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18 L.A. County deputies charged in civil rights, corruption probe

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LOS ANGELES (CNN) — Eighteen current and former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies were indicted as part of an FBI investigation into alleged civil rights abuses and corruption, federal prosecutors said Monday.

Sixteen of the 18 made initial appearances in federal court in Los Angeles Monday after several arrests and surrenders to federal authorities. The 16 were freed on bond, and the remaining two deputies aren’t considered fugitives and are expected to surrender to authorities in the near future, a spokesman for federal prosecutors said.

The two-year FBI investigated focused on allegations that sheriff’s officials had fostered a culture in which deputies were permitted to beat and humiliate inmates and cover up misconduct at the nation’s largest county jail.

“Our investigation also found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum — in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized,” U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. said. “The pattern of activity alleged in the obstruction of justice case shows how some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law.”

The four indictments and a criminal complaint allege “a wide scope of illegal conduct,” Birotte said. “This investigation started by focusing on misconduct in county jails, and we uncovered examples of civil rights violations that included excessive force and unlawful arrests.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca defended his department Monday, saying the problem is not institutional and that “99.9% of our employees are on the right track, doing the right thing.”

“Please know that I respect the criminal justice system, and no one is above the law,” he told reporters Monday afternoon.

Last year, a blue-ribbon commission criticized Baca for tolerating a pattern of excessive force by his deputies in the county jails.

The probe involved five separate cases, all stemming from the same initial probe, prosecutors said.

Sheriff’s deputies versus FBI

Two ranking officers at the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail allegedly hid an inmate who was cooperating with the FBI’s investigation. When U.S. marshals went to the jail to get the informant so he could testify before a federal grand jury about jail civil rights violations, the two lieutenants told them he had been released.

Lt. Gregory Thompson, who oversaw the sheriff’s Operation Safe Jails Program, and Lt. Stephen Leavins, who was assigned to the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, allegedly changed jail records to hide him under a different name. They then told the inmate that “he had been abandoned by the FBI,” the U.S. attorney said.

The deputy sheriffs also allegedly asked a Los Angeles County judge to order the FBI to give them information about the probe of the sheriff’s department.

The judge denied their request, but two sergeants with the department allegedly “confronted an FBI special agent at her residence in an attempt to intimidate her into providing details about the investigation,” the U.S. attorney said. “The sergeants falsely told the special agent and her supervisor that they were obtaining a warrant for her arrest, according to the indictment.”

The other officers indicted in this case are Sgts. Scott Craig and Maricella Long, assigned to the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, and Deputies Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo, and James Sexton, part of the Operation Safe Jails Program, according to the indictment.

Deputy Sheriffs Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum face six counts of civil rights violations and making false statements in reports.

Brunsting, a training officer, and Branum allegedly assaulted and injured inmates at the county’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where both deputies worked. The indictment accuses Brunsting of covering up the abuse by ordering deputies he was training to file reports.

Indictment: Jail visitors illegally detained

Sgt. Eric Gonzalez and four deputies were indicted on civil rights violations that allegedly involved the arrest or detention of five people — including a consular official from Austria’s consulate in Los Angeles — when they were visiting inmates at the county’s Men’s Central Jail in 2010 and 2011.

Gonzalez and Sexton are the two deputies who are expected to surrender to authorities in the near future, the prosecutor’s office said.

Gonzalez, who was then a supervisor in the jail’s visiting center, fostered an atmosphere “that encouraged and tolerated abuses of the law, including through the use of unjustified force and unreasonable searches and seizures by deputy sheriffs he supervised,” the indictment said.

The four deputies — identified as Sussie Ayala, Fernando Luviano, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack — were each allegedly involved in at least one of four incidents in which victims suffered civil rights violations, the indictment said.

“In one incident, a man suffered a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder that has left him permanently disabled,” the U.S. attorney said.

‘Spin-off’ cases

Two other cases — which the U.S. attorney described as spin-offs from the jail probe — involved a deputy allegedly building an illegal assault rifle and three brothers, all of them deputies, allegedly defrauding a mortgage company.

Deputy Richard Piquette allegedly built a an unregistered Noveske Rifleworks N-4 .223 caliber rifle with an illegally short barrel, the indictment said.

Deputies Billy Khounthavong, Benny Khounthavong, and Johnny Khounthavong are accused of “conspiracy to make false statements to two banks in connection with a ‘buy-and-bail’ mortgage fraud scheme,” the U.S attorney said.

The brothers allegedly lied to Flagstar Bank to get a loan to buy a residence in Corona, California. The also allegedly made false statements to Bank of America about another residence they owned.

“The brothers walked away from — or ‘bailed’ on — that home in which they were ‘under water,’ meaning they owed substantially more than the residence was worth,” the U.S attorney said. “As a result of the scheme, the brothers allegedly avoided more than $340,000 of unpaid mortgage debt.”

Sheriff under fire

The Citizens Commission on Jail Violence — composed of several retired judges, a police chief, a religious leader and a civil rights leader, all appointed by the county Board of Supervisors — issued 77 findings and 60 recommended reforms on the management, oversight and use of force in county jails.

According to the 194-page report, Baca neglected to listen to repeated warnings from the department’s civilian watchdogs and inmates-rights advocates about conditions in the jail.

Among the recommendations, the panel recommended harsher penalties for excessive force and dishonesty and the formation of a new civilian watchdog. The report also criticized the sheriff for not disciplining senior managers who failed to address the jail problems.

The commission based its report on interviews with current and former sheriff’s officials, jailhouse witnesses, testimony from experts and internal department records.

The commission called for the creation of an Office of Inspector General that would report to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors and provide independent oversight of the sheriff’s department — conducting its own investigations, monitoring jail conditions and reviewing the department’s audits and inspections.

In a statement last year, Baca said he supported the recommendations.

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