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530: Mind Your Own Business

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Your know who Studs Terkel is? I think a lot of people, especially if you're younger, you read him in school-- his books, Division Street and Working and The Good War. He was an oral historian. But from 1952 to 1997, he also did a radio show on WMFT in Chicago, where he would broadcast the interviews that ended up in his books, and also lots of interviews with famous musicians and actors and artists. Anyway, I was going through some old tapes of his radio show recently for this event they had celebrating his life. And I stumbled across this utterly ordinary, nothing-special-going-on Friday on his radio program. Anyway, here's Studs.

Studs Terkel

I think it's pretty obvious to readers that Mike Royko's column is not only witty, but I think it's journalism in the true sense, in digging into--

Ira Glass

It's a Friday in July nearly 50 years ago. It's July 29, 1966. And his guest that day is a good friend of his, newspaper columnist Mike Royko, another iconic Chicago figure. Anyway, on this particular day, they kill two hours very interestingly, I have to say, chatting about stories in the news.

The medical director of Cook County hospital, for example, had made headlines when he said that he did not need to air condition the operating rooms in the facility. Surgeons, he said, should instead eat salted crackers, which would replace the salt that doctors lose when they sweat. There was some news that week about the prize fighter they still called Cassius Clay. There was a story that was national news at the time that I would be very surprised if you heard of. I had not heard of this.

Basically, a justice on the Supreme Court, William O. Douglas, a liberal appointed by FDR who'd been on the bench almost three decades at that point-- the news was he had gotten married. Here's Studs talking to Mike Royko about that.

Studs Terkel

And you did a column, I understand, received quite a response. What happened in Congress, the objections of many-- Pat, I think this is worth reading.

Male Speaker

Mhm.

Studs Terkel

May I read this one? Because this leads, I know, to all sorts of discussion.

Ira Glass

OK, I'm just going to stop the tape right there. For whatever reason, Royko seems to prefer that Studs read his columns on this show, rather than read them out loud himself. And if it's OK with you, I enjoyed this next bit, and I know that you tuned in just now to hear a radio show made, you know, today, but let's just do a little time travel, OK?

So your radio or your computer or your smartphone or whatever picks up instead a radio show from 1966 for just a couple minutes. And let's enjoy this together. Here's Studs.

Studs Terkel

And Mike writes, "a ringing dissent to criticism of Justice Douglas. When Associate Justice William O. Douglas returns from his honeymoon, it would be perfectly proper for him to do the following-- walk with great dignity to his seat on the Supreme Court bench, sit down, draw his black robes about him, slowly raise is right hand, touch the tip of his thumb to the tip of his nose, wiggle his fingers."

Ira Glass

OK, just pausing that again. Have you got what he's describing there? OK, good.

Studs Terkel

"Now, this would provide a fitting message and ensure an explanation for the busybodies of America, who currently are wallowing in indignation, their favorite puddle. The busybodies are upset because Douglas, 67, married Cathleen Heffernan, 23. It was his fourth marriage, and she is his youngest bride."

Ira Glass

The issue here, in Royko's opinion, is whether this is really anybody's business at all-- which is, incidentally, the subject of today's radio show, our radio show, when to mind your own business.

Studs Terkel

"The fact that a man they don't know married a girl they don't know, for reasons that are none of anyone else's business, has a terrible effect on the tempers of many people. Why this is, I don't know."

Ira Glass

Royko's column then quotes some things that he heard somebody say about the marriage on a Chicago call-in show. And then Royko turns to Congress, where a Democrat from Alabama called for a congressional investigation into Douglas's character because of this marriage, and said that he had heard that Douglas had been cruel to his previous wives. A congressman from Mississippi said that of all the courts troublesome decisions recently, this decision, to head down the quote, "highway of matrimony," has raised the most eyebrows.

Studs Terkel

"And Representative Paul Finley, Republican of Illinois, said there should be a way to remove a justice from the bench without a trial for crimes or misdemeanors."

Ira Glass

OK, seriously, hearing this today, with the distance of a half century, this controversy feels so utterly about nothing-- so inconsequential. It makes you wonder, is this what the Anthony Weiner story is going to sound like, a half century from now? And yeah, OK, maybe it's a little icky for a 67-year-old to marry a 23-year-old, but these, you know, are consenting adults. These are people who are doing nothing against the laws of the United States of America, nothing that seems to merit congressional action. Anyway, Royko's column ends with several questions, he says, remain unanswered.

Studs Terkel

"How many marriages will a justice be allowed before he gets kicked off the bench? What will be an acceptable age difference in the marriage of a justice to a younger woman? Will a justice be permitted to marry an older woman?

What does the Alabama congressman consider cruelty to a wife? Are tear gas, billy clubs, police dogs, and shotguns acceptable on the highway of matrimony, or only on the highway back home?"

Mike Royko

[COUGHS]

Studs Terkel

Well, naturally, something happened here--

Mike Royko

[COUGHS] Yeah.

Studs Terkel

--when you wrote this.

Mike Royko

Yeah. People got mad. The response was almost unanimously against my position.

Studs Terkel

Now, what sort of madness?

Mike Royko

I wasn't surprised. Oh, well, there were some very funny letters. I found out that apparently more people are concerned about the Supreme Court justice's marriage than they are about what he does the rest of the time that he's on the bench.

One woman wrote me a letter and said that she surely wouldn't vote for him the next time he ran for election.

Studs Terkel

[LAUGHS]

Mike Royko

[LAUGHS] I don't think she'd heard of him before. And--

Ira Glass

This next part of the recording I really just love. They haul in staffers at the radio station-- basically just grab them from down the hall-- to read some of the letters that Royko got after he wrote this column.

