Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was the “heartbeat” of an internal conspiracy to thwart a federal probe into abuses in the jail system, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday at the onset of Baca’s corruption trial, but a defense attorney threw blame squarely on the ex- lawman’s former second-in-command.
In a roughly hour-long opening statement. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the six-man, six-woman jury that Los Angeles County residents had “entrusted (Baca) with an important power … to bring to light any criminal acts.”
“When it was his department, Mr. Baca abused that power,” Fox said, adding that the then-sheriff tried to “sweep (the abuse of power) under the rug.”
Baca is accused of conspiring to commit and committing obstruction of justice from August to September 2011. He will be tried separately at a later date on charges of making false statements to the federal government in April 2013. Prosecutors contend Baca lied to the FBI about his knowledge of department efforts to subvert a federal probe into corruption and inmate abuse in the jail system.
Fox said he will present jurors with “an overwhelming amount of evidence” to show that Baca was “the heartbeat, the leader of that conspiracy.”
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman countered, however, that it was former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka who was largely to blame for the department’s actions to subvert the FBI probe. He called Tanaka a “man with his own agenda.”
“You will hear that when Baca found out (about the probe), he was open, transparent and direct,” Hochman said. “The FBI was his brother in arms.”
Hochman spent a large portion of his opening statement recapping Baca’s nearly half-century career with the sheriff’s department. He said prosecutors “will fail” in their effort to prove that Baca was the ring-leader of a conspiracy.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson split Baca’s trial into two parts after he agreed to allow testimony by an expert on dementia — but only as it relates to the charges of making false statements. Anderson agreed to hold a separate trial on those counts, so Baca — who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease — is bring tried first on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges, saying the former sheriff’s mental state is not relevant to those counts. The conspiracy and obstruction charges carry a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years.
A second jury will be selected at a later date to hear testimony on the false statements count, which carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.
The charges focus on a period of time five years ago when sheriff’s deputies based at Men’s Central Jail stumbled upon the FBI’s secret probe of alleged civil rights abuses and unjustified beatings of inmates within jail walls.
After guards discovered that inmate Anthony Brown was an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators. They also went to the home of an FBI agent and threatened her with arrest.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — claims he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that his former second-in-command, Tanaka, was in charge of the operation. Ten ex- sheriff’s officials — including Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case, and 10 others have been convicted of various charges connected to the overall federal probe.
Tanaka, who alleges Baca initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison but is free pending appeal.
Baca, 74, previously backed out of a plea deal on the lying count — which called for him to serve no more than six months in prison — after the judge rejected the agreement as too lenient. If Baca had not withdrawn from the plea, he could have been handed a sentence of five years behind bars. He was subsequently indicted on the three felony counts he now faces.
Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
A federal appellate panel upheld the convictions of seven former sheriff’s department officials convicted in the conspiracy.
Both sides stipulate that Baca is competent to stand trial.
Among expected witnesses are FBI agents involved in the jails investigation and former LASD officials, some of whom were convicted in related cases. The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
—City News Service