Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is expected to plead not guilty Friday to federal charges of conspiring to obstruct justice, obstructing justice and lying to the federal government.
Baca’s arraignment in Los Angeles federal court comes a week after his indictment on felony charges stemming from his alleged response to a covert FBI investigation into corruption and brutality by jail deputies.
The 74-year-old ex-sheriff previously backed out of a plea deal on the lying count, which had been reached with federal prosecutors earlier this year.
If convicted of all charges, Baca — who is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease — could face up to 20 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office has already admitted in court the weakness of its obstruction case against Lee Baca,” defense attorney Michael Zweiback said last week. “We look forward to this process and believe that Mr. Baca will be vindicated after all of the evidence is finally presented.”
The now-defunct plea deal had called for Baca to serve no more than six months behind bars on a single count of lying to the FBI. But U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson balked at the agreement, saying the sentence was too lenient considering the retired lawman’s role in obstructing an FBI investigation into Los Angeles County jails.
Rather than face a penalty of up to five years in prison, Baca opted to withdraw his guilty plea — opening him up to the more wide-ranging indictment.
After Baca enters his plea tomorrow, Anderson is expected to set a trial date.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — is accused of participating in a wide-ranging conspiracy to derail the FBI’s probe of corruption and brutality within the walls of Men’s Central Jail.
After jail guards discovered that an 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.
Ten former sheriff’s department officials — including Baca’s ex-top deputy, Paul Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case.
Tanaka, who claimed his former boss ordered the department’s response to the federal jails probe, was sentenced by Anderson to five years in prison, but is free pending appeal.
Baca had initially pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to investigators about his knowledge of the plan to threaten the FBI agent. That false statements count is one of the three counts Baca is now facing.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
A federal appellate panel recently upheld the convictions of seven former sheriff’s department officials convicted in the conspiracy.
–City News Service