LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca personally launched a criminal investigation in another police agency's jurisdiction after a request from a millionaire businessman who later contributed $100,000 to two sheriff's charities, according to civil court testimony, law enforcement records and interviews.
The Sheriff's Department spent more than a year probing allegations by Guess Inc. co-founder Georges Marciano that his employees embezzled $1.4 million, despite several outside accounting audits showing that no money had been stolen. In fact, evidence suggested Marciano himself spent the money on young, foreign au pairs he flew into Los Angeles for brief, luxurious stays.
Sheriff's Detective Alex Gilinets testified in subsequent civil proceedings that he investigated the allegations despite a lack of cooperation from Marciano. The case was given "special" status, which Gilinets said is typically reserved for high-profile victims and, in this case, signified his supervisors' expectations that detectives "dot our i's and cross our t's above and beyond the normal investigation." The detective said he devoted about 500 hours to the case -- more than he spent on any other probe.
Eventually, the detective and prosecutors found no criminal wrongdoing. A judge in the civil proceedings ordered Marciano to pay his employees $260 million in damages for making the unfounded claims.
In an interview, Baca said the probe was justified because of the "magnitude" of Marciano's allegations. The sheriff said that when he ordered the investigation, he had no knowledge of the accounting audits that showed no theft. Donations and political contributions were not discussed, Baca said, and any relationship he had with the fashion magnate did not factor into his decision-making.
But the sheriff's critics say the case is an example of special access Baca has provided donors and other influential individuals in law enforcement matters.
In October, a Los Angeles Times investigation detailed a similar case in which Baca launched a criminal probe inside another agency's jurisdiction on behalf of Ezat Delijani, a well-connected Beverly Hills businessman who had given the sheriff political contributions and expensive gifts.
In that case, a lease dispute was assigned "rush" status, generally reserved for homicides and other high-priority cases, and was labeled by sheriff's deputies as a "Sheriff Baca Special Request." The Beverly Hills Police Department had earlier concluded the case was a civil matter. Prosecutors initially declined to file charges after the sheriff's investigation, citing a lack of evidence. That decision was reversed after an appeal from the Sheriff's Department.
"You'd hope the elected sheriff in the county would be sensitive to the appearance that everything has to be dropped, all eyes must go to the cases he finds important because he has a rapport with someone who has this kind of access to him," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The guy seems to not get this."
Baca has the legal authority to launch investigations throughout the county, even in the jurisdictions of other police departments. But law enforcement experts say it is highly unusual for one police agency to launch an investigation in another agency's jurisdiction without being invited.
Following The Times' story about the Delijani investigation, Baca asked his department's watchdog to review his handling of that case and consider guidelines for his personal involvement in pleas from donors, celebrities and friends. That probe has yet to be completed.
In 2009, The Times looked into Marciano's case and was told by sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore that Baca had been unaware of his agency's probe until it was already under way. In an interview last month, however, Baca confirmed that Marciano had reported the allegations directly to him and that Baca personally had sent the case over to his chief of detectives.
The case was then assigned to Gilinets. The detective testified that the "initial jurisdiction" of Marciano's complaint was in Beverly Hills, which has its own police force. He said Marciano told him that "because he was a good friend of Sheriff Baca, I was supposed to...help him out."
Baca said the investigation should not have been given "special" status.
"I've never designated any inquiry as being a special," Baca said. "I would discourage anyone from using that phraseology on any case, other than perhaps a murder."
Sheriff's officials were unable to estimate how much the investigation cost, but based on the detective's salary and other resources that were used, tens of thousands of dollars were expended.
Marciano, a celebrated designer, had amassed a fortune in fashion and real estate beginning in the 1980s -- but became erratic in his professional and personal affairs after a tumultuous divorce, according to testimony from people close to him. His behavior included covertly recording employees, placing a tracking device on his wife's car and making unfounded accusations, according to testimony.
While reviewing his finances in 2006, Marciano focused on about $1.4 million in cash that had been withdrawn from his accounts the previous year. He asked for an explanation from his head bookkeeper, who, according to testimony, presented Marciano with paperwork showing Marciano had spent the money himself.
Marciano was unconvinced, accusing the bookkeeper and other employees of embezzlement. Several audits by outside accountants commissioned by Marciano at various points showed no money had been stolen.
After Gilinets finished his probe, he submitted his findings to prosecutors, who declined to file charges. Marciano then sued his employees on similar claims; his employees countersued. A judge threw out Marciano's allegations and instead awarded the accused staffers $260 million for the toll the allegations took on them. The former employees are still seeking payment.
During a civil trial, Beverly Hills Police Sgt. Michael Corren testified that he had been "surprised" when he found out "the Sheriff's Department had conducted quite an extensive investigation, and it involved allegations in our particular jurisdiction." Marciano had asked Beverly Hills police to investigate the case after the sheriff's probe failed to bring charges. Beverly Hills police never initiated a formal probe into the embezzlement allegations, Corren said.
Baca said that Beverly Hills police should have been notified of the sheriff's investigation but that "it's to their benefit when the Sheriff's Department is able to pick up these cases and they're not required to do it all themselves."
Also during the civil proceedings, witnesses testified to Baca's interactions with Marciano. Steven Chapnick, a former Marciano employee, said he would take calls from Baca for Marciano. Another former employee, Joseph Fahs, testified that Marciano once asked him to call Baca's office to arrange a dinner for the two at Cut, Wolfgang Puck's upscale Beverly Hills steakhouse.
Baca denied making calls to Marciano but confirmed the dinner. He said they discussed cars at dinner, not Marciano's allegations against his employees.
"He didn't bring it up, and I didn't bring it up," Baca said.
Marciano did not respond to requests for an interview.
In January 2007, Marciano donated $100,000 to a sheriff's youth charity and a more general fund that benefits deputies' families and other philanthropic activities, Whitmore said. Marciano's donations were made while the Sheriff's Department was still investigating his allegations. According to records, Marciano also contributed $1,000 to Baca's attorney's fees fund and $1,000 to Friends of Sheriff Lee Baca in 2006.
Baca said that he had been unaware of Marciano's political contributions until told of them by a reporter.
Although Baca denied that Marciano received special treatment, his detective suggested otherwise. Gilinets testified that he spent about a year and a half on the investigation even though Marciano was uncooperative. The detective at one point had to submit a search warrant for Marciano's bank records, which is highly unusual, he testified, because in general, crime victims willingly offer up needed documents.
"In a normal case I would just basically say case closed, I'm not doing any more work on this," he said.
But Gilinets did not drop the case, continuing to reach out to Marciano even after the fashion designer stopped answering his calls. Making trips from Whittier to Beverly Hills "on a constant basis" to investigate the case, the detective said, "was starting to basically take its toll on everything."
"Going back to the fact that it was a special and usually I won't even document it in this detail," Gilinets said. "But I documented every single time I telephoned him just trying to leave a message and I think I had like 27 calls within...about a six-week period that I was trying to get back in touch with him, just to meet with him again to get some more details to what was going on."
His supervisors, he said, urged him to "just take that extra step to make sure."
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