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.

 

Jurors ‘hopelessly deadlocked,’ mistrial declared in Baca trial

LOS ANGELES — With jurors saying they were hopelessly deadlocked, a judge declared a mistrial Dec. 22 in the federal corruption trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, saying the possibility of “coercion” played a role in his decision.

The mistrial came on the fourth day of deliberations by the six-man, six-woman jury in downtown Los Angeles. Earlier in the day, attorneys in the case had a nearly hour-long series of private, sidebar discussions with the judge that at times included one of the jurors and Baca.

At the time, there was no public announcement of what the discussions entailed, despite objections from some members of the media in the courtroom audience.

The jury went back into the deliberations room around 2 p.m., and within 30 minutes, they sent a note to U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who brought the panel into court. Jurors then announced they were hopelessly deadlocked.

Anderson asked the panel if additional deliberations might break the logjam, but jurors unanimously indicated that further discussions would be fruitless.

Anderson declared the panel “hopelessly deadlocked” and dismissed the jury. The judge suggested that the “complexity” of the case, particularly difficulty grasping the concept of “intent,” played a role in the jury’s inability to reach a decision. He said he also considered possibly effects of exhaustion.

Without elaborating, Anderson added, “I’ve considered the possible effect of coercion — there was a manifest necessity to declare a mistrial in this case. … I believe the ends of the public are served by declaring a mistrial.”

One juror told reporters the panel was split 11-1 — in favor of acquittal.

The jury deliberated for a total of about 24 hours over the course of four days, following roughly two weeks of testimony.

Prosecutors will have to decide whether to seek a retrial on the charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to immediately comment.

Anderson scheduled another hearing in the case for Jan. 10.

Outside the courthouse, Baca said he felt “great.”

“The nature of this jury’s intense scrutiny of the whole facts in the case was extraordinary,” Baca said.

He thanked jurors for their service, saying, “This is what America thrives on — is jurors that really care.” He added that the jurors took the case “extraordinarily to heart.”

Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, said prosecutors tried to tarnish Baca’s reputation, but “thankfully 11 out of 12 jurors found that argument came up short.”

One juror said she couldn’t find a “smoking gun” proving Baca’s guilt.

“That’s what we kept on looking for was the actual axe to fall on Baca,” she said. “Even when I was taking notes I kept … looking for Baca’s name and trying to link it to guilt, and could not come to that conclusion.”

Another juror added, “I don’t feel there was any evidence that showed that Mr. Baca was guilty. Unfortunately we were unable to set that in stone and we were a hung jury.”

Baca is accused of conspiring to commit, and committing, obstruction of justice from August to September 2011, partly stemming from the incident in which two sheriff’s investigators confronted the FBI agent in the driveway leading into her apartment and falsely told her that they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest.

The charges against Baca focus on a period of time five years ago when sheriff’s deputies based 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 guards discovered that inmate Anthony Brown was secretly working as an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators who wanted to use him as a federal grand jury witness.

Prosecutors contend Baca so resented the federal government’s secret jails probe that he attempted to force the FBI to back down by illegally having deputies confront the agent. The prosecution also alleges that Baca ignored years of complaints about excessive force used illegally against jail inmates in county facilities managed by the Sheriff’s Department.

Baca, 74, also faces a third count — making false statements to federal investigators in April 2013, which will be the subject of a second trial.

Prosecutors contend Baca lied to the FBI about his knowledge of department efforts to subvert a federal probe into corruption and inmate abuse in the jail system.

The judge split the trial into two parts after he agreed to allow testimony by an expert on dementia — but only as it relates to the false-statements charge. Anderson agreed to hold a separate trial on those counts so the jury could hear the medical testimony.

Baca is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

In closing arguments in the trial, a prosecutor told jurors that Baca “authorized and condoned” the conspiracy, but the defense threw blame on Baca’s former second-in-command.

In his summation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the panel that during Baca’s years as sheriff, he “abused the power given to him by the people of Los Angeles County” by ignoring evidence of brutality against jail inmates and working to ensure “dirty deputies” were not brought to justice.

