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Former Sheriff Baca convicted of obstructing justice

LOS ANGELES — Ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted March 15 of obstruction of justice and two other federal charges for orchestrating a scheme to thwart an FBI investigation into inmate mistreatment in the jails he ran and of lying to the bureau.

After about two days of deliberations, a jury found that Baca authorized and condoned a multi-part scheme that now has resulted in the conviction of 10 former members of the Sheriff’s Department. During the trial, prosecutors described Baca as being the top figure in the conspiracy, which also involved his right-hand man, Paul Tanaka, and eight deputies who took orders from the sheriff.

“As the sheriff for Los Angeles County, Mr. Baca had a duty to uphold the law, a duty he utterly failed when he played an active role in undermining a federal investigation into illegal conduct at the jails,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown. “Today’s verdict shows that no one is above the law.”

The jury convicted Baca on three felony counts: conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statement to federal investigators. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who has presided over several trials involving members of the conspiracy, is expected to schedule a sentencing hearing during a status conference March 20.

“We fought the good fight every day in court,” defense attorney Nathan Hochman said outside court. He predicted a win on appeal, saying the jury was not allowed to hear all the evidence that would have acquitted his client.

The eight-man, four-woman jury, which heard nine days of testimony involving more than a dozen witnesses, reached the verdict in their second full day of deliberations in Baca’s retrial.

The disgraced ex-sheriff showed no emotion as the verdicts were read. Afterward, he stood outside the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles and told a throng of media that he remains “optimistic” about the future, while thanking his wife, friends and supporters.

“I also want to say I appreciate the jury system. My mentality is always optimistic. I feel good,” he said before walking away, flanked by his lawyers who had their arms around his waist.

The jury foreman, a 51-year-old Los Angeles resident who declined to give his name, told reporters that the evidence showed Baca tried “at times” to block the FBI investigation and that it was evident that the then-sheriff was “trying to protect his empire.”

The foreman said the most compelling testimony came from former Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo, who warned Baca that any attempts to stonewall the FBI in its efforts to investigate allegations of inmate abuse amounted to the federal crime of obstruction.

Deirdre Fike, the FBI’s assistant director in charge of the agency’s Los Angeles office, said Baca’s role as sheriff “required him to serve as an example. Mr. Baca failed to carry out the responsibility.”

Baca did not testify in either trial. In December, the 74-year-old retired lawman was tried on the first two counts, and prosecutors had planned a second trial on the lying count. But a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting the former sheriff, and the judge combined all three counts in the retrial.

The charges focused on a six-week period in August and September 2011 after guards at the Men’s Central Jail stumbled upon the FBI’s secret probe of alleged civil rights abuses and unjustified beatings of inmates within jail walls.

After sheriff’s deputies discovered that inmate Anthony Brown was an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators. They also went to the home of an FBI agent in charge of the investigation and illegally threatened her with arrest.

Evidence showed Baca had helped plan the illegal confrontation of the agent, even though he denied having any knowledge of the encounter when questioned by investigators 20 months later. That and other statements given under oath became the basis for the false statements charge for which Baca was convicted.

Baca’s attorney unsuccessfully argued that his client had no knowledge of what was being done in his name by subordinates, including Tanaka, the former undersheriff who is serving a five-year prison term for his conviction on obstruction of justice charges.

Last summer, Baca backed out of a plea deal on the lying count, which had called for him to serve no more than six months in prison. Anderson rejected the agreement as too lenient, prompting Baca to withdraw his plea instead of being sentenced to as much as five years behind bars.

Anderson said a six-month sentence would “trivialize” Baca’s role in setting in motion the wide-ranging scheme to obstruct justice in the jail system that did “substantial harm” to the community.

“It’s one thing to lie to an assistant U.S. attorney,” Anderson said at the conclusion of the July 2016 hearing. “It’s another for the chief law enforcement officer of Los Angeles County to … cover up abuse in Men’s Central Jail.”

Those comments gave an indication of how seriously the judge took the offenses for which Baca now stands convicted. The judge previously sentenced nine members of the conspiracy, including Tanaka, to terms ranging from six to 60 months in prison.

The FBI probe resulted in a total of 21 convictions, including 11 other former deputies convicted of federal charges mostly related to unprovoked beatings of inmates and subsequent cover-ups.

In her closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Rhodes walked the jury through a timeline of the prosecution’s case, saying Baca orchestrated the conspiracy to subvert the FBI probe into mistreatment of inmates at jails managed by the sheriff’s department, then lied to federal investigators about his involvement.

Baca “ran this conspiracy the same way he ran this department,” Rhodes said, telling jurors the ex-sheriff appointed Tanaka to oversee the scheme.

At the same time, “the sheriff was having multiple briefings because he wanted to know every little thing that was going on,” the prosecutor said.

Baca ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years before he retired in 2014 amid allegations of widespread abuse of inmates’ civil rights.

The defense contends that the ex-sheriff is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and suffered some cognitive impairment as long as six years ago. However, the judge barred Hochman from presenting medical testimony during the retrial.

A sheriff’s association official said that while the case shows the department suffered a failure in leadership under the Baca/Tanaka regime, it is important not to judge all deputies by those who were convicted.

“As we have said over and over again, today’s hard-working deputies should not be judged — or pre-judged — based on the past actions of others, just as our current sheriff and executive staff would not want to have those evaluating their actions automatically assume they are continuing the misdeeds of Baca and Tanaka,” said Ron Hernandez, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.

“Our focus will now turn to working with the department in support of hiring the best candidates possible to be deputy sheriffs and district attorney investigators,” he said.