In a huge reversal of fortune, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca today was found guilty of “obstructing a federal investigation into abuses in county jails and lying to cover up the interference.”
The jury verdict comes after years of investigation into corruption at Los Angeles County jails, a withdrawn guilty plea, and a mistrial. Baca pled guilty in February 2016 to one count of making false statements to federal investigators, and the US Attorney agreed to not seek more than a six-month sentence. When the judge hearing the plea agreement said he thought that sentence was too lenient, Baca withdrew his plea and went to trial in December. That trial ended with a hung jury, who were deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal.
Baca, now 74, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He was convicted of three felony counts: obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and making false statements to federal investigators. In August 2011, FBI agents were investigating allegations of corruption and inmate abuse in the jails “when sheriff’s officials discovered that FBI agents had bribed a deputy to smuggle a cellphone to their inmate informant [Anthony Brown], a convicted violent felon.”
Baca…seethed over what he saw as an incursion into his territory, prosecutors said. His anger fueled a deliberate effort to subvert the FBI and the grand jury impaneled to hear the evidence gathered by the agents.
Shortly after the discovery he called a meeting and instructed deputies to keep Brown safe while they investigated how the phone was smuggled in, but prosecutors argued that the instructions were a cover for bad intentions.
In the ensuing weeks, Brown’s name was erased from jail computer systems and he was re-booked in various facilities under fabricated aliases — a deception done with Baca’s knowledge that was meant to keep the FBI from finding their informant, former sheriff’s officials testified at trial.
Baca, prosecutors alleged, was also part of a decision to send deputies to the house of the lead FBI agent in the case in an attempt to intimidate her. And he was kept abreast of attempts by members of the group to pressure and cajole deputies and Brown to dissuade them from cooperating with the federal investigation, according to prosecution testimony at trial.
In addition to the jail corruption and inmate abuse issues, Baca was known to essentially sell concealed carry permits (by awarding them to political donors who had questionable “good cause”) and through a “Special Reserve Deputy” program in which he made “celebrities, executives, star athletes, and a variety of other notables” deputies.
Sheriff Lee Baca has total discretion over who is allowed to get a permit, and he hasn’t given out many. As of May 2012, only 341 people had been granted them, according to sheriff’s records. Compare that with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which had 1,754 permit holders in 2011, despite a population of just 2 million people to L.A.’s 10 million
In L.A. County, records show, most of the permits go to judges and reserve deputies. But there is another group that seems to have better luck than most in obtaining permits: friends of Lee Baca. Those who’ve given the sheriff gifts or donated to his campaign are disproportionately represented on the roster of permit holders.
Prosecutors worked their way up the chain of command to build the case against Baca, building their strongest case against his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, and numerous former deputies testified, including former Lt. Greg Thompson, who was convicted of obstruction. Thompson said:
…he had been prepared to send Brown to state prison, but that Baca ordered him to keep the FBI informant in the county jails run by the Sheriff’s Department.
And Thompson added a previously unknown detail to a conversation he had with the sheriff. After FBI agents were allowed into the jail to speak with Brown despite orders that he be kept from visitors, Thompson went to the sheriff’s office to apologize.
Baca, he said, was calm and told Thompson the slip-up was part of a “chess game” — a statement prosecutors said pointed to Baca’s attempt to outmaneuver federal officials.
Baca faces up to 20 years in federal prison. His sentencing will take place at a later date.