Former US attorney testifies to having heated exchanges with Lee Baca

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A former U.S. attorney took the stand in the trial of former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, who is accused of corruption, and testified to having heated exchanges with him. (KABC)

"I'm the goddamn sheriff, these are my goddamn jails," former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca exclaimed in a heated meeting between the three top law enforcement officials in Southern California.

It was late September 2011, one day after two LASD sergeants confronted FBI agent Leah Marx outside her home and threatened her with arrest. Tensions between federal investigators and the LASD had reached a boiling point. Baca was furious after learning that the FBI was investigating his jails and had not notified him of their probe.

Baca was the "maddest I'd ever seen him," according to former U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, who took the witness stand Thursday in Baca's federal corruption trial.

Baca, 74, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Nine other former LASD officials have either been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction of a FBI investigation into brutality and corruption inside the jails.

"You want to gun up in here? Is that what you want?" Birotte recounted Baca asking in that meeting with him and former FBI Assistant Director in Charge Steve Martinez.

On cross-examination, Birotte explained that he took Baca's "gun up" comment to mean, "You want to go to war? We'll go to war!"

In the year leading up to that tense exchange, Birotte - now a federal judge - told jurors he personally authorized the undercover operation that led to a corrupt LASD deputy accepting a cash bribe for smuggling a contraband cell phone into Men's Central Jail.

Birotte testified he'd known "Lee" professionally for years, but did not tell the sheriff about their investigation because it was meant to be covert. The decision was about "preserving the integrity" of the investigation.

On the September evening that LASD sergeants Scott Craig and Maricela Long threatened FBI agent Marx, Birotte got a frantic phone call from a colleague. Birotte quickly called Baca.

"Lee, I'm getting that deputies are arresting an agent. Is this what we're doing here?" Birotte testified. Baca, he says, quickly said no, there would be no arrest of an FBI agent that night.

Birotte explained to the jury that investigating local law enforcement agencies is a key function of the Department of Justice. He told Baca that the sheriff's recent claims to the media that the FBI had broken the law was "not well taken."

"Did the FBI violate any law?" prosecutor Brandon Fox asked Birotte of the undercover FBI operation.

"Absolutely not," Birotte testified. "Everybody knows that" undercover investigators are permitted to commit what would otherwise be an illegal act if they're acting in the course and scope of their jobs.

"I told him, Lee, look, you know we can commit a crime...undercovers do it all the time," Birotte testified.

"We did not tell you. That was my decision - blame me," Birotte told Baca, according to his testimony.

Prosecutor Fox had Birotte read a terse letter he received from Baca on the day of that heated meeting. In the letter, Baca referred to the FBI operation to smuggle a cellphone into the jail as "illegal, unethical and irresponsible." Baca added that the LASD would investigate the FBI for alleged "conspiracy, entrapment and coercion."

Baca's letter referred to the "incompetence" of the FBI and stated the LASD may have to pull out of "joint task force missions" due to the "breach of trust."

"Your deputy took a bribe," Birotte says he told Baca. "It's not like the FBI dropped a cellphone into the jail."

"I never thought it would get to this point," Birotte told the jury. Birotte says he told Baca that federal agents would "move forward" with their investigation.

By the end of that meeting, Birotte says Baca "calmed down" and the men left after exchanging handshakes.

Baca's defense attorney Nathan Hochman emphasized during cross examination of Birotte that Baca was "open, transparent and direct" by expressing his feelings in that letter to Birotte.

Hochman grilled Birotte about why he had not shared information at an earlier meeting with Baca about whether there was possibly more contraband in the jails - and were there more dirty deputies? Didn't the LASD have the right to investigate crimes in their own jails?

"The cardinal rule of all law enforcement agencies -- local or federal -- is simple: One cannot break the law in order to enforce the law," Baca wrote in the letter to Birotte.

The prosecution rested its case on Thursday. Defense attorney told Judge Percy Anderson they will decide whether Baca will take the stand in his own defense by Friday morning.

Other defense witnesses include Steve Martinez, the former head of the FBI field office, and possibly former LASD Sgt. Maricela Long, who was convicted and sentenced to two years in federal prison. Long remains free on bond. If the defense calls her to the witness stand, it appears she could be granted immunity for her testimony.

Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com

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