Judge says 6 months in prison for former LA county sheriff is not enough

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. © Kevork Djansezian
A judge has rejected a plea deal that would have given former Los Angeles County sheriff up to six months in prison. Lee Baca pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during a probe of his department's attempts to cover up abuse by deputies at county jails.

US District Court Judge Percy Anderson said the plea agreement between Baca and prosecutors in the case “would trivialize the seriousness of the offenses … the need for a just punishment, the need to deter others," the Los Angeles Times reported. Anderson said Baca could withdraw his guilty plea. The deal would have meant up to six months in prison for Baca.

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The agreement required Baca, 74, to plead guilty to lying to FBI investigators during an interview in April 2013 related to department corruption and deputy conduct. During the interview, Baca had said he did not know of attempts to intimidate an FBI agent who was involved in an investigation of the LA County Sheriff's Department's conduct, specifically allegations of deputy brutality at county jails, as well as corruption accusations.

In fact, Baca had been in a meeting during which department officials discussed the plan. According to reports, he told those in the meeting that members of the department "should do everything but put handcuffs" on her.

Baca was also involved in shielding an inmate, who was an FBI informant, from meeting with bureau investigators. Baca was present during conversations with those under his command about keeping Brown hidden by the use of false names and holding him at various locations to avoid the FBI. He lied to the FBI during the interview, telling federal agents he had not been involved in such discussions, and that he did not know department actors had stopped the FBI from questioning Brown.

In agreeing to the plea deal in February, Baca, who retired in 2014, admitted only to lying about the visit to the FBI agent's home, while concurrently agreeing not to challenge other accusations made by prosecutors. 

Baca's deal had been criticized for its leniency as the former sheriff's top subordinate, Paul Tanaka, received five years in prison from Anderson. Prosecutors have painted Tanaka as the lead official in the attempts to restrict or intimidate the FBI. In April, Tanaka was found guilty for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. An attorney representing Tanaka called Baca's plea deal a "sweetheart kiss," according to reports.

Since the FBI investigation began in 2010, 21 members of the sheriff's department have been convicted of federal crimes, including abuse of inmates, obstructing justice, bribery, and conspiracy.

Baca's defense attorney had argued that Baca is in early stages of Alzheimer's disease, and that any sentence should not involve prison time. Prosecutors say the evidence of Baca's worsening condition is "slight" and that he could get proper care in prison.