“He wanted to ensure that no outside law enforcement would police the jails,” Fox said.

Jurors also heard accusations from the prosecution that the retired lawman was the “heartbeat” of the sheriff department’s illicit response to the federal grand jury probe. Hochman countered that it was former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka who was to blame for the department’s actions.

The then-sheriff “was not the driving force,” Hochman said, telling jurors that Baca had no idea that Tanaka was running things. Tanaka was sentenced to five years in prison and is expected to begin serving his time next month.

Hochman told the jury that the government had “completely failed” to prove its case and had included graphic testimony of jail violence “to poison your mind” against his client.

Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.

 

 

Judge denies request to move former sheriff’s trial

LOS ANGELES — A judge rejected a defense motion Oct. 31 to move the corruption case against former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca out of the region, and turned down an attempt to have the lead prosecutor taken off the forthcoming trial.

In a nearly two-hour hearing, defense attorney Nathan Hochman argued that pretrial publicity, specifically dealing with his client’s guilty plea, has “saturated” the community, making it impossible to find an impartial jury.

“This is what the media has feasted upon — that a sheriff of L.A. County has said, ‘I’m guilty,’” Hochman said, referring to Baca’s now-defunct plea deal in which the retired lawman came to court in February and pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators.

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eddie Jauregui countered that the media also reported on the reasons Baca gave for withdrawing from the plea deal, and argued that juror prejudice could not be presumed for the entire judicial district, the nation’s largest.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson pointed out that in the trial of Baca’s second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, it was “not difficult” to find potential jurors.

Baca’s plea hearing was not a dramatic event “likely to be imprinted in the minds of [potential] jurors,” the judge said before denying the motion.

A trial date of Dec. 6 has been set in the case, in which Baca faces federal obstruction of justice charges that carry a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

A motion for the recusal of Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox — who spearheaded successful prosecutions of Tanaka and other former Sheriff’s Department officials — was also denied.

Fox, the defense argued, could be called to the stand as a potential witness for Baca to discuss the interview his office had with the ex-sheriff that resulted in the plea deal.

Using a football analogy that amused some members of the audience, Anderson said the defense attorney’s attempt to disqualify Fox was akin to the sort of motion “the Buffalo Bills might make to try and disqualify [rival New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady.”

The judge pointed out that there were a handful of others who attended the meeting with prosecutors that could be called to the witness stand in place of Fox.

“This motion seems to be aimed at eliminating a member of the prosecution team,” Anderson said.

Baca is charged with helping to obstruct a federal probe into misconduct by jail deputies. Prosecutors contend he conspired with others, lied to the federal government and attempted to derail a 2011 covert FBI investigation into corruption and brutality by guards at Men’s Central Jail.

Hochman says the 74-year-old ex-lawman is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was impaired by the illness at the time of the charged offenses five years ago.

In August, Anderson ordered a psychological examination to determine if Baca suffers from any mental impairment that would prevent him from understanding the corruption charges against him or assisting in his own defense. While that issue is expected to be discussed at a Nov. 21 hearing, the judge ruled that the results of the examination be filed under seal.

A different judge recently denied Baca’s attempt to disqualify Anderson, who has overseen other high-profile cases involving the FBI investigation into civil rights abuses at county jails.

Defense attorneys had argued that Anderson was already convinced of Baca’s guilt. However, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright denied the motion and responded in an 11-page order that Baca’s concerns were unfounded.

Baca previously backed out of a plea deal on the lying count — which called for him to serve no more than six months in prison — after Anderson rejected the agreement as too lenient. If Baca had not withdrawn from the plea, he could have been handed a sentence of five years behind bars.

He was subsequently indicted on the new charges. Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.

Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — claims he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that Tanaka was in charge of the operation. Ten ex-sheriff’s officials — including Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case.

Tanaka, who alleges his former boss initiated the plan, was sentenced by Anderson to five years in prison, but is free pending appeal.

Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.

A federal appellate panel upheld the convictions of seven former sheriff’s department officials convicted in the conspiracy.