Studs Terkel

So now we got-- here are letters in response to Mike Royko's column, if we may start. And then Mike, perhaps, you could read your comment. You have a little comment at the end of each one.

Mike Royko

No, you read it.

Studs Terkel

No, you do-- no, the comment.

Mike Royko

I-- I can't read it.

Studs Terkel

All right. So I will be Mike Royko. This is Jimmy Jake, an older man. However, you read. This is Jake, here.

Male Staffer

"It is hard to believe that you were serious in your column about Justice Douglas. I'm 62. And ever since I read about this bit, I've been trying to figure out how I could tactfully and with justification approach some or even one of the cute young things that populate the building I'm in. No matter how I phrase my approach, I seem to hear the same words. 'Why, you dirty old man.' Now then, this makes me wonder, how does a 67-year-old man make the approach?"

Studs Terkel

"Oh, well, I assume he said something like, will you marry me? What have you been thinking of saying?"

And then a girl named Jane was indignant. Kathy?

Kathy

"You have an obligation to the reading public as well as to yourself to stick with the truth. And truth comes from God. And what has Justice Douglas done with God's commandments? People disgustingly, and rightly so, talk about Liz Taylor. Douglas is just one step behind her, making a mockery of marriage.

Do you advocate what Liz Taylor has done? This country's laws are based on Christian doctrine and morality. And if a Supreme Court judge openly and continually disregards those laws, what is the common man to think about regarding the sanctity of marriage?"

[LAUGHTER]

Studs Terkel

Well--

Ira Glass

All right, I'm going to stop the tape there. I assume that they're laughing mostly because of the sheer moxie that their colleague is bringing to her performance of that letter. Studs is usually very tolerant of people's religious beliefs.

Her letter does get to the heart of controversy, though. Douglas was a very liberal voice on the liberal Warren Court. And lots of conservatives saw this marriage as just another indication of permissive liberal values and what was wrong with the whole direction of the country in 1966. Anyway, here's one more letter.

Studs Terkel

And finally, Marty Robinson was busy announcing. Now, Marty, you're a doctor in Oak Park.

Male Staffer

"Now, your thinking in your Douglas column is the kind of fuzzy mindedness that is seized upon by many to do anything they wish in the name of freedom."

[CHUCKLING]

Studs Terkel

Spoken like an authoritative doctor. And Mike replies, "Getting married four times isn't exactly my idea of having freedom." That's a good one. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

Now, Mike, did you receive any letters praising you for the column?

Mike Royko

A couple of dirty old men liked it.

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Can I just say-- OK, it's annoying, the self-righteousness that people have in condemning this marriage, right? But it's also kind of harsh, the self-righteousness that Royko has in criticizing them. After all, like, sure, what happens in this marriage is nobody's business but their own.

But who among us, I would ask you, who among us hears about a 67-year-old man marrying somebody a third his age without feeling like a little twinge of judginess, right? Like, who doesn't have feelings about that? Who is above that?

Which is to say, it's hard minding your own business. We're human beings. We're programmed to make judgments about every situation that we walk into and hear about. It is hard not to be nosy. It is hard not to want to know more. That is being alive.

And today on our program, we have stories of people not minding their own business. Well, actually, in these stories, it's big institutions not minding their business and busybodying their way into all kinds of stuff, into what kind of underwear is being worn by cheerleaders, into what is happening in jail hallways in cell blocks.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Jill House Rules

Ira Glass

Act One, Jill House Rules. In January of this year, a woman who went by the name of Lacy T filed a lawsuit against the Oakland raiders for failing to pay her minimum wage. Lacy was a cheerleader for the team, a rookie. NFL cheerleaders generally make about $1,500 for the entire season, although some make as little as $850 for the entire season.

Just a few weeks after Lacy, another cheerleader filed a suit, this one against the Cincinnati Bengals. Then, cheerleaders with the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, women from five NFL cheerleaders teams were suing for higher pay. What's interesting is that the way the cheerleaders are trying to win is to argue that the teams exert so much control over their lives, they are so up in their business, that the cheerleaders deserve to be considered employees. If they are considered employees, then they have to be paid minimum wage.

So the lawsuits also include a bunch of internal documents that describe how much up in their business the franchises are. Here's Chana Joffe-Walt.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It was Page 18 that really got me, the Buffalo Jills lawsuit. The team is the Buffalo Bills, so the cheerleaders are the Jills. And on Page 18 of these legal documents, they're describing a Jills rulebook the team gives out to each squad member.

It says, quote, "The extensive rulebook set forth by defendants includes rules on how much bread to eat at a formal dinner, how to properly eat soup, how much to tip restaurant waiters, wedding etiquette, how to properly wash intimate areas, and how often to change tampons." And then, right here as evidence, they include the actual handbook-- the "glamour requirement section," two pages on conversation starters, 17 rules for what they call "general hygiene and lady body maintenance."

I think what's so bizarre about reading these rules as an outsider, someone who works in an office every day, is it's really hard to imagine your boss talking to you about this stuff. Let me show you what I mean with my boss. I asked my boss, Ira, to read some of these rules. Hey, Ira.

Ira Glass

Hey there, Chana.

Chana Joffe- Walt

OK. So imagine your boss walking into your cubicle and saying--

Ira Glass

All right, here we go. "Stay away from frosted lipsticks and eye shadows. Management will determine your proper color analysis. No slouching breasts-- support as needed."

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah, that's weird.

Ira Glass

That's weird.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Keep going, though. Keep going. So here are some more actual rules from actual cheerleader handbooks.

Ira Glass

"Never apply makeup or fuss with hair front of people. If it's absolutely necessary you reapply, freshen up, go to the ladies' room. And do not hang out and talk while there. Beware, other women will judge you in there, too. Always say excuse me when you burp, sneeze, or cough, even if you think there isn't anyone around.

