A jury convicted former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca Wednesday of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and lying, bringing an end to a years-long corruption scandal that stained the reputation of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.
Decades after he first put on a sheriff’s deputy star, Baca, 74, now faces up to 20 years in prison for directing deputies in 2011 to hide an informant from FBI agents who were investigating the abuse of inmates in the county jails.
“As the former leader of one of the largest municipal law enforcement agencies in this nation, Lee Baca knew what was right and what was wrong,” Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra Brown said at a late afternoon press conference. “And he made a decision. That decision was to commit a crime.”
Brown said the investigation ultimately changed the department, leading to a monitor for the jails and a fundamental change in the culture.
A popular and progressive lawman, Baca had been elected as sheriff four times and served in the department for nearly 50 years before stepping down in 2014 as prosecutions against his deputies mounted.
“I appreciate the jury system, however I disagree with this particular verdict,” Baca said in a short statement to reporters Wednesday afternoon in which he thanked his wife and friends for supporting him through the case.
“You’ve known me for a long time,” he added wistfully. “I am a faith-based person. My mentality is always optimistic and I look forward to winning on appeal.”
Baca’s defense attorneys argued that subordinates kept the sheriff out of the loop and that any action he took was intended to safeguard his jails from a shoddy FBI probe. They were not allowed to bring up a defense they had sought: that Baca is suffering from early Alzheimer’s and that rather than lying to investigators, he simply didn’t remember.
“The jury is only as good as the evidence it gets to consider,” said Baca defense attorney Nathan Hochman. “Here, the jury did not get to consider all the evidence, but the appellate court will.”
Baca had agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors last year where he would admit to lying to federal investigators in exchange for a maximum of six months of incarceration, but U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson refused to go along with the deal, which he said trivialized the former sheriff’s actions.
The failed agreement came after nine other sheriff’s officials had been convicted in connection with the scandal.
In December, a different jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of Baca’s acquittal. Federal prosecutors decided to pursue another trial, hoping a second shot would bring a conviction.
This time, jurors heard testimony over the course of nine days in a downtown federal courtroom with Baca appearing in court each day, but not taking the stand in his own defense. Baca’s former assistant sheriff, Cecil Rhambo, testified he warned Baca not to mess with the FBI’s investigation.
“I thought it was getting a little bit outrageous, quite frankly,” Rhambo said. “I couldn’t physically grab him by his jacket” to shake sense into him, he told the jury.
After the trial Wednesday, the jury foreman spoke to reporters but would not give his name. He said he found Rhambo’s testimony particularly important. The foreman said he voted for Baca when he ran for sheriff, but was convinced Baca committed a crime to “protect his empire.”
Baca’s charges stem from a corruption scandal that emerged as the FBI was quietly investigating deputy brutality against inmates at Men’s Central Jail.
Deputies in the jail discovered the federal investigation in the summer of 2011 when they found an inmate’s cellphone and learned he was working as an FBI informant.
Department employees then hid the informant from federal investigators and failed to deliver him to a grand jury investigating claims of brutality. Two sheriff’s sergeants later approached an FBI agent at her house and threatened to arrest her.
Since then, federal prosecutors have filed a slew of indictments, working their way up to the top of the department. Among those convicted is Baca’s former number two, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
It’s undisputed that Baca had contact with people involved in the scheme at various points.
But the central questions throughout his trials were how much Baca knew of plans to keep the informant from the FBI and to threaten the FBI agent, whether those acts impeded the grand jury investigation, and whether Baca intended them as such.
Prosecutors called several of Baca’s former employees, including those who have already been implicated in the scheme.
“We were following the directions of the sheriff,” former sheriff’s captain Tom Carey said during sworn testimony. “He was the engine of the train … it’s like he cut us loose.”
In retrospect, Carey told the jury “our moves, our tactics” were “obstruction.”
During closing arguments, defense attorney Hochman said Carey, who’d already pleaded guilty to perjury, had a “believability problem.”
The government has a “basket of goodies” to offer witnesses such as Carey, Hochman said, including reduced charges, lowered fines and lighter sentences.
Hochman said, from Baca’s eyes, obstruction “was not one of the goals.”
The inmate’s cellphone, Hochman said, raised safety issues in the jail to which Baca “had to act immediately.” Hochman said Baca’s goal was to “get to the bottom of the investigation” and keep the inmate safe from possible retaliation from others for being a “snitch”.
Prosecutors said Baca’s investigation into the cellphone was a “sham” used to cloak the conspirators’ goal of obstruction.
When the FBI’s investigation turned to Baca himself, federal prosecutor Elizabeth Rhodes said the former sheriff lied during a 2013 interview with federal investigators.
Baca told them he had “no clue this was a civil rights investigation”.
Prosecutors said Baca knowingly made false statements “to divert the government’s attention.”
Baca was 71 years old at the time, Hochman said, and asked jurors how they would do if asked to review a conversation, a week ago, a month ago or a year ago.