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.


Former Sheriff Baca diagnosed with Alzheimer’s

LOS ANGELES — Former County Sheriff Lee Baca, who admitted lying to federal investigators during an FBI probe of corruption in the jail system, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, according to court documents filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Despite the diagnosis, however, prosecutors ask in the document that Baca still be sentenced to six months in prison, the maximum term available under his plea agreement.

According to the 20-page court filing, the 74-year-old Baca is physically fit and “able to function in his daily life,” and his Alzheimer’s diagnosis has “an uncertain prognosis for how quickly it will deteriorate his cognitive function.”

“The agreement and the six-month sentence are appropriate after taking into account all sides of defendant Baca, including his crime, his current health and his likely prognosis,” according to the document signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox.

Baca pleaded guilty Feb. 10, admitting that he lied to investigators in 2013 when he said he was unaware that sheriff’s deputies were going to the home of an FBI agent to confront and threaten her over her involvement in the corruption probe of the department.

Baca was not only aware of the 2011 plan to frighten agent Leah Marx, but specifically told the deputies they “should do everything but put handcuffs” on her, prosecutors contend.

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

According to the court filing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office “does not view defendant’s current condition as having any effect on his decision to lie to the federal government during his interview.”

Prosecutors consulted with a medical expert who reviewed Baca’s test results and clinical reports, confirming that the former sheriff is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but his cognitive impairment so far is mild. The expert concluded that Baca’s cognitive impairment will be “severe in five to 10 years.”

“While Alzheimer’s disease’s progression is hard to predict, his long-term prognosis is bleak,” according to the court document.

Prosecutors note in the court document that Baca lied to investigators to either avoid “political fallout” or to avoid criminal charges.

“Defendant’s lies showed that corruption went all the way to the top of the Sheriff’s Department,” prosecutors wrote in the document. “But his crime is not as serious as the crimes by the members of the Sheriff’s Department who were convicted of beating inmates and filing false reports in order to have people charged with offenses they did not commit.”

Prosecutors also noted there is no evidence that Baca was directly involved in efforts by his subordinates, including former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, to tamper with witnesses and hide a jail inmate-turned-FBI-informant from his federal handlers.

That inmate, Anthony Brown, was hidden from FBI handlers during a time when federal officials were conducting a probe of alleged deputy violence against prisoners. Brown was booked and re-booked under a series of false names, and was eventually told he had been abandoned by the FBI.

Baca is scheduled to be sentenced July 11.


THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Abuse turns up again in county jails

For nearly two decades, the Los Angeles County jails were virtually the nation’s poster jails for everything that could go wrong with and inside county jails.

The allegations of prisoner beatings, suspicious suicides, torture, abusive searches and seizure of property, overcrowding and even the starvation of inmates, in the county jails were the subject of countless probes and investigative articles.

As horrific as the allegations were, the even more tormenting problem was the treatment of mentally challenged inmates. The estimate was that one in five inmates in the jails suffers mental and emotional illnesses.

The jail, by default, had become the largest county facility for handling and housing the mentally ill. This is where things went wrong, terribly wrong.

The mentally ill inmates were routinely harassed, abused and neglected. Facilities and trained mental health professionals to provide treatment and care to these inmates were virtually non-existent.

Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors pretty much accepted sheriff’s officials’ assurances that the abuses either didn’t exist or where there were problems were being fixed. Things came to a head when the feds stepped in and issued report after report confirming the worst of the worst of conditions at the jails.

Dozens of sheriff’s deputies and sheriff’s officials were fingered for either encouraging or turning a blind eye to the horrific conditions. Eventually, more than a dozen former members of the sheriff’s department, including deputies, were convicted on charges of civil rights violations.

Former sheriff’s Capt. William Carey and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka were also arrested. They are currently awaiting trial. Despite the long and sordid history of jail house abuse, it still took much pressure from prison reform advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union, class-action lawsuits, the courts, and the Justice Department for Sheriff’s Department officials to finally buckle and agree to implement sweeping reforms, all under federal court oversight and monitoring.

But even that hasn’t removed the ugly glare from the jails. Now there’s the report that in their hunt for contraband and other illicit possessions at one of the jail facilities, guards routinely chained inmates to walls in bathrooms while they conducted strip searches or forced them to expel objects from their bodies. This took hours and an untold number of inmates suffered serious injuries including internal bleeding and bruised and battered ankles and wrists.

Just how long this practice had gone on, and who ordered that this torture be used, is still undetermined. However, the fact is that it was not an isolated practice and that it went on long enough to be regarded as standard operating procedure in the guards’ method of tracking down contraband.

The procedure was spelled out in writing as a required method of dealing with contraband searches. Sheriff’s Department officials say that they’ve ended the practice and that inmates will not be chained to walls while searched.

Federal oversight will ensure that when an abuse goes public, jail officials will act.

Yet there’s a bigger problem that even the most aggressive federal monitoring can’t correct with the L.A. County jails, and indeed other county jails nationally. The brutal reality is that there are still far too many persons being jailed for far too long often for drug and other petty crimes and they have mental challenges.

This ensures continued and massive overcrowding and that almost invites the types of abuses that repeatedly crop up in local jails. The stats tell the grim tale of mass over incarceration.

Last year, the overall state prison population nationally took a slight dip from its peak of 1.4 million in 2009. Yet, cities and counties incarcerated three timesas many people in local jails as they did in 1980.

The bulging numbers in county jails have long been evident in the L.A. County jails, which year in and year out house more inmates than any other jail system in the nation. That number will go higher with changes in California law forced by prison overcrowding that now mandate more prisoners be held in county jails.

The Obama administration has pressed hard for implementing initiatives to reduce the jail and prison population. However, the reforms are mostly at the federal level and are largely centered on reducing the number of those jailed for petty drug crimes.

For now, this will have almost no impact on the number of offenders in local jails. But it’s a start.

Nearly two dozen states have taken some steps toward reform by increased funding for treatment, drug diversion and probation options to jailing.

There is much talk by the supervisors about spending a couple of billion dollars to build a new jail complete with a treatment center for the legions of mentally ill inmates and ramping up treatment diversion programs for those inmates. So far it’s just talk.

These are common sense, long overdue proposals, among others, though, that should be implemented if the L.A. County jails are ever to get out from under the ugly glare of abuse.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “Trump and the GOP: Race Baiting to the White House” (Amazon Kindle). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.