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Sheriff Baca admits violating campaign endorsement law

February 17, 2012 |  1:48 pm

 Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca admitted Friday that he broke state law by making a political endorsement while in uniform.

Baca’s acknowledgment of the violation came after inquiries from The Times about a campaign video on the website for Dist. Atty. hopeful Carmen Trutanich that shows Baca wearing his badge and his department-issued sheriff’s uniform.

Although state law does allow sheriffs and other law enforcement officers to make political endorsements, they are not allowed to do so while in uniform. Baca said he thought it was only a violation if he asked for campaign contributions while in uniform. He said he took the issue to his attorneys after he was contacted by Times reporters and asked the Trutanich campaign to take the video down soon after.

“There’s no excuse,” Baca said. “I should’ve known.”

Legal experts say the statute should be common knowledge among campaign advisors.

After being asked to review the endorsement video posted prominently on Trutanich’s website, Jim Sutton, a San Francisco-based attorney who specializes in election law, said Baca’s behavior was a clear violation.

“This is exactly what the law is meant to prohibit,” Sutton said. “On its face, I have never seen such a blatant violation of state law.”

Asked if he’d done endorsements in uniform before, Baca said, “generally I don’t.”

An Internet search brings up at least one other occasion, a rally for City Council candidate Bernard Parks, in which Baca campaigns in what appears to be a sheriff’s jacket worn over his uniform.

Baca said he planned to take no administrative actions against himself because his violation is not related to department business. He said he was unaware what sort of action might come against him by other enforcement agencies.

Reached Thursday night, Baca had initially told Times reporters that elected sheriffs were exempt from the law. “I wouldn’t do this, gentlemen, if I didn’t know that.”

Baca said that he didn’t believe the department’s uniform added extra heft to his political endorsements because he’s already so well known among county voters.

“The public trusts me and I know that I’ve got critics,” he said, “but I don’t lie. ... I believe that I do have credibility with the public, and a uniform does not give you credibility. It is who you are that gives the uniform credibility.”

In the Trutanich video, Baca is pictured twice, singing the city attorney’s praises.

“He’s not afraid to sacrifice,” Baca says. “No job is too big. No responsibility is too small. Carmen Trutanich is about those values.”

Trutanich campaign officials could not be reached immediately. They removed the two videos that feature Baca in uniform from their website and from the campaign’s YouTube channel. Before being removing from public view, the YouTube clips had more than 727,000 hits.

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-- Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi

Twitter.com/robertfaturechi

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