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Ex-deputy charged in federal probe of L.A. County jails

January 13, 2012 |  1:14 pm

LA County jail
Federal prosecutors on Friday filed their first charges in an ongoing investigation into the Los Angeles County jails, saying that an ex-deputy accused of smuggling a cellphone into a lockup in exchange for a bribe is now cooperating with investigators. Ex-deputy plea in LA jail probe

The former deputy, Gilbert Michel, agreed to plead guilty to one federal count of bribery in exchange for his cooperation, an official said.                            

Further details for the plea agreement were not available Friday.

COURT DOCUMENT: Ex-deputy makes plea agreement

“It’s a very complicated answer as far as what he gets and what we get,” said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Discovery of the smuggled cellphone by sheriff’s officials sparked tensions between the department and the FBI last year. Sheriff Lee Baca initially blasted the bureau for committing a crime.

 He has since toned down his criticisms and agreed to cooperate with federal agents as they examine allegations of inmate abuse and other deputy misconduct inside his jails.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

Michel is expected to plead guilty in court next week. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison.

News that an FBI sting had ensnared Michel as part of a wider investigation into alleged brutality against inmates was first reported by The Times in September and sparked intense public scrutiny of how the Sheriff’s Department managed the nation’s largest jail system.

Baca initially reacted with outrage to the tactics of federal investigators, accusing them of breaking the law and creating a serious safety breach inside the jails.

Sheriff’s deputies in Men’s Central Jail discovered the cellphone on Aug. 8 among an inmate’s belongings. Investigators interviewed Michel, who admitted bringing the phone as well as cigarettes and a lighter to the inmate but denied taking other contraband into the jail, according to Baca. Michel was paid $1,500 to bring the cellphone to the inmate, who unbeknownst to the deputy was working as an informant for the FBI.

Later, when sheriff's officials searched the inmate and found the phone, they also discovered a hand-written note listing names of deputies. Baca said the informant had been gathering the names of deputies thought to have used excessive force against inmates.

Baca suspected the inmate was compiling the list for the FBI. After the FBI ensnared the deputy who allegedly smuggled the cellphone, agents showed up at his home and tried to "flip him" -- get him to work for them as an informant, Baca said.

Michel, 38, also “made statements which implicated him, along with several other jail employees, as having participated in four prior unreported incidents of improper uses of force," according to a letter Baca sent to the Board of Supervisors.


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Photo: L.A. County Men's Central Jail. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times