former members of the department to prison for obstructing a federal investigation into abuse and corruption at the county jails.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said evidence showed there were "significant problems" within the department, including an "us-versus-them mentality," routine cover-up of inmate abuse, and an "unwritten code" taught to new jail deputies that any inmate who fought a guard should end up in the hospital.
While the six defendants were not accused of excessive force, they were complicit in such misconduct by trying to thwart a federal investigation into abuses at the jails, Anderson said. Jurors convicted the sheriff's officials this year of conspiring to impede a grand jury investigation by keeping an inmate informant hidden from his FBI handlers, dissuading witnesses from cooperating and trying to intimidate a federal agent.
"They all took actions to shield these dirty deputies from facing the consequence of their crimes," Anderson said.
Sentencing the sheriff's officials to terms ranging from 21 months for one deputy to 41 months for a seasoned lieutenant, the judge castigated the defendants for not showing "even the slightest remorse." He said he intended for the sentences to send a message that "blind obedience to a corrupt culture has serious consequences."
"The court hopes that if and when other deputies face the decision, they will remember what happened here today ... and they will do what is right rather than what is easy," Anderson said.
Interim Sheriff John Scott said in a statement that the punishments "reflect individual action by a few."
"Those sentences should not be seen as a broad brush characterization of the quality of work performed, or commitment to the public, the men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deliver each and every day," he said.
The five men and one woman stood largely expressionless as they were sentenced.
Their attorneys took turns pleading for leniency, citing their long histories of service as sworn law enforcement officers. They blamed higher-level officials in the department, echoing arguments made at trial that the defendants had merely followed orders from above.
Peter Johnson, an attorney for Lt. Stephen Leavins, asked the judge to take into account the role then-Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka played in "orchestrating and guiding" actions taken by the subordinates.
"Just because those individuals weren't charged in this case doesn't mean Lt. Leavins is now the organizer in this case," Johnson said.
An attorney for retired Lt. Gregory Thompson said his client may have been "too good of a lieutenant" in carrying out his superiors' wishes.
Federal prosecutors countered that following orders was not an excuse for breaking the law, and that employees at every level of the organization had to make decisions based on their own conscience.
"What we have here is a massive abuse of trust, people doing almost exactly the opposite of what they're supposed to do," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Margaret Carter.
The judge said he was taking into account the defendants' years in law enforcement and the respect they had earned within their communities. But he dismissed the defense arguments that others were to blame, saying there was no evidence showing the defendants were ordered to do anything other than keep the inmate informant safe and to investigate the smuggling of a phone into the jail.
The phone, which was found in the informant's cell, was brought into Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles by a corrupt deputy who was ensnared in an FBI sting.
The judge noted that another deputy testified at the trial that she refused to go along with the defendants' actions when she was asked to doctor records to make it appear that the inmate informant had been released.
"None of you showed that kind of courage," Anderson said. "You broke the vow you made to protect the public and serve the community."
Anderson sentenced Thompson to 37 months in prison; Leavins to 41 months; Sgt. Scott Craig to 33 months; Sgt. Maricela Long to 24 months; Deputy Gerard Smith to 21 months; and Deputy Mickey Manzo to 24 months. Prosecutors had asked for longer terms, ranging from 28 to 60 months.
The sheriff's officials are scheduled to surrender to begin serving their sentences Jan. 2.
Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the county's Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, said the judge had a difficult decision in balancing the defendants' past service with the weight of their crimes.
"This is a case where there were broken lives on every side of the equation," she said.
Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor, said additional charges against higher-ranking members of the department are still "entirely possible." She said, however, that it was unlikely the defendants had been cooperating with federal investigators because their attorneys would have told the judge during the sentencing.
Brian Moriguchi, president of the Professional Peace Officers' Assn, the union that represents the sergeants and lieutenants in the case, faulted federal authorities for not holding top department officials responsible for the obstruction.
"There's something wrong with the system where the people who were following the orders were tried and convicted, and the people who gave the orders are walking free," he said.
Neither a spokesman for Baca nor an attorney for Tanaka responded to a request for comment.
Thompson, Leavins and Craig are no longer with the department, sheriff's spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said. Smith is on leave, and Manzo and Long were relieved of duty without pay at the time of their indictments.
It's unclear what will happen to the defendants' pensions. A prosecutor said during the sentencing hearing that Leavins was due to collect a monthly pension of $7,000.
A representative for the Los Angeles County Employee Retirement Assn., which administers pensions for the Sheriff's Department, said county officials were reviewing the defendants' cases. They would be entitled to their pension for service leading up to the first instance of criminal activity, assistant executive officer Robert Hill said. Any pension accrued after that could be forfeited, he said.
(c)2014 the Los Angeles Times