Napkins-- when you leave the table at the end of the meal, place your napkin loosely next to your plate. It should not be crumpled or twisted, which would reveal untidiness or nervousness, respectively."

Chana Joffe-Walt

There's a lot of rules about the cheerleaders' bodies, which I get. It's a job that depends on your body. But these rules get deep into your mind, like these ones. Read these, Ira.

Ira Glass

OK. "Please, think before you speak and always pay attention and listen. Ask yourself, 'Is it likely that this person will be interested in what I'm about to bring up?' Do not be overly opinionated about anything.

Do not complain about anything. Ever hang out with a whiner? It's exhausting and boring. Watch other poor manners or nervous habits, such as nail biting, knuckle-slash-neck cracking, excessive sniffling, and too many arm movements."

Chana Joffe-Walt

I like imagining what the author was picturing with that last one. "Too many arm movements."

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

OK. So I didn't really know what to make of these. It's hard to imagine the NFL players have handbooks that outline how to eat bread politely and wash their genitals. But I don't know. Maybe no cheerleaders actually talk about these rules, or no one enforces them. Maybe cheerleading manuals are essentially employee handbooks that nobody ever reads.

So I ran a bunch of them by a couple current and former cheerleaders, who told me, yeah, we had lots of rules like that. And we knew those rules. But most of them also added, the rules were not a big deal.

Carly Walko cheered for the Redskins and the Eagles.

Carly Walko

I mean, of course some of them were frustrating, like your nails a certain length or whatever. And, I mean, you just have to believe that every rule's there because there's been a circumstance in the past that has had to put it there. So you would think, nail length, who cares? Everyone keeps their nails relatively reasonably long.

There must have been some girl along the way who had like 8-inch nails and probably stabbed some girl in the back doing a lift or something. And so now they have to say you can't have your nails be past a certain point. Which seems silly, but someone 10 years ago got hurt on the field because a girl's nails were too long. Do you know what I'm saying?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Other cheerleaders I talked to said the same thing. The rules may seem weird from the outside, but really, they're not. And they didn't have a problem with them.

But I wasn't confident that was a completely honest take. Cheerleaders, after all, are hired to promote their teams. That's their job. So even if they did find the rules stupid or way up in their business, why would they talk to some stranger about that on the radio?

But I realized I do have someone to ask about these documents who knows this world and could speak with me honestly about it-- my colleague, This American Life producer Robyn Semien. Robyn was an NBA cheerleader.

Robyn Semien

I had a great time on the Lakers. I really did. It was fun. It was fun.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Robyn was a Laker Girl in college. After 20 years of dance classes and cheer camps, she made it to the Lakers, which is a big deal. I feel like I need to say that, because Robyn will not. She made me ask three times before she told me she beat out hundreds of other women for her spot.

Robyn Semien

In the end, it's 16 of us were chosen-- three brunettes and three blonds and two redheads, maybe. And so I was one of two black girls that were hired. So, like, I knew that this was just kind of-- that there were roles, that I was auditioning for a part. And that was fine.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When I read the guidelines and handbooks to Robyn, she just kind of shrugged. We were there representing an enormous franchise, she told me. Of course there were rules about everything.

Robyn Semien

Yeah, there were tons of rules. A main one was you can't date the players, which meant-- like, you can't date the players, which really meant you can't sleep with the players. But also you can't date them. But also you can't be seen anywhere alone with them. Like, you cannot-- there's just no crossover between what we are doing as the Laker Girls and what the Laker team was doing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So you didn't have any relationships with any of the players.

Robyn Semien

None. I mean, none.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Robyn says everyone knew that rule. And they didn't need to read it in a handbook, because they had Lisa. Lisa Estrada was and still is the director of the Laker Girls.

It was Lisa who told the squad which kind of lipstick to wear, how much, which mascara, how long their nails should be. It was Lisa who did weigh-ins before games. It was Lisa who told Robyn to straighten her hair so it'd look like Suzanne Somers from Three's Company. Lisa was a boss you remember.

Robyn Semien

She was-- I mean, she's a spitfire. And she was really funny, and also kind of really kind of scary. In my mind she was, like, spending all day every day like in some meeting with, like, Jerry Buss like the owner of the Lakers. Just she was always seeming to come from some important meeting or something important about our dances or our image or what the Lakers organization needed from us meant.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When they went out on appearances-- say a Staples office supply store would want four Laker girls for their grand opening-- they would offer good money. And Lisa would say, you can go but--

Robyn Semien

I expect that you all conduct yourselves appropriately. And don't ever forget what you're representing.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What were you representing?

Robyn Semien

I don't-- um, class.

Chana Joffe-Walt

You were classy.

Robyn Semien

Yes. Yeah, yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Did you understand what that meant?

Robyn Semien

Kind of. It just meant that we weren't slutty.

Chana Joffe-Walt

There was a line. Lisa wanted the line to be blindingly bright. And that's what the rules were about. One side of the line was classy. The other side was slutty. Lisa wanted you to be on the right side of the line. And that made sense to Robyn.

Robyn Semien

I feel like in general, as a dancer, if you're, like, trying to make it as a professional dancer in Los Angeles, you're coming across a lot of questionable opportunities. You're like, do I or don't I want to put on stilettos and a bikini and be in that music video, because I could totally do it, but-- so it felt a little bit like a Disney version of-- yeah, classy but, like, sexy classy. Sure.

Chana Joffe-Walt

[LAUGHS]

Robyn Semien

Yes. Sequins and hot pink all over your face. Whatever you want.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Right. But don't sleep with any of the players.

