Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted Wednesday of three 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.
Jurors reached the verdict this afternoon, in their second full day of deliberations in Baca’s retrial. The eight-man, four-woman jury got the case Monday afternoon after hearing nine days of testimony involving more than a dozen witnesses.
Baca was convicted of all three counts with which he was charged — obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and making false statements to the FBI — and faces up to 20 years in federal prison, according to prosecutors.
The 74-year-old retired lawman was tried in December 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, which
began Feb. 22 with jury selection.
The charges partly stemmed from a 2011 incident in which two sheriff’s investigators confronted an FBI agent in the driveway leading into her apartment and falsely told her they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest. Baca denied having advance knowledge of the illegal attempt to intimidate the agent.
Nine former sheriff’s officials, including Baca’s top deputy, Paul Tanaka, have been convicted in the case.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox used a chess analogy, calling Baca “a king” who used his subordinates as chess pieces in a tit-for-tat between the Sheriff’s Department and the FBI.
“The pawns and bishops go out to attack and do all the dirty work” Fox said, adding that Baca was now “trying to disown everything that happened.”
Nathan Hochman, Baca’s lawyer, countered that there was no chess game.
“This wasn’t even a checkers game,” he said.
Hochman repeatedly pinned blame for the obstruction on Tanaka, who has already been convicted and is serving five years in federal prison.
Hochman insisted Baca did nothing to subvert the probe, but he actually “wanted to join the federal investigation.”
However, a second prosecutor insisted Baca was not only guilty, but was especially culpable given his decades of experience in law enforcement.
“That experience is damning — not a positive — when you talk about committing these crimes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Rhodes told the jury as she summed up the government’s case.
Rhodes walked the jury through a timeline of the prosecution’s case, saying Baca orchestrated a conspiracy to derail 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.
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca withdrew his guilty plea to a federal corruption charge Monday and will go to trial, with a court date tentatively set for September.
After a morning of delays and last-minute negotiations, Baca told U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson he wished to withdraw from an agreement in which the retired lawman had pleaded guilty to a false statements charge, which ordinarily carries a possible five-year prison sentence.
The plea deal called for Baca to serve no more than six months behind bars.
With the ex-sheriff backing out of the deal, prosecutors said they would file an updated indictment against Baca and call him back into court for arraignment. Anderson set pretrial hearings on Sept. 6 and 12, and a Sept. 20 trial date, but that is expected to be postponed.
“For the peace of my family, to avoid a lengthy and expensive trial and to minimize the court drama associated with this case, several months ago I entered a guilty plea to one charge filed against me – be very clear, one charge,” Baca said outside the courthouse Monday. “Today I’m withdrawing my guilty plea and will seek a trial.”
“Why? I made this decision due to untruthful comments about my actions made by the court and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that are contradicted by evidence in this case,” Baca said. “While my future and my ability to defend myself depends on my Alzheimer’s disease, I need to set the record straight about me and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on misleading aspects of the federal investigation while I’m capable of doing this.”
“I want to thank my friends and family for encouraging me to stand up for what is right. My spirits are high and my love for all people is God’s gift to me.”
Going into Monday’s hearing, Baca faced a choice of either withdrawing his guilty plea and proceeding to trial or being sentenced on the false statements charge.
Two weeks ago, Anderson rejected the plea deal that would have given Baca a maximum of six months in prison, saying the sentence was too lenient considering the retired lawman’s role in obstructing an FBI investigation into Los Angeles County jails. Anderson said the deal “would trivialize the seriousness of the offenses.”
Baca’s attorney, Michael Zweiback, told the judge that both sides had failed to find a resolution that would not involve withdrawing the plea.
Asked by Anderson if he wanted to take back his plea, Baca responded, “Yes, your honor.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the court that the government would file a new indictment “in the not too distant future.”
Zweiback said he expected that indictment to include a range of charges similar to those that were filed against former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
Zweiback also indicated that his 74-year-old client faced a “significant illness issue” which could affect future proceedings. Baca has been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’;s disease.
Anderson said at the July hearing that he would not accept a six-month prison sentence for a defendant who had played a key role in a wide-ranging obstruction attempt that did “substantial harm” to the community.
“It’s one thing to lie to an assistant U.S. attorney,” Anderson said.
“It’s another for the chief law enforcement officer of Los Angeles County to… cover up abuse in Men’s Central Jail.”
To impose the penalty “would not address the gross abuse of the public’s trust,” the judge said, adding that such a punishment “understates the seriousness of the offense.
Baca argued in court papers for a probationary sentence, claiming his medical condition and law enforcement career make him susceptible to abuse while in custody.
“He is suffering from Alzheimer’s, which has become advanced and it’s a very significant and concerning time for him about what he should do next,” Zweiback said Monday outside court.
