Is it really possible to successfully hide an FBI jailhouse informant from the FBI while he's still in jail? Los Angeles County Sheriff's employees took a stab at it in 2011 and are now explaining in court why they thought it was OK to try.
The trial of Deputy James Sexton, one of seven accused department employees, began this week and FBI agent Leah Marx explained how the government thinks the deception went down. Sexton is one of 20 department personnel arrested in a wide-ranging civil rights and public corruption scandal that began with a tip from an informant and devolved for awhile into a cat-and-mouse game built around a sting gone awry.
Marx said she initially responded to a letter from an inmate who claimed to have information on multiple misdeeds committed by Sheriff's personnel. During subsequent inquiries, Marx was told that inmate Anthony Brown was the best source for inside info on jailhouse corruption. Based on what Brown had to say, the FBI devised a sting that would smuggle a cellphone to the inmate using a corrupt deputy. Among his assignments, Brown was to give the bureau real-time accounts of jail beatings that the department has grown infamous for.
The phone was quickly discovered and the department figured out he was working with the federal government. After a confrontation between the feds and the county, Brown disappeared from sight. The online jail database showed he had been transferred to another agency and essentially released from custody.
That was unlikely, since the convicted armed robber was serving a 423-years-to-life sentence. Brown was actually being moved around in the system under fake names and questioned by department investigators about his activities.
A taped interrogation of Brown was played for the jury on Wednesday, according to the Los Angeles Times, which recounted the exchange. A deputy asked, “What's the deal with the feds? This is my house. . . . If you have a dirty backyard or a dirty house, do you want to clean it yourself or have someone do it for you?”
In order to further forestall the FBI getting their hands on Brown, the department issued a change in policy that required the permission of top executives before any outside agency could talk to an inmate.
The 26-year-old Sexton, one of the team of deputies who guarded Brown, contacted the FBI and offered to talk off the record. That didn't fly. So he explained to Marx how they moved Brown around to different locations every 48 hours under assumed names to avoid having to fingerprint and book him. Sexton pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Sexton's lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien, characterized the incident on Tuesday as a jurisdictional conflict between two law enforcement agencies that engaged the highest levels of the department because Sheriff Lee Baca was irate over the corruption probe. Sexton, he said, was a junior deputy just following orders.
O'Brien maintained that the deputies were legitimately conducting their own investigation of Brown because they found photos of drugs, cash and contraband on his illegal cellphone. Some deputies speculated that Marx was conducting an unauthorized “rogue” investigation, he said. And even if the probe was legitimate, giving a cellphone to a dangerous inmate doing a long prison sentence was not.
The cloak-and-dagger moving about and name changes were meant to protect Brown from those who might think he was a snitch, O'Brien said.
Baca resigned in January amid an onslaught of bad publicity, corruption scandals, jailhouse beatings and bad behavior by deputies in and out of the department jails.