Robyn Semien

But do not fornicate with the players, yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It made sense to Robyn that they shouldn't sleep with the players. It made sense that Lisa told her what kind of push-up bra to wear and to get it specifically from Frederick's of Hollywood. It made sense that Lisa wanted her to be careful while dancing that she was doing her girl-next-door face and not a diva sex face.

That all seemed reasonable. But Lisa had a lot of rules. They didn't all make sense.

Robyn Semien

One of the rules that we had was that we weren't allowed to drink water out of water bottles.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Why?

Robyn Semien

This was like a rule. Every single rule came from Lisa. Totally, like, normal-but-a-little-intimidating Lisa would come to us and say, all right, no. OK, but no drinking water at these appearances. And then she explained that it was like because it was too provocative to drink out of a water bottle. Like, it just could connote something that would be--

Chana Joffe-Walt

What? What?

Robyn Semien

I know.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What's provocative about it?

Robyn Semien

Yeah, I don't know. I don't know. I don't think anyone was like, what do you mean? We were all just like, yeah, OK. Immediately, like, I'm trying to imagine what she's imagining. And it just suddenly seems like a everything gets slow motion and we're like, drinking water in this way that is just inappropriate. It's like suddenly, like, rated R water drinking.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The word Robyn remembers Lisa using was "porny."

Robyn Semien

Yeah, it's porny. Yeah. Or at least to Lisa it is, or someone in the greater organization at one of her many afternoon meetings has told her, like, whoa, slow down on all the water drinking. Let's keep it wholesome. I don't know. I don't know.

Chana Joffe-Walt

If there is a line between classy and porny, cheerleading more than any other job I can think of is pushing right up against that line. It is dancing with pom-poms all over the line.

So Robyn says the rules were there to keep things from accidentally crossing over. They're there to provide context. This thing we are doing is professional and classy. So even when Lisa's rules seemed a little crazy, Robyn went with it.

Robyn Semien

She was trying to keep us safe-- appropriate and protected.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Dd you feel that? Did you appreciate, like, she's looking out for us.

Robyn Semien

Yeah, for sure. Yeah. She was kind of feminist protective of us. Everything that could have been, like, severely oversexed or really kind of disgusting, there was some kind of safety in place.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And that was Lisa.

Robyn Semien

Oh, and that was Lisa. Yeah.

Oh my God, how are you?

Lisa Estrada

Fine. How are you?

Robyn Semien

I'm great, thanks.

Lisa Estrada

Good. I know, I saw--

Chana Joffe-Walt

20 years after she left the team, Robyn called her old coach to say, I'm talking about you on the radio as my protector. Do you think about yourself that way?

Lisa Estrada

Yeah, I mean, if people need to say that I'm, you know, mama hen, or I act like a mom, then I'm totally fine with that. And I think that I should be here to protect them.

Sometimes it's a bit hard coming into a sports world with them. Sports world is a man's world, kind of. And there's definitely the stigma of they're just eye candy. And they go out, and they shake their pom-poms. Or they go out, and they dance, or whatever it is.

But I wanted everyone in Los Angeles to understand they're not only dancing girls, they are so much more than that. And they should be looked at as professional women.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Lisa says she doesn't remember calling water bottles porny. But she's sure if she did, it was only because she wanted the women to be seen as professional. And Robyn says it worked. Yes, having a rule to tell you how often to change your tampon is ridiculous. But taken as a group, these rules made the whole thing into a job. They did make everything feel professional.

Robyn Semien

There is something wholesome about going to an NBA basketball game. There's families and kids. And it's bright. And it's familiar. And yes, and we were like the dance team that was wearing the logo that was printed on the outside of this massive stadium.

It just felt like, OK, we're all in it. Like we all kind of know what it is. And maybe we're like the sexualized talent entertainment component to all this, but it feels very rated G.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It felt like that almost all the time. Almost.

Robyn Semien

The job was complicated at times. Like you'd see little-- you'd see it at the games sometimes. Like, you would be with Lakers fans who were just grown men with, like, their young sons, who would say, like, will you pose with my son? And you're like, yeah, sure.

And then you'd, like, get in a little huddle for the picture. And then the guy would say, OK, say sexy. And you're like, uh, that seems inappropriate.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The guy would say that to his kid, would say--

Robyn Semien

He would just say it to us like that. And you're like, why don't you just say "say cheese"? And then you kind of remember. You're like, but actually, I'm standing here, like, in my push-up bra, like, wearing clothes close to what I would wear on the beach in a stadium with tons of other people wearing a lot more clothes than I am. Like, you'd have these moments of being like, oh.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And there was the time they did the event at a bar called Pinky's. It was a pool hall where all the tables were covered in pink felt. The Laker Girls did their routines, but it was late and the men were drunk.

Robyn Semien

Suddenly, you're, like, doing dance routines in like a smoky pool hall packed with kind of screaming men. And I feel like I had a-- like, something switched for me. Like, I saw what I was doing in a different way. It was just like one of those times where I thought, this feels like stripping right now.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But then the event at Pinky's was over. And Robyn says those awkward moments usually faded quickly, because she loved the job. She loved what she was doing. And that, I guess, is what was still confusing to me.

What is to love? You've got a coach who's up in your business, all of your business. You don't make a lot of money-- although in Robyn's case, the NBA pays a lot better than the NFL. But still, it's not player money.

You can't gain three pounds. You can't even talk to the attractive famous young men right next to you. You can't drink bottled water. The more I learned, the more cheerleading sounds like walking through airport security over and over every day, just the feeling of being heavily policed with a bunch of unexplained arbitrary rules that are maybe there to keep you safe, but you don't really get why.

And just, isn't it supposed to be fun? Is it fun? Robyn looks at me kind of pityingly when I ask about this.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Is it fun?

Robyn Semien

I don't know that I can compare anything to being on stage in front of-- like, in a stadium under those lights in front of, like, 25,000 screaming fans. Even when I think about it now, it doesn't exactly feel like me. It's a little out-of-body.

Chana Joffe-Walt

In like an awesome way?

Robyn Semien

In an amazing way, yeah. In an amazing way.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Robyn was part of the most elite professional level of cheerleading. She was dancing with people who were auditioning to go on tour with Madonna. It was Los Angeles. There were celebrities everywhere. Thousands of people came to games. She got to sit courtside next to Denzel Washington.

In other words, yes, moron, it was fun. It was really fun. In those moments, the rules and Lisa were not on her mind.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt is one of the producers of our program. Coming up, the LA County Sheriff's Department loses an inmate in its own jail system on purpose. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Cop versus Cop

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Mind Your Own Business, AKA mind your own beeswax, AKA butt out, buzz off, MYOB. This is an A and B conversation, so C, your way out.

Why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye when you do not notice the plank in your own? Don't be dipping in the Kool-Aid when you don't even know the flavor. And a favorite in my family, people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Cop Versus Cop.

Well, there's been a big, messy, fascinating story unfolding in Los Angeles for a while involving two big law enforcement agencies, the LA County Sheriff's Department, which is huge, and the FBI. A secret investigation got exposed. There were accusations and counter-accusations, clandestine recordings. And by the end, a bunch of people's careers were over.

At the heart of it was this-- nobody likes to be watched and reported on, judged by some outsider. No person likes it, and no organization likes it. Nancy Updike has the story.

Nancy Updike

Employee Christmas parties are so often associated with bad behavior and just unwise choices that I believe they rival wedding toasts. About three years ago, Robert Faturechi, a reporter for the LA Times, heard about a Christmas party thrown by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Robert Faturechi

At this beautiful banquet hall, there had been a massive fight between deputies.

Nancy Updike

This fight was not an argument. It was a fistfight among sheriff's deputies. And in Los Angeles County, sheriff's deputies are guards in the county jails, which does not mean that they're watching a few drunks sleep it off in a holding cell. This is the largest jail system in the country-- over 19,000 inmates at the moment.

So Robert heard about the deputies' brawl at the Christmas party. And he started looking into what had happened. What he heard was that one group of deputies had beat up two other deputies. And the deputies who delivered the beating all worked on the same floor in the Sheriff Department's main jail.

Robert Faturechi

It's called the 3000 floor. And I heard word that before the fight broke out, when they were exchanging words, these guys were throwing three-finger hand signs, similar to gang signs. There were rumors that they described themselves as the 3000 boys.

Nancy Updike

Mhm.

Robert Faturechi

So they were representing affiliation to a specific geographical area, the third floor of their jail. So in a lot of ways, they were like a gang.

Nancy Updike

Robert wondered, if they're beating up their fellow deputies, how are they treating inmates? This turned out to be a very good question, and also just the beginning. Because the first thing Robert found out was yes, most likely, some of the deputies who beat up other deputies were using extraordinary amounts of force on inmates. But it wasn't just the guys at the Christmas party.

Robert dug into public records about use of force reports in the jail, and later, internal Sheriff's Department documents-- these had never been made public-- that showed that the department knew that brutality against inmates was a real problem in the jails, that deputies were beating inmates, fabricating stories to justify beatings, that investigations after the fact were shoddy. Robert was also hearing more and more from sources inside the Sheriff's Department. He published a series of stories with headlines like, "LA County Deputy Says He Was Forced to Beat Mentally Ill Inmate" and "Monitor Says She Saw Deputies Beat Inmate, quote, 'Like a Punching Bag.'"

Robert talked to a former commander who said there were deputies who really did seem to have formed their own gangs in the jail.

Robert Faturechi

I mean, this was a high-ranking guy. He told us that deputies were literally breaking inmates' bones. In order to get membership into these gang-like groups of deputies, they had to break inmates' bones. And, I mean, that's the kind of thing that if I had heard before all of this started to unfold, I would never believe it.

But this was a department commander telling us this. I mean, this guy was in charge of hundreds of deputies. He's someone who came up through the system who has a lot of loyalty to the system.

Nancy Updike

At the same time that Robert was digging all of this up, another organization was also looking into the jails-- not a news organization, the FBI.

Leah Marx

The date is August 30, 2010 at 9:45 AM. This is Special Agent Leah Marx. I will soon begin a consensual recording with target William David Courson, Junior at Lazy Daisy Cafe in Los Angeles.

Nancy Updike

Leah Marx was the lead FBI investigator looking into inmate abuse at the LA jails. Just to clarify, when she says "consensual recording," that's FBI speak. It means she's consenting. The other guy doesn't know she's recording.

Marx had been going out to the main jail in downtown LA for a while, investigating corruption and brutality by deputies against inmates. But the Sheriff's Department had no idea that's what she was looking into. FBI agents go to jails all the time to meet with informants. Agent Marx told one deputy at the jail she was working on a human trafficking case.

This particular recording at the Lazy Daisy Cafe came about because one of the deputies, Deputy William Courson, asked Agent Marx out. He had a crush on her She turned him down. But later she talked with her supervisor, and they decided that Deputy Courson could be a good source of intel. Marx told Courson she would go out with him, but just as friends. No dating. She wasn't interested.

So they go out to breakfast. She has French toast. He has eggs. And she's asking him about his job. And he's telling her about violence in the jail, inmates beating up other inmates. Courson says in some cases, "They're going to get beat down by their own people, more than likely worse than what we would normally do to them. Which is bad, because we send them to the hospital."

William Courson

They're going to get beat down by their own people, more than likely worse than what we would normally do to them. Which is bad, because we send them to the hospital.

Leah Marx

Like, why though?

William Courson

Why what?

Leah Marx

Why would you guys send them to the hospital?

William Courson

Because every time they fight with us, it's like an unwritten rule. They go to the hospital.

Nancy Updike

He's saying, "Every time they fight with us, it's like an unwritten rule. They go to the hospital." He says, "Sometimes, they don't even have to make the first move. If we just perceive that they want to fight, we don't have to wait for them to hit us."

Marx keeps asking, but is this how you're trained officially by the Sheriff's Department, that you're legally allowed to beat someone to the point that they go to the hospital if you even think they might do something? Courson says that it all depends on how the deputies write up the incident in their report.

William Courson

As long as they don't quit fighting, that's the way you write it.

Leah Marx

[LAUGHS] Got it.

Nancy Updike

They go back and forth like this, law enforcement officer to law enforcement officer talking shop. Courson says they've got new rules for how long to taser someone. "What they want you to do now is hold the taser, hold the trigger, until you actually get them handcuffed."

William Courson

So what they want you to do now is hold the taser, hold the trigger, until you actually get them handcuffed.

Leah Marx

That can be a long time.

Nancy Updike

"That can be a long time," says Marx. Courson says, "Oh yeah. Depends on how clumsy we are."

William Courson

Oh, yeah. Depends on how clumsy we are. [LAUGHS] Ah, I didn't even think about it before I saw them. But tomato? Would you like a tomato?

Leah Marx

No. No, thanks. Tomatoes and French toast, not exactly a--

William Courson

No, probably not. But I like tomatoes.

Leah Marx

Interesting. So, like, how do you guys get to the point, where, like you learn all the unwritten rules?

Nancy Updike

She says, "So how do you guys get to the point where you learn all the unwritten rules?" "About sending them to the hospital?" Courson says. "I think think just like in general," Marx says.

Leah Marx

Like for us--

William Courson

About sending them to the hospital?

Leah Marx

I think just like in general, because--

William Courson

They tell us.

Nancy Updike

"They tell us," he says. He explains that he learned the unwritten rules while he was still at the Academy, just after graduating, during a training called jail ops-- jail operations. He says "After we graduate, you go through I think it's a week or two-week course of jail ops. During that time, that's when they tell you it's an unwritten rule that any inmate that fights with deputies goes to the hospital."

William Courson

During that time, that's when they tell you it's an unwritten rule that any inmate that fights with deputies goes to the hospital.

Leah Marx

Got it. Even if it's not necessary, you do it. You just teach them a lesson, or what?

William Courson

Pretty much.

Nancy Updike

Marx says, "Got it. Even if it's not necessary, you do it. You just teach them a lesson. Courson says, "Pretty much." Courson said later that he doesn't like some of what he sees going on at the jail. He says about the inmates, "Some of them I like. From what I know of them, they're decent people. But kind of like what we said before, the only thing that's separating me and them is one mistake."

Robert, the LA Times guy who reported on the Christmas party fight, eventually heard about the FBI's investigation into the jails-- not from the FBI, but as a series of rumors going around.

Robert Faturechi

We started to hear that the FBI had smuggled a cell phone to an inmate who was secretly acting as an informant.

Nancy Updike

This was the informant working with FBI agent Leah Marx, telling her about abuse in the jail. The phone was so that the informant could try and take pictures or video to back up inmates' stories about brutality and corruption by some of the deputies. But there was a problem with this plan, which is cell phones are illegal in jail. And pretty quickly, deputies found the informant's cellphone during a routine search.

LA Times headline, "FBI Paid Deputy to Smuggle Cell Phone in Jail Sting." Deputies found the phone wrapped in a glove and hidden inside a potato chip bag. And wow, was the Sheriff's Department mad that the FBI had done this. The sheriffs and the FBI were used to being more or less on the same side. Here's Robert.

Robert Faturechi

They work with each other on a ton of task forces.

Nancy Updike

Right.

Robert Faturechi

They have a close relationship. And this is the kind of thing that would be seen as a huge betrayal.

Male Host

All right. Here comes the Sheriff. He's right here. Sheriff Lee Baca is with us.

Female Host

He just called you Sheriff Steve.

Male Host

You're here to talk about something near-and-dear that you're involved in.

Nancy Updike

This is the morning show on the local Fox TV affiliate in LA. Sheriff Lee Baca, who is in charge of the entire LA County Sheriff's Department, is sitting there with the hosts. This is right after Robert's first story in the LA Times about the smuggled cellphone.

Baca's tone is measured as he answers the interviewer's questions, but it's clear he's really angry.

Lee Baca

And I think it's a--

Male Host

Do you resent the FBI's intrusion?

Lee Baca

Oh, yeah.

Male Host

And specifically, this issue about a cell phone.

Lee Baca

Right.

Male Host

What can you tell us about that?

Lee Baca

Well, it's illegal. It's a misdemeanor. And then there's a conspiracy law that goes along with it. The truth is, the sheriff runs the jail. And the sheriff's responsibilities have to be respected.

Robert Faturechi

The sheriff was publicly saying, you know, the Feds have committed a crime. We police ourselves. Mind your own business. We've got this.

And the Feds, they were absolutely infuriated that the Sheriff of LA County was publicly accusing them of a crime.

Nancy Updike

Of course, the FBI did do something illegal. Not only did they give their informant a cell phone in jail, but they also bribed a corrupt deputy with $1,500 to smuggle in that phone. But the FBI is not regular people. Different rules apply to them.

The smuggled phone, although illegal, was part of an authorized FBI investigation into other illegal activity-- abuse by deputies. And that's exactly the kind of trade off that the FBI is allowed to make in some situations. They're legally permitted to let their informants commit certain crimes, though never a violent crime.