Federal prosecutors countered that the county’s former top lawman deserves prison time for falsely telling investigators in 2013 that 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 probe of corruption
within the department.
The same year Baca committed the offense, he was named Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriffs’ Association.
The rejected plea agreement — which one of Anderson’s colleagues on the federal bench recently called “troubling” – was widely seen as too lenient.
Hundreds of letters in support of probation for Baca were filed with the court.
Baca pleaded guilty Feb. 10 after denying for years that he had played any role in the wide-ranging scandal that stained the department and led to his retirement.
“I made a mistake and accept being held accountable,” Baca said in a written statement issued on the courthouse steps following his plea hearing.
In the now-rejected plea agreement, Baca agreed not to contest other allegations leveled by prosecutors, including that in 2011 he directed subordinates to approach the FBI agent, stating that they should “do everything but put handcuffs” on her.
Prosecutors also accused Baca of lying about his involvement in hiding a jail inmate from FBI investigators. Baca, they alleged, ordered the inmate to be isolated, putting his second-in-command, Tanaka, in charge of executing the plan.
In addition, Baca falsely claimed he was unaware that some of his subordinates had interrupted and ended an interview FBI agents were conducting with the inmate, who was working as a federal informant, prosecutors alleged in the court documents.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
Prosecutors have said that Baca lied to investigators to either avoid “political fallout” or to avoid more severe criminal charges.
Tanaka’s 60-month prison sentence is the longest stretch of any defendant in the obstruction case. Seven former sheriff’s lieutenants, sergeants and deputies convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice received prison sentences ranging from 18 to 41 months. Their appeal was
recently heard by the circuit court in Pasadena.
Lawyers for Ron Calderon allege in court papers that federal corruption charges against their client should be thrown out because prosecutors engaged in “outrageous government conduct” by leaking a sealed, 124-page affidavit detailing the FBI’s investigation of the ex-state senator to a cable news network, according to documents obtained Thursday.
Although Calderon’s defense believes the alleged 2013 leak to Al Jazeera America warrants dismissal of the 24-count indictment, his attorneys are asking the judge to conduct a pre-trial evidentiary hearing as an alternative.
At such a hearing, “the defense will establish conclusively that the government can have been the only source of the leak of a 124-page sealed affidavit to Al Jazeera, and that said leak has irreparably prejudiced Senator Calderon,” attorney Mark Geragos wrote in the Tuesday filing.
Many of the allegations against Calderon, including details of the government’s probe of the ex-senator, were revealed by Al Jeezara months before he and his brother were named in a February 2014 grand jury indictment.
An evidentiary hearing would “compel the attendance and testimony of the Al Jazeera reporters connected to the article that included the leaked affidavit,” Geragos wrote.
Prosecutors are expected to file their response to the motion before a July 13 hearing to discuss the matter and other pretrial issues.
“The government is the only plausible source of the illegal leak,” according to the new filing. “Put another way, at the time of the leak, nobody, other than the government, had access to the sealed affidavit.”
“Moreover, Senator Calderon’s defense notes that there has been a history of alleged leaks emanating from the U.S. Attorney’s Office … including in high-profile matters such as the doping investigation of cyclist Lance Armstrong,” Geragos contends. “Similarly, the U.S .Attorney’s Office is keenly aware of how important secrecy is to certain phases of criminal prosecution.”
In case of trial, the attorney argues, “it is unquestionable that the leaked affidavit will be republished by virtually every media outlet, thereby creating further, irreparable prejudice.”
The Oct. 30, 2013 Al Jazeera article contains descriptions and names of numerous potential witnesses, the nature of the allegations against Calderon, details of the investigation, and purported conversations with the former politician.
The article mentions that the affidavit was “still under seal.”
Geragos contends that as of this week, the U.S. Department of Justice
was still investigating the leak.
In other defense filings in the case, an attorney for the ex-state senator’s brother and co-defendant, onetime Assemblyman Tom Calderon, have asked that their client be tried separately.
Shepard Kopp is requesting that U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder consider separating the brothers’ trials or severing the eight counts in which the former assemblyman is charged from the counts leveled against the ex-state senator.
Snyder recently granted a third delay in the start of the trial, from Aug. 11 to March 1 of next year.
The brothers were indicted on two-dozen counts, which include wire fraud, mail fraud, honest services fraud, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering, and aiding in the filing of false tax returns.
Ron Calderon is accused of accepting $80,000 in bribes, as well as gourmet meals and golf outings, from a medical company owner and an undercover FBI agent posing as a film executive.
He was suspended from the Senate in March 2014, and his term in office ended in November.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas M. Miller has indicated that a superseding indictment containing additional criminal charges could be forthcoming.