LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal charge of lying to investigators during an FBI probe of corruption in the jail system.
Under a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Baca could receive up to six months in federal prison. Sentencing was scheduled for May 16.
Baca admitted before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson to lying 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.
During the hearing, the judge asked Baca if he was pleading guilty “because you are, in fact, guilty.”
Wearing a brown suit decorated with a small sheriff’s department pin, Baca responded, “Yes, your honor.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the court that Baca had acted “deliberately and with knowledge that the statement was untrue” and knew he was breaking the law.
According to his plea agreement, Baca waived appeal unless Anderson sentences him to more than six months in prison.
The false statements count carries a potential five-year maximum sentence, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.
“This case illustrates that leaders who foster and then try to hide a corrupt culture will be held accountable,” said Eileen Decker, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
Outside court, defense attorney Michael Zweiback read a portion of a statement from Baca, which read in part, “I made a mistake, I accept responsibility and expect to be held accountable.”
He added that Baca “felt it was time to accept responsibility and he didn’t want this cloud to continue to be held over the sheriff’s department. This is a man with a 58-year reputation in law enforcement. He does not deserve prison time.”
Baca declined to answer questions from reporters outside court.
Baca is the latest — and highest-ranking — department official to be enveloped in the corruption scandal stemming from violence in the jail system. Baca, 73, retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
“I want to be clear that this is not a day of celebration for us,” Decker said. “It is indeed a sad day when the leader of a law enforcement agency fails to honor his oath and instead of upholding justice, decides to obstruct it.”
She also hailed the work being done by new Sheriff Jim McDonnell to overhaul the operation of and culture within the jail system.
“There is a new sheriff,” she said. “He and his team are making reforms, including in the jails.”
McDonnell said the unfolding of the federal investigation and subsequent criminal charges have been trying for the department.
“But most important, I have learned through my personal experience with this proud organization that our deputies and professional staff remain focused and committed to moving forward by continuing to perform their essential public service in a professional and caring manner,” McDonnell said.
Although Baca’s plea is seen as a culmination of the corruption probe, Decker said federal authorities will remain vigilant in their oversight of the department.
Prosecutors on Tuesday entered into an agreement ending a pending case against sheriff’s Deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez. They were convicted of falsifying records documenting the 2009 beating of a handcuffed inmate, but acquitted of a federal civil rights charge and jurors deadlocked on a charge of excessive force. Prosecutors had planned to re-try them, but under the agreement, the excessive force charge will be dismissed, and the deputies will receive prison terms of between 21 and 27 months.
Aguiar and Ramirez were the latest of 21 current and former sheriff’s officials to be tried by federal authorities in connection with the FBI’s multi-year investigation into brutality and other misconduct in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Decker said Baca will represent the 18th conviction in the probe.
The corruption probe previously went only as high as Paul Tanaka, the former undersheriff, who faces trial in March on conspiracy charges for allegedly managing a secret plan in 2011 to “hide” an inmate-turned-informant from FBI handlers during the jails probe.
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.
Eight former sheriff’s department officials — including a captain, two lieutenants and two sergeants — were convicted for their roles in the cover-up.
All claimed they had been following orders from superiors in assisting a legitimate investigation into how and why a cell phone had been smuggled into the Men’s Central Jail.
Tanaka and retired captain Tom Carey, who headed an internal investigations unit, were charged in May with the alleged attempt to derail the federal jails probe.
Carey pleaded guilty last year to a charge of lying on the witness stand during the 2014 trial of former Deputy James Sexton, who was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for trying to obstruct the jails investigation.
Tanaka’s attorneys, Jerome Haig and H. Dean Steward, issued a statement saying Baca’s plea deal makes the case “all the more interesting,” but they are still prepared to call Baca as a witness during Tanaka’s trial.
“We had planned to call Sheriff Baca as a witness and that continues to be our plan,” according to the attorneys. “His guilty plea changes nothing for our defense. Paul Tanaka has pled not guilty firmly, and we look forward to our day in court.”
In response to the federal probe, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors created the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, a panel which examined alleged brutality by deputies in the jail. The commission’s scathing report recommended more than 60 reforms. All of them have been enacted, including the creation of the Office of Inspector General.
The county has also agreed to create a Civilian Oversight Commission that will oversee the department. The Board of Supervisors last month approved a process for selecting members of the panel.
George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union representing sheriff’s deputies, said Baca “deserves punishment” for his actions.
“The plea agreement sends a strong message that no one is above the law,” he said. “There must be zero tolerance for this type of failed leadership. This by no means undermines the dedication and hard work of the more than 9,000 deputy sheriffs who put their lives on the line protecting L.A. County residents.
“With this admission of guilt, the environment that created this type of corruption is out of the department and we begin a new day of restoring confidence and trust,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California — which filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Baca and his top commanders in 2012 over the alleged use of excessive force by jail guards against county jail inmates — applauded today’s action.
“Los Angeles County’s jails have been plagued by unlawful violence for decades,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. “Much of the blame for that violence must be shouldered by former Sheriff Lee Baca, who failed to confront this abuse and the horrific conditions inside the jail despite repeated calls for reform by the ACLU SoCal.
“Today, Baca pleaded guilty to making false statements,” Villagra said. “We are heartened to see that those charged with enforcing the law are also expected to obey it, including the former sheriff and his deputies.”