A judge Thursday tentatively ruled that a former reporter for The Los Angeles Times must testify about a 2011 interview he conducted with the county's now-retired sheriff, who is facing federal corruption charges in a trial set to start next week.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said during a pretrial hearing that he was leaning toward denying a motion to quash a subpoena issued by government prosecutors to ex-Times reporter Robert Faturechi. Despite arguments from media and First Amendment attorney Kelli Sager, Anderson said Faturechi, who now works for the investigative news organization Pro Publica, can be questioned on the stand about his interview with ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and a subsequent radio interview the reporter gave to a public affairs radio show.
Anderson said prosecution and defense attorneys can question Faturechi about the content of the Times article and "Which Way, L.A." interview, and would deal with other types of inquiries on a "question by question" basis during the trial. "I'll decide those when I hear them," the judge said. Faturechi's proposed testimony is both "relevant" and "clearly admissible," the judge said, adding that this was not a case where a reporter was being asked to name a confidential source. Baca is accused of conspiring to commit and committing obstruction of justice from August to September 2011, and making five false statements to the federal government in April 2013.
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Prosecutors contend Baca lied to the FBI about his knowledge of department efforts to subvert a federal probe into civil rights abuses in the jail system. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday. Based on Faturechi's interview, The Times published an article in which Baca, among other things, defended a decision to have deputies approach an FBI agent at her house in an attempt to question her about an ostensibly covert probe of conditions within the jail system.
The confrontation with the FBI agent is an element in the charges against Baca, but the then-sheriff did not say in the newspaper interview whether he was aware in advance of the plan -- a key allegation against him. However, a prosecutor suggested that Faturechi said in the radio interview that Baca had admitted that he dispatched deputies to the agent's home. In her argument to have the subpoena tossed, Sager said the government was violating legal protections that shield reporters from having to testify about their reporting.
Sager requested that, if Anderson decides Faturechi must take the stand, the judge limit the prosecution and defense to questions about what the reporter included in his article. Baca, 74, is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Both sides stipulate that the retired lawman is competent to stand trial. However, defense attorneys still want a jury to hear that their client was impaired from the disease as early as 2011. Anderson also tentatively ruled that a defense dementia expert would be allowed to take the stand. If convicted of all charges, Baca faces a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison.