The man who once led the nation's largest sheriff's department, often defiantly as critics decried deputies' abuse of inmates in his jails, is now facing a federal case that could put him behind bars for two decades if he's successfully prosecuted.
Last week, former Sheriff Lee Baca withdrew a guilty plea he'd made as part of a deal with federal prosecutors that could have put him behind bars for as little as six months. The withdrawal was made because the judge in the case, Percy Anderson, rejected the compromise as too forgiving. He indicated that the maximum sentence for Baca's crime of lying to federal investigators, five years, was back on the table.
That would be the same sentence handed down to his second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, who was convicted of obstruction of justice as part of the feds' investigation of jailhouse beatings and the effort to cover them up.
Baca took his chances and walked away from his deal, opening the door to today's indictment by a federal grand jury, which threw the book at the 74-year-old.
The charges unveiled today allege that he “conspired to obstruct justice, obstructed justice, and lied to the federal government,” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
He's expected to be arraigned “at a later date,” the office said.
“The case against Baca is the result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and is one in a series of cases resulting from an investigation into corruption and civil rights abuses at county jail facilities in downtown Los Angeles,” according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. “As a result of the investigation, 20 current or former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department were convicted of federal charges.”
Baca participated in a meeting on Sept. 25, 2011, in which sheriff's officials conspired to conceal information from the FBI, prosecutors alleged. Then, when he was interviewed by agents two years later Baca denied his role, triggering the allegation that he lied to the feds, they said.
Here's a previous summary of the case from the U.S. Attorney's Office:
During the course of the investigation that was being conducted by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a federal grand jury, a sheriff’s deputy assigned to the Men’s Central Jail accepted a bribe to smuggle a cellphone into the facility. The phone was delivered to an inmate who was working as an FBI informant. Jail officials later discovered the phone, linked it to the FBI and determined that the inmate was an informant. This led to a monthlong scheme to obstruct the investigation, which included members of the conspiracy concealing the informant from the FBI, the United States Marshals Service and the grand jury. Members of the conspiracy also engaged in witness tampering and harassing the FBI agent.
Baca says he has Alzheimer's disease, a development that could play into the case and trigger sympathy if he ends up before a jury. Federal prosecutors have said the disease's effects on him are “slight” and that they shouldn't affect his ability to remember what happened as the FBI investigated the inmate abuse case.
Baca was once called “the Teflon Sheriff” because allegations never stuck, but this time, the feds are holding his feet to the fire.