LA ex-sheriff faces trial over lying to FBI during inmate abuse probe

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca © Kevork Djansezian
Former Los Angeles County sheriff Lee Baca will face trial on charges of lying to the FBI during an investigation into corruption and abuse at county jails. Baca had pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors, but the judge rejected it as too lenient.

Baca, 74, was the county sheriff from December 1998 to January 2014, when he resigned under the cloud of a federal probe into corruption and brutality by county deputies. Baca and his deputy, Paul Tanaka, were accused of lying to the FBI, hiding a Bureau informant from federal agents, and intimidating a female FBI agent involved in the investigation. Tanaka was sentenced in June to five years in prison, the maximum sentence for making a false statement to federal investigators.

In the agreement reached between Baca’s lawyers and the prosecution in February, the former sheriff would have faced only six months in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. The deal was rejected last month, however, by US District Judge Percy Anderson, who said the deal “would trivialize the seriousness of the offenses,” citing “the need for a just punishment, the need to deter others.”

Monday’s hearing was reportedly delayed until the afternoon, in hopes of hammering out another plea agreement, but nothing came of it. Rescinding his previous guilty pleas, Baca will go to trial on September 20.

The former sheriff suffers from early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, with his attorneys concerned that it might hinder his ability to take part in the proceedings. There is a possibility, if his symptoms worsen, he would be considered incompetent to stand trial.

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. Eight of them were sentenced by Judge Anderson, to terms ranging from 18 months to more than three years in prison.

In its investigation, the FBI made LA County inmate Anthony Brown into an informant, and upon realizing this, sheriff’s deputies transferred Brown to other jails under various names to evade the feds.

At one point, deputies even visited a female FBI agent’s home and threatened her with arrest, in an attempt to intimidate her and the federal agency into backing out of its inquiry. As part of his rejected plea agreement, Baca admitted to playing an integral role in the planning of the visit, instructing the underlings to “do everything but put handcuffs on” her.