Lee Baca

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca addresses the media outside department headquarters after the ACLU of Southern California called for his resignation over alleged abuse of inmates. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times / September 28, 2011)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, responding to federal investigations of jailhouse abuse, for the first time offered a detailed account of an FBI undercover sting that caught one of his deputies allegedly smuggling a cellphone to an inmate.

In an interview with The Times, Baca revealed that the inmate working as an FBI informant inside Men's Central Jail was using pay phones there to contact agents probing allegations of deputy misconduct. The agents tried to dissuade him from using a jailhouse line, telling him they could be monitored by sheriff's officials. The agents promised to get their informant a cellphone, Baca said, and the inmate volunteered that he knew of a deputy willing to smuggle contraband for cash.

Baca confirmed that federal authorities targeted that deputy in an undercover sting. FBI operatives brought $1,500, Baca said, and the deputy agreed to go through with the deal.

Baca said the cellphone was delivered, and the inmate used it to contact his federal handlers and another source whom Baca declined to identify.

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. The deputy, identified by sources as Gilbert Michel, 38, was placed on leave by sheriff's officials sometime after the cellphone was discovered. Michel, who has since resigned, could not be reached for comment.

The undercover sting created a rift between Baca and the FBI. He has publicly denounced the operation and suggested that federal authorities were breaking the law and may not know what they are doing. He met with U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. earlier this week to discuss the tensions between the two sides.

Both Baca and Birotte remained tight-lipped about how the meeting went.

Earlier this week, two sheriff's investigators showed up at the home of the lead FBI agent involved in the cellphone sting to question her, Baca said.

"We're investigating a crime," he said. Asked if the Sheriff's Department was going to seek criminal charges, Baca said "No, I don't think so. It's not worthy of pursuing, in view of the greater good." Baca said the agent directed questions to her supervisor. He dismissed any suggestion that the visit was intended to intimidate the agent. The FBI's home visit to his deputy wrapped up in the sting, Baca argued, involved "substantially more intimidating tactics."

Federal authorities declined to discuss the incident.

But FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said: "With regard to the investigation, FBI agents at all times were acting within the course and scope of their duties and were in compliance with FBI policy and practices."

Before his interview with The Times, Baca held a news conference to address a call from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to resign. The ACLU filed court documents Wednesday that included sworn declarations from two chaplains and a Hollywood producer who said they had witnessed deputies abusing inmates.

Flanked by more than a dozen of his top brass, Baca said allegations of deputy misconduct are thoroughly investigated. He said accusations, even in large numbers, do not prove abuse.

"My goal is the truth," Baca said.

The vast majority of violence in the jails, he added, is initiated by inmates.

He noted that internal sheriff's investigations are monitored by a watchdog agency of attorneys. Baca also reiterated his call to tear down and replace Men's Central Jail, an antiquated facility.

In addition to the FBI's scrutiny of the jails, federal authorities are investigating a sheriff's captain suspected of being overheard on a wiretap tracking an alleged Compton drug ring.

The U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division also recently announced a wide-scale "pattern and practice" investigation into allegations that deputies in the Antelope Valley discriminated against minority residents who receive government housing assistance.

robert.faturechi@latimes.com