Prosecutors Seek Two-Year Prison Term for Baca

April 27, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Prosecutors are seeking a two-year prison term for ex-Sheriff Lee Baca for conspiring to obstruct a federal grand jury investigation into civil rights abuses and corruption within Los Angeles County jails, but the defense is asking for a sentence of home detention, court papers obtained Tuesday show.

Baca, 74, was convicted March 15 of obstruction of justice and two other federal charges for his role in the scheme to thwart the FBI probe into inmate mistreatment in the jails he ran and of lying to the bureau.

After about two days of deliberations, a criminal jury in downtown Los Angeles – the second to hear the case – found that Baca authorized and condoned a multi-part scheme that now has resulted in the conviction of 10 former members of the Sheriff’s Department.

During his two trials, prosecutors described Baca as being the top figure in the conspiracy, which also involved his right-hand man, Paul Tanaka, and eight deputies who took orders from the sheriff.

In helping derail the federal probe, Baca “abused the great power the citizens of Los Angeles County had given him,” while false statements made during a sworn interview with investigators was a “deliberate attempt to deflect blame and place it entirely on the shoulders of others within his department,” the prosecution wrote in pre-sentencing documents.

Normally, the government would recommend a prison sentence of three to four years for the convictions. But due to Baca’s age and cognitive condition, “the interests of justice will not be served by defendant spending many years behind bars in a severely impaired state,” the document states.

In its papers, the defense cited Baca’s decades of public service, diagnosis of early stage Alzheimer’s disease and “peripheral” role in the conspiracy to support a probationary term in home detention with community service.

Attorney Nathan Hochman asked the judge to consider “an individual with one of this country’s most exceptional public service careers spanning over almost 50 years, an individual who suffers from the incurable and rapidly progressing and debilitating mental health disease of Alzheimer’s, and an individual for whom prison will not allow him to obtain medical care in the most effective manner and will subject him to especially harsh treatment due to his medical condition as well to his age and former position as LASD Sheriff.”

Baca – who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years – faces up to 20 years in federal prison when he is sentenced May 12 by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson.

The retired lawman was first tried in December on obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice counts, and prosecutors had planned a second trial on the false statements count. But a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting the former sheriff, and Anderso combined all three counts in the retrial. Baca did not take the stand in either trial.

While physically fit and able to function in his daily life, prosecutors wrote, Baca now faces “an uncertain prognosis for how quickly his mild cognitive impairment will advance.”

In his argument for a non-custodial sentence, Hochman wrote that Baca’s condition would be best treated outside of prison.

Baca became sheriff in December 1998 and won re-election on several occasions. He was poised to run again in 2014, but federal indictments unsealed in December 2013, related to excessive force in the jails and obstruction of that investigation, led Baca to retire the following month.


Tanaka Convicted in Sheriff’s Dept. Corruption Case

April 7, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The former second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was convicted Wednesday of obstructing a federal probe of misconduct in the county jails.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, 57, was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson scheduled sentencing for June 20.

Tanaka, who is the mayor of Gardena, faces up to 15 years in federal prison. U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker declined to say how much prison time she would push for, but said she hoped it would be “considerable.”

Decker said jurors have “spoken loudly, they’ve spoken swiftly,” adding that Tanaka and other top leadership at the department contributed to a culture of lawlessness.

“It was an issue of leadership,” Decker said. “This could have been stopped at any time.”

The panel deliberated for less than three hours over two days before reaching the verdict.

Tanaka declined to comment as he left the courthouse. Defense attorney Jerome Haig said he will appeal.

“The verdict is only another step in the process,” Haig said. “We plan on appealing the eventual sentence in this case, and we’re hopeful that a court of appeals will view the evidence in a way more favorable to Mr. Tanaka.”

Federal prosecutors said Tanaka directed eight co-conspirators in a scheme to thwart a 2011 investigation into allegations of excessive force within the jail system.

“This was Paul Tanaka’s operation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the jury during his closing argument. “He was the director, he was in charge.”

Painting the defendant as a man of “many faces,” Fox said Tanaka worked to “overrule and undermine” the goals of the sheriff’s department, acting as the “authority everyone was operating under to engage in this conspiracy.”

The case stemmed from events five years ago when a cellphone was discovered in the hands of an inmate at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone to the FBI, which had been conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.

At that point, sheriff’s officials “closed ranks” – at the direction of Tanaka – and began an attempt to halt the formerly covert investigation by concealing the inmate-informant, Anthony Brown, from federal prosecutors, who had issued a writ for his grand jury appearance, prosecutors said.

The charges included a host of “overt acts” – including witness tampering and threatening an FBI case agent with arrest.

EGP photo archive

EGP photo archive

A defense attorney, however, argued that much of the prosecution testimony was motivated by jealousy, delivered by retired sheriff’s deputies with personal grudges against Tanaka.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is not a crime to be a strong leader,” defense attorney H. Dean Steward said in his summation. “Paul Tanaka was a pro-active, strong leader. He ruffled some feathers. He’s had some people that don’t like his leadership style and don’t like him. But that’s not a crime.”

