A Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy accepted a $1,500 bribe to smuggle a cellphone to a jailed inmate in an FBI sting, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The bribe was paid as part of a months-long probe into conditions at the country's largest jail network, said the person, who was not authorized to speak about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Los Angeles' jails have for years been the subject of allegations of civil rights abuses and deputy misconduct. The deputy accused of taking the payment, Gilbert Michel, is the subject of a sheriff's department internal investigation, though he resigned in recent weeks after the cellphone was uncovered. Attempts to find a phone listing for him were not immediately successful.
It was not clear if the inmate, who had worked previously as an FBI informant, was using the cellphone to surreptitiously record deputy behavior or if he used it to talk with agents on the outside.
Sheriff Lee Baca reacted furiously to news that the FBI was covertly investigating his jails. He said the inmate was an armed robbery suspect.
"Quite frankly, it's unacceptable," Baca told KTTV. "The sheriff runs the jail."
Baca and U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte were scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the issue.
Michael Gennaco, president of the Office of Independent Review at the sheriff's department, said he was monitoring investigators as they looked into how the deputy was allegedly bribed.
"When you find a cellphone in a jail and find a deputy has contributed to that phone getting there, you have to follow leads and look at it systemically and see if you can improve your security," Gennaco said.
It is a misdemeanor for an inmate to have a cellphone and a potential felony for a deputy to smuggle one in, Gennaco said.
Cellphones have become a massive problem in state prisons. Last year alone, prison officials confiscated 10,760 smuggled cellphones.
Cult killer Charles Manson has been caught with two phones, earlier this year and in 2009. Another inmate was discovered this year with a phone that prison officials suspect had been used to update his Facebook page.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller declined to comment on the Los Angeles County investigation, which was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, but said federal agents were investigating allegations of civil rights abuses in at least two separate cases.
Allegations of problems in Los Angeles jails are hardly new.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has filed numerous complaints alleging filthy conditions, jailhouse overcrowding and deputy misconduct, including one case in which an ACLU monitor said she saw two deputies beat an inmate unconscious. The sheriff's department said the man was being combative.
On Dec. 10, a group of jail deputies got into a fight outside a banquet hall in Montebello, east of Los Angeles, following a Christmas party.
Attorney Brad Gage, who has sued the sheriff's department on numerous occasions and is currently representing a client in a separate case, said several of the deputies involved in the brawl were members of a group called the 3000 Boys, named after the section of the Men's Central Jail they guard.
Gage, who has spoken to two fight witnesses, said members of the gang-like group pride themselves on intimidating other deputies and have been known to beat inmates to the point where their heads swell up.
"They call it `pumpkin head,'" Gage said.
Baca has acknowledged subgroups exist within his ranks but said they are fraternal clubs and stressed they are not gangs. Earlier this year, the sheriff's department said it would begin termination proceedings for six deputies involved in the Christmas fight.
Any problems in the jails could be exacerbated in the coming months as the state implements changes on how judges sentence some criminals. Under the changes, thousands of criminals will be sent to county jails instead of state prison.
Watkins can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/thomaswatkins
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