'New Level' Of Scandal With LA Sheriff's Department

Host Arun Rath talks with Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Faturechi about the troubles facing the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. More than a dozen current and former deputies face federal charges stemming from allegations of abuse and corruption.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Here in Southern California, dark clouds that have been gathering over the country's largest sheriff's department are getting even darker. More than a dozen current and former Los Angeles County deputies are facing federal abuse and corruption charges. The FBI investigation that led to those charges is pushing forward. And this week, Sheriff Lee Baca admitted that his department improperly hired dozens of officers with troubled histories.

Robert Faturechi is a reporter with the Los Angeles Times. He and his colleagues broke that part of the story, and they've been writing about the L.A. County sheriff for quite a while.

ROBERT FATURECHI: It's been two or three years of scandals of various sizes pretty much continuously. But in this last month, it really seemed to go to a new level. The feds came in and charged 18 current and former sheriff's deputies, including some supervisors. We've got a range of charges from, you know, obstruction charges. We've got unrelated gun, you know, firearm and bank fraud charges. We've got charges that relate to excessive force and that kind of thing.

RATH: And then just this week, you reported about improper hiring practices with the sheriff. What was going on there?

FATURECHI: The department knowingly hired dozens of officers who had serious histories of on and off duty misconduct. One guy admitted to, you know, kissing and groping a 14-year-old when he was 28. Now, we ran another story more recently that related to a special hiring track, the department maintained for years, exclusively for the friends, relatives and associates of department officials.

And some of the people who were hired through this program had checkered backgrounds, including one guy who was the friend of the sheriff's driver. And he had been charged with raping an unconscious woman and eventually convicted of sexual battery. The LAPD rejected him for this reason, but the sheriff's department - the records we saw - noted his high-level connection and hired him anyway.

RATH: So there have been allegations that have been coming up for years with the sheriff. Have any of the past revelations led to improvements?

FATURECHI: You know, they have, by all accounts. Even the sheriff's critics acknowledged that once the jail abuse allegations really hit a boiling point and the FBI got involved, and the county created, you know, a special commission to examine these issues and he was on the front page of the L.A. Times every day, you know, they acknowledged that he has implemented sweeping reforms that have really improved conditions in the jails.

Now, the critique that you hear from some of the people who are not pleased with the sheriff's job performance is that it requires a crisis before things are addressed and fixed in this department. And that the department has just been lurching from one crisis to another.

RATH: So, you know, with all this, you know, lurching from crisis to crisis, where does this leave Sheriff Lee Baca? I mean, he's been - he's had four terms now, 15 years, and people are saying that he needs to go. And he is up for re-election next year.

FATURECHI: He is up for re-election next year. He is still generally considered the front-runner despite all of the troubles he's had simply because the way county elections work, being an incumbent is incredibly powerful both for, you know, name recognition and for fundraising purposes. The sheriff is also still very well liked in large parts of the county and important communities that come out to vote on Election Day. There has been speculation that more people will jump in the race, people who might be better known and more credible. So it's yet to be seen. We're still many months away from this election.

RATH: You know, I think a lot of people sort of feel like we've seen this movie before in Los Angeles, you know, thinking about the LAPD in the '90s, you know, allegations for years racked by scandals. Then the department was widely seen as being reformed. Do you see this as being as big as that and that it might play out in a similar way?

FATURECHI: It's a similar sort of narrative, definitely. And, you know, at the time when the LAPD was going through its troubles, you know, a lot of folks in that department bristled at the notion of having the feds come in and monitor what they were doing and force reforms. Feds getting involved in your police department or your sheriff's department is never a comfortable process for the force. But it has shown results as being a way to clean up a wayward law enforcement agency.

RATH: Robert Faturechi is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Thank you, Robert.

FATURECHI: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: This is NPR News.

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