LOS ANGELES — Four days after withdrawing from a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was indicted Aug. 5 on charges of conspiring to obstruct justice, obstructing justice and lying to the federal government.
If convicted of all charges, Baca — who is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease — could face up to 20 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
On Aug. 1, Baca backed out of a plea deal he reached with prosecutors earlier this year. The deal had called for Baca, 74, to serve no more than six months behind bars on a single count of lying to the FBI. But U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson balked at the agreement, saying the sentence was too lenient considering the retired lawman’s role in obstructing an FBI investigation into Los Angeles County jails.
Rather than face a penalty of up to five years in prison, Baca opted to withdraw his guilty plea — opening him up to a more wide-ranging indictment.
“I made this decision due to untruthful comments about my actions made by the court and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that are contradicted by evidence in this case,” Baca said outside court Aug. 1. “While my future and my ability to defend myself depends on my Alzheimer’s disease, I need to set the record straight about me and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on misleading aspects of the federal investigation while I’m capable of doing this.”
“I want to thank my friends and family for encouraging me to stand up for what is right. My spirits are high and my love for all people is God’s gift to me.”
The indictment handed up Aug. 5 by a federal grand jury charges Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — with single counts of conspiracy to obstruct a federal grand jury investigation, obstruction of justice and making false statements.
A date for Baca to appear for a post-indictment arraignment has not yet been set. Anderson set pretrial hearings for next month as well as a Sept. 20 trial date, but that is expected to be postponed.
Baca’s attorney, Michael Zweiback, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case against Baca grew out of a covert FBI investigation into corruption and brutality by jail deputies. After sheriff’s officials discovered that an 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 and threatened her with arrest.
Ten former Sheriff’s Department officials — including Baca’s ex-top deputy, Paul Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case.
Tanaka, who claimed his former boss ordered the department’s response to the federal jails probe, was sentenced to five years in prison.
Baca had initially pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to investigators about his knowledge of the plan to threaten the FBI agent. That false statements count is one of the three felonies Baca is now facing.
Baca entered his plea Feb. 10 after denying for years that he had played any role in the wide-ranging scandal that stained the department and led to his retirement.
According to the now-defunct agreement, Baca agreed not to contest other allegations leveled by prosecutors, including that in 2011 he directed subordinates to approach the FBI agent, stating that they should “do everything but put handcuffs” on her.
Prosecutors also accused Baca of lying about his involvement in hiding the inmate-turned-informant from FBI investigators. Baca, they alleged, ordered the inmate to be isolated, putting Tanaka in charge of executing the plan.
In addition, Baca falsely claimed he was unaware that some of his subordinates had interrupted and ended an interview FBI agents were conducting with the inmate, prosecutors alleged in the court documents.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
Prosecutors have said that Baca lied to investigators to either avoid “political fallout” or to avoid more severe criminal charges.
The same year Baca allegedly committed the offense, he was named Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriffs’ Association.
George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said he was pleased that Baca had been indicted.
“Baca knew what was going on, and he perpetuated and encouraged the culture,” the union leader said. “When confronted with the mess he had created, Baca blamed his subordinates instead of taking responsibility as a leader should.
“Seven lower-ranking sheriff’s officials were sent to prison for 18 months to several years for their roles in the scandal,” Hofstetter said.
Tanaka received a five-year prison sentence last month after being convicted in a related obstruction-of-justice case. “The former sheriff deserves no less,” Hofstetter added.
On Aug. 4, a federal judicial panel upheld the convictions of seven former Sheriff’s Department officials convicted of attempting to block the FBI probe into civil rights abuses at county jails.
Greg Thompson, Steve Leavins, Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo, Scott Craig, Maricela Long and James Sexton were sentenced to terms ranging from 18 to 41 months in prison, but were allowed to remain free pending appeal.
Leavins, Craig and Long were members of the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, a unit that investigates criminal activity by Sheriff’s Department employees. Leavins was a lieutenant, while Craig and Long were sergeants. Thompson was a lieutenant who oversaw Operation Safe Jails, a division that investigates inmates in which Smith, Manzo and Sexton were deputies.
Smith, Manzo, Long, Craig, Leavins and Thompson were all convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in July 2014. Long and Craig were also convicted of making false statements. Sexton, who was tried separately, was convicted on all counts after his first trial ended in a mistrial.
Tanaka is free pending his appeal.