But the Sheriff's Department was not backing down. On the contrary, they counter-punched, saying to the FBI essentially, you're coming after us? We're coming after you.

Man

Testing. Do you have a tape rolling?

Nancy Updike

On the same day that Sheriff Lee Baca went on TV, the Sheriff's Department sent two of its sergeants to FBI agent Leah Marx's home. They recorded the whole encounter. They waited outside her apartment. And one of the Sheriff's officials, Sergeant Scott Craig, spots FBI agent Leah Marx and calls out to her.

Scott Craig

Hi, Leah Marx? Leah?

Leah Marx

Yeah?

Scott Craig

Hi, I'm Sergeant Craig from the Sheriff's Department. I left you a message a couple weeks ago. We're here to talk to you--

Leah Marx

I don't have anything to say.

Scott Craig

OK, so you don't wan to talk to us?

Leah Marx

No, thanks.

Scott Craig

Do you want my card or anything?

Leah Marx

Yes, I would, please, actually.

Scott Craig

You know that you're a named suspect in a felony complaint?

Nancy Updike

It's hard to hear this part, but Sergeant Craig is saying, "Do you know that you're a named suspect in a felony complaint?" In other words, they showed up at her home not to say, "We're arresting you," but to say, "We might be about to arrest you." No matter what FBI Agent Marx says, Sergeant Craig keeps telling her, "We might be about to arrest you."

Scott Craig

OK. What I'm going to do, so you know, is I'm in the process of swearing out a declaration for an arrest warrant for you. Would you like us to go through who?

Leah Marx

I would prefer that you would actually contact the officials who are in charge of the FBI.

Scott Craig

OK. Well, what we're going to do to arrange for your arrest when we're ready to do that is we can either do this--

Leah Marx

No, I would-- you need to contact the FBI office.

Robert Faturechi

They basically say that they're going to issue a warrant for her arrest, and that they're investigating her for the crime of smuggling a cell phone into the jail. And she basically says, talk to my boss. And then we have a recording of this. Her boss calls these sheriff's investigators.

Maricela Long

OK, go ahead.

Nancy Updike

This is Sergeant Maricela Long from the Sheriff's Department. She had been with Sergeant Craig outside FBI Agent Leah Marx's house. Sergeant Long recorded this call with the FBI.

Maricela Long

So you're with who, sir?

Man

She indicated to me that you guys indicated to there being a warrant for her arrest?

Maricela Long

There's going to be.

Man

Does the sheriff know this?

Maricela Long

The sheriff knows this, sir.

Man

OK. Can I ask what the charges are going to be?

Maricela Long

OK. You're going to have to speak to the undersheriff.

Nancy Updike

Sergeant Long gives the phone number for the undersheriff. And then they wrap up the call.

Man

You don't have any idea when the warrant's going to come out, do you?

Maricela Long

It could be tomorrow, sir. You're going to have to talk to the undersheriff.

Man

OK, thank you.

Maricela Long

Uh-huh.

Robert Faturechi

And at the end of the recording, you know, after they say goodbye to each other, they forget to stop recording, the sheriff's investigators do.

Nancy Updike

Oh, no.

Robert Faturechi

And one of the investigators basically kind of jubilantly goes, "They're scared!"

Woman

They're scared! They're like, do you know when-- is the warrant--

Man

You're still rolling.

Robert Faturechi

And her colleague says, you're still rolling! And the tape ends. But it spoke to their frame of mind.

Nancy Updike

They're scared, meaning we scared the FBI. Like, yay.

Robert Faturechi

Yeah. She sounded really pleased that the FBI had been spooked by them showing up at this agent's door.

Nancy Updike

So what started as an investigation into serious inmate abuse was now being overshadowed by an institutional-sized shoving match between the Feds and the LA Sheriff's Department. And the next big shove in that match was a pretty dramatic one-- the Feds accusing sheriff's officials of obstruction of justice, intentionally thwarting a federal investigation.

And you could argue that the Feds had the beginnings of a case. The sheriff's agents who went to see Marx-- the Feds could paint that as intimidation. The Sheriff's Department gloating at the end of the phone call with the FBI-- Feds could argue it showed intent.

And then there was this-- remember the informant, the guy the FBI had smuggled the cellphone to? Almost as soon as his cover was blown, the Feds couldn't find him. They demanded that the Sheriff's Department let them meet with their informant. And the Sheriff's Department-- I'll let Robert, the LA Times reporter tell it.

Robert Faturechi

I mean, I started to get calls from sources. And they were telling me various versions of this tale, that the inmate who'd been secretly working as an informant for the FBI was being moved around the jails. And all of this was done in an effort to hide him from the FBI.

Nancy Updike

Moved around. You mean you mean physically moved?

Robert Faturechi

Sure. Yeah, so what you've got to understand is that LA County and the LA County jail system is so massive. It's not just one jail downtown or two jails. There are jails downtown. Then there are jails spread across the county, you know, holding cells inside of stations.

And so they were moving him from one floor to another, from one facility to another. And this is the largest jail system in the country. So there are dozens of places you could put an inmate if you don't want him to be found.

And my initial response to hearing such wild stories is skepticism. I mean, I just couldn't believe that you would literally hide a human being and ignore requests from the FBI. It seemed too unbelievable to me.

Nancy Updike

So Robert started asking around, trying to find this mystery informant. But it seemed like a lost cause. He didn't even know the guy's name.

Robert Faturechi

So one Friday evening, I was leaving. And I'm on my way out, I checked my mail. I went to my mailbox, and I grabbed the letters that had come in. And at this point, we'd been writing about inmate abuse for a while. And I didn't know it before, but what happens when you write about inmate abuse and when you write about jails is you start getting letters from prisoners everywhere-- not just in LA County, across the state.

