[CN] – A federal judge on Monday rejected former Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca’s plea agreement, ruling that a six-month sentence would be too light for his part in a conspiracy to obstruct an investigation into jailhouse abuses.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson delivered the bombshell to the 74-year-old retired official inside a packed courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, offering Baca the option of accepting a harsher sentence, withdrawing his plea or continuing his hearing.
Baca, dressed in a gray suit, white shirt and striped tie, took the latter option and will appear in court on Aug 1.
His attorney Michael Zweiback had asked Anderson during the sentencing hearing to allow Baca to avoid jail time altogether, pointing to Baca’s decades of service to the community and an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis by two experts.
Zweiback said scores of people had written letters expressing their gratitude for Baca’s work in the community. Several of his supporters showed up to the hearing wearing yellow ribbon pendants in a show of solidarity.
Baca told the judge that he was standing in court with “remorse” but also suggested that his involvement in the obstruction scheme was hands-off. He also asked the judge to take his ailing health into consideration.
He expressed regret for not taking the lead in handling the matter once the department learned that the FBI was investigating the jails.
“If I could do this again, I know I would do so,” Baca told Anderson.
Prosecutor Brandon Fox said that Baca had accepted responsibility for lying to investigators and said he believed that a six-month sentence was appropriate.
None of the arguments swayed Judge Anderson.
The judge said that a sentence of six months would not account for Baca’s culpability in a scheme that had involved the destruction of records, cover-ups, interference with a grand jury investigation, tampering with witnesses, and the threatening of an FBI agent.
Specifically, Anderson said the plea failed to measure the non-monetary harm Baca had caused and said a more severe sentence would serve the public interest.
“It’s one thing” to lie to prosecutors and “it’s another thing” to take part in a conspiracy to obstruct and FBI investigation, Anderson said.
With his guilty plea, Baca was one of several department officials convicted in an FBI investigation of corruption and civil rights abuses at the downtown jailhouses Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
Last month, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was convicted as the ringleader of a conspiracy to hide informant Anthony Brown within the jail system after the discovery of an FBI phone in his cell.
Prosecutors said that Baca, who entered his plea agreement in February, “knowingly and willfully” made false statements to investigators during an interview in April 2013.
After jailers discovered the phone and concluded that Brown was cooperating with the FBI, Baca ordered Brown isolated from the rest of the jail population, prosecutors said.
In August 2011, Baca asked Tanaka to investigate how the phone had ended up with the inmate.
The following month, Baca instructed officials to “do everything but put handcuffs” on FBI agent Leah Marx, who was investigating the case.
In a now-infamous videotaped encounter, two Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau officers Sgt. Scott Craig and Sgt. Maricela Long threatened Marx — now known as Leah Tanner — outside her apartment complex after she returned home from work on Sept. 26, 2011.
Craig told Tanner she was the “named suspect in a felony complaint” and said he was “in the process of swearing out a declaration for an arrest warrant.”
Baca will return to Anderson’s courtroom on Aug. 1.