Steward told the jury that ex-sheriff Lee Baca – Tanaka’s boss at the time – “was in control of this entire situation.”

The attorney said it was Baca who demanded that his underlings “make sure that Anthony Brown stay in the jail system,” rather than transfer to state prison, where he was headed in August 2011.

“Baca was the driving force here, with Paul Tanaka trying to help out with bits and pieces” of information, Steward told the panel.

“Baca is pushing everybody – and I mean everybody,” the attorney said, suggesting that if his client believed that the sheriff’s orders were “reasonable and lawful,” then there was no criminal intent on Tanaka’s part.

Without intent, Steward said, “you’re not guilty.”

But in his rebuttal, Fox countered that Baca’s role “has nothing to do with the guilt of Paul Tanaka.”

Baca, the prosecutor continued, “made Paul Tanaka the director of this sad movie.” The defendant chose the players, “wrote the script” and “made sure his presence was felt,” Fox said.

During two days of testimony, Tanaka repeatedly said he could not recall details of his communications with his co-conspirators – all of whom have been convicted. But he was firm on one point – he was acting at the behest of Baca.

However, phone logs focusing on days in August and September of 2011 that were relevant to the case revealed about 70 calls between Tanaka and the alleged co-conspirators, but only one between Tanaka and his then-boss, Fox said.

Baca pleaded guilty in February to a charge of lying to investigators and is awaiting sentencing in May.

George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents deputies, called Tanaka’s conviction the end of “the era of corruption” in the department’s upper management.

“The department can move forward now that the truth about the failed leadership of disgraced former Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka has been revealed through the judicial process,” Hofstetter said. “The Baca-Tanaka era created leadership failures that left the sheriff’s department and ALADS members with real scars from rising assaults on deputies, and emotional scars from diminished morale as deputies struggled to perform a dangerous and difficult job under a cloud they didn’t create.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the verdict signals the end of a troubling period within the department.

“I, along with the hard-working men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, respect the jury’s verdict and fully accept and recognize that the justice system holds all of us in public service accountable for our actions,” McDonnell said.

“We look forward to closing this particularly troubling chapter in the Sheriff’s Department’s otherwise long history of providing essential public services in a professional and caring manner,” he said.

“Upon taking office, I made it clear that I expect every member of the department to be held to the highest ethical and professional standards. As we move forward as an organization, we are committed to earning the public’s trust every day by providing the highest quality of service with integrity, respect, and accountability.”

Lee Baca Admits to Lying to Federal Investigators

February 11, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

“This case illustrates that leaders who foster and then try to hide a corrupt culture will be held accountable,” U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said.

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 his 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.


Lee Baca served as Los Angeles County Sheriff for nearly 15 years before retiring in 2013. (EGP Photo Archive)

“There is a new sheriff,” she said. “He and his team are making reforms, including in the jails.”
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.

A federal judge approved an agreement ending the 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 they were 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 Wednesday’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 insidethe 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.”

Tanaka Federal Corruption Trial Set for November

June 11, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A judge has granted a continuance in the federal corruption trial of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s former second-in-command and an ex-captain until November, court papers obtained Wednesday show.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson rejected a proposed February trial date and instead scheduled Nov. 3 to begin picking a jury.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and ex-sheriff’s captain Tom Carey face obstruction of justice charges.

The case was initially set for trial next month, but Anderson ordered attorneys for both sides to meet and agree on a later date.

Federal prosecutors in the Tanaka/Carey case are scheduled in the coming months to try three separate use-of-force cases involving current or former sheriff’s deputies, along with the trial of a deputy U.S. marshal facing civil rights homicide and obstruction of justice charges.

The Tanaka/Carey case is expected to take at least two weeks, lawyers said.

Evidence to be delivered to the defense includes a Web-searchable database and 4,000 pages of transcripts from a previous related trial, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Carter

Tanaka — who is on a leave of absence as mayor of Gardena — and Carey, who oversaw an internal sheriff’s criminal investigations unit, have denied the charges contained in a five-count indictment returned May 13 by a federal grand jury.

Tanaka and Carey, both 56, are accused of orchestrating a scheme to thwart a federal probe into deputy misconduct at county jails.

Both are charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice, and each is named in one count of obstruction of justice. Carey is charged with two counts of lying on the witness stand last year during the trials of co-conspirators. If convicted, the men face the possibility of multiple years in federal prison.

Carey was head of the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau until he retired in March.

Tanaka, who, like Carey, testified for the defense at all three trials thus far in the federal probe, retired from the department in 2013.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Gonzalez and deputies Sussie Ayala and Fernando Luviano are facing trial this month for allegedly using unreasonable force on Gabriel Carrillo, a visitor to the Men’s Central Jail, and later lying about the Feb. 26, 2011, incident in reports.

Two former deputies — Noel Womack and Pantamitr Zunggeemoge — have pleaded guilty in the case and await sentencing.

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