And they're all trying to tell you about their own experience, their own experience being abused, their own experience being wrongly convicted. And some of them are probably true. But again, what happens in jails is really hard to prove. And we are so busy that-- I'm not proud of this-- but I wouldn't always read these letters closely.

And so one of these letters had come in. And I was sort of just reading it while walking out. And the guy was saying, I'm the FBI's informant.

Nancy Updike

Oh, my god.

Robert Faturechi

I'm the guy who was at the center of all this.

Nancy Updike

So wait. You were looking for him, and as you were looking for him, you got a letter from him?

Robert Faturechi

Yeah. Well, honestly, at that point, I thought the chances of me finding him, I didn't think it would be possible. And then comes this letter. And he's describing exactly the rumor that I'd been hearing, that he had been moved around, that they had changed his name.

Nancy Updike

The guy's name was Anthony Brown. And he had been transferred to prison by this point, so he was out of the jail system. And Robert and his reporting partner Jack Leonard went down to see him.

Robert Faturechi

All I knew about him at that point was that he was this convicted bank robber facing-- I forget what his sentence was-- like 323 years in prison or something.

Nancy Updike

Yeah, yeah. Hundreds of years.

Robert Faturechi

And I was expecting this big, tough, scary-looking guy. And in walks Anthony Brown. And he's this, like, pudgy, sweet guy who's got, like, these glasses and this, like, really charming New York accent. When you're just thinking about what a bank robber looks like, you're not imagining Anthony Brown,

Nancy Updike

Anthony Brown told him a lot. He confirmed that yes, the cell phone had been smuggled in by a deputy who was bribed with $1,500. Yes, Anthony Brown was moved around the jails. He was hidden inside the jail system by deputies who guarded him 24 hours a day and rebooked him under aliases that would change every 48 hours.

Brown also told Robert and Jack that he had seen a lot of abuse of inmates by deputies. He said he'd kept notes. His description of daily life in the jail was in line with what Robert and Jack had already reported out through documents and sources.

But Brown said a lot of other stuff that just did not seem to be true. He told Robert and Jack that he'd been a high-level executive at Def Jam Recordings. Def Jam said they'd never heard of him. He told Robert and Jack that he'd made a ton of money being on tour with Beyonce. Couldn't nail that down. And there were other things.

So as a witness in a case about inmate abuse, if it was just Brown testifying about what he'd seen, no evidence to back up his claims, that would be a hard sell. But for an obstruction case, Brown told Robert and Jack one story that ended up being very important and that other people could corroborate.

Robert Faturechi

Immediately after his cover was blown, before they were able to really get the operation to move him and change his name, his FBI handler had gotten into the jail to interview him, because they had gotten word that this cover was blown. And they're in this room, and they're meeting and they're talking. And a couple sheriff's officials barge in and declare, this meeting is over. They kick him out. They kick the agent out.

And that was really interesting. It showed an explicit effort to get in the way of a conversation between an FBI agent and an informant. And that was one of the main arguments, that the Sheriff's Department tried to obstruct a federal investigation, which is a crime.

Nancy Updike

That incident? That incident was cited as a main piece of evidence.

Robert Faturechi

Yeah. Yeah, that incident was cited. That was a federal interview, and they came in and they basically shut it down. And they kicked the agent out.

Nancy Updike

The Sheriff's Department said yes, they had interrupted the FBI's meeting with Brown, but to protect him according to a newly heightened security protocol. In fact, they said none of what had happened was intentional obstruction of justice. They said they'd moved Anthony Brown around the jails and hidden him not to keep him away from the Feds, but to keep him safe from possible retribution by the deputies he was informing on.

So far, jurors have not bought these arguments. Toward the end of 2013, the Feds brought obstruction of justice cases against seven people in the LA County Sheriff's Department. Six have been convicted, including the two sergeants who went to FBI Agent Leah Marx's home. One more case ended with a hung jury. It's going to be retried.

But Robert, the LA Times reporter, said even before these convictions, even before anyone was charged in these obstruction cases, the Sheriff's Department was coming under more pressure than it ever had to deal with brutality against inmates by deputies. The FBI investigation came on top of a whole pile of complaints and evidence that had been building up for years, from civilian monitors of the police, from the ACLU, from media reports. Facing all that, the sheriff implemented reforms. And now, Robert says from everything he hears from people on the inside, though there's still problems in the jails, the inmates are treated differently.

A few months ago, Sheriff Lee Baca, who had headed the department for 15 years, resigned. One last fact to chew on-- the Sheriff's Department plan to hide Anthony Brown in the jail system was called Operation Pandora's Box. I didn't quite do a double take when I read that, but I did think it wasn't the best myth to choose. The story doesn't end well for anyone who's hoping to contain something or keep it hidden. Pandora opens the box, and the contents fly out for the whole world to see.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our program. Robert Faturechi is a reporter at the Los Angeles Times who's covered law enforcement since 2010. We contacted the LA County Sheriff's Department about the recent history of violence against inmates in the jails. And they sent this statement.

Quote, "Over the past few years, the department has made a multitude of changes which have transformed the custody environment. Some of these changes include innovative ideas which have not previously been implemented in large jail systems. Use of force incidents have dropped significantly in comparison to 2011 and earlier."

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Miki Meek with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Alison Davis and JP Dukes. It is Alison's last program with us here as our visiting fellow, and we all wish her the best.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Begerson's our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's cofounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I got a frantic call from him today. He had a big decision he needed help with.

Robyn Semien

Do I or don't I want to put on stilettos and a bikini and be in that music video?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.