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Jail commission to probe outing of secret informant

August 6, 2012 |  2:48 pm

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

The commission created to examine allegations of abuse inside the Los Angeles County jails will be adding a jail supervisor’s outing of a confidential inmate informant to their probe, an official said Monday.

Over the weekend, The Times reported that the former head of jailhouse intelligence was under investigation for mishandling a tip linking a jail deputy to a skinhead drug-smuggling scheme.

According to interviews and documents, a trusted inmate informant who was working secretly with authorities alerted two deputies that one of their colleagues was passing messages, and on one occasion a package, between an influential inmate inside Men’s Central Jail and his gang compatriot on the outside.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

The deputies detailed the explosive allegations in a direct memo to their boss, Lt. Greg Thompson, the head of jailhouse intelligence. But rather than following protocol and passing on the memo to internal criminal investigators, Thompson shared its contents with the deputy suspected of working with the skinheads, revealing to him the names of the confidential informant as well as those of the deputies who first received the tip, according to sources close to the case.

Even more than most tips, this one should have been handled discreetly, experts said. In the wrong hands, the information was dangerous. Inmates who cooperate with police are violently targeted by fellow inmates. Deputies who report colleagues for misconduct can be ostracized. And, if a deputy suspected of misconduct got wind of a tip, catching him in the act of a future transgression would become nearly impossible.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the commission, said the incident would be examined because it’s relevant to “possible deputy mistreatment of inmates or codes of silence and a problematic culture in the jails.”

DISCUSS: Allegations that deputy worked with skinhead

“We’re trying to take a thorough look at any information that might be out there,” she said. “It’s our view that pertinent information is worth pursuing and trying to track down."

Krinsky would not say what documents relating to the incident, if any, the commission would be requesting from the department.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors launched the commission soon after news broke last year that the FBI was investigating allegations of inmate abuse and other jailer misconduct. In the next couple of months, the seven-member panel is expected to release a report, based on the work of a cadre of pro bono attorneys, examining the jail's culture and management and issuing recommendations. It has already heard dramatic testimony from current and former sheriff’s officials who have alleged that Sheriff Lee Baca and his top aides fostered a corrosive culture in the jails that allowed deputy misconduct to go unchecked.

In the Thompson case, the alleged mishandling of the informant’s tip may have put both the informant and his deputy handlers at risk.

Days after the informant's cover was allegedly blown, he was moved out of protective custody and sent for at least several hours into general population housing, where he was more vulnerable to retaliation, according to internal custody records. Sheriff's officials were unable to explain why he had been moved. The inmate was brought back into protective custody at the pleading of the two partners, Michael Rathbun and James Sexton, according to Rathbun's father, David -- a retired sheriff's official.

A short time later, Sexton was confronted late one night in the employee parking lot by another jailhouse intelligence deputy who warned that Sexton and his partner had better keep their mouths shut, David Rathbun said.

David Rathbun, who served in the department for 35 years before retiring and is now a reserve deputy, said that even he felt intimidated. On three occasions since his son was revealed as a "snitch," he said, white supremacist pamphlets have been left outside his home.


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-- Robert Faturechi

Photo: Handcuffs used to restrain inmates are secured to benches in the medical area of L.A. County Men's Central Jail. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times