[CN] – Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca pleaded not guilty on Friday afternoon to charges he obstructed a federal investigation into civil rights abuses and brutality at two jails.
Baca, 74, who says he is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, also denied charges that he conspired to obstruct justice and lied to the FBI and federal prosecutors. He was arraigned in U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson’s downtown courtroom.
Anderson determined that Baca was in possession of his faculties even though the retired official told the judge that he sometimes suffers from some “cloudiness” in thinking.
When Anderson asked him how he wanted to plead, Baca replied from the lectern: “Not guilty.”
On Aug. 1, Baca withdrew a guilty plea to making false statements to federal investigators — a roll of the dice that means he faces a jury trial later this year and a potentially harsher sentence.
The move came after Anderson last month rejected a recommendation of six months in prison under the plea agreement. The judge said the sentence would not account for Baca’s culpability in a scheme that involved the destruction of records, cover-ups, interference with a grand jury investigation, tampering with witnesses, and the threatening of an FBI agent.
If a federal jury finds Baca guilty, he could face a maximum of five years in prison on the conspiracy charge, 10 years for obstruction of justice, and up to five years in prison on the false statement charge.
Baca said earlier this month that he pleaded guilty to making a false statement to avoid the expense of a trial and a courtroom drama.
“I have made this decision due to the untruthful comments about my actions made by the court and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that are contradicted by the evidence in this case,” Baca said.
Earlier this year, Baca’s Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was convicted and sentenced to five years for his part in the obstruction scheme.
Also this month, seven of Baca and Tanaka’s underlings lost the appeal of their convictions. Twenty current or former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department officials have been convicted in connection with the crimes, according to federal prosecutors.
The government’s superseding indictment says that by late 2010 it emerged that a rogue gang of deputies called the 3000 Boys had taken over an entire floor of Men’s Central Jail, were beating and mistreating inmates and then filing false reports to cover up their abuses.
By 2011, Baca was aware of civil rights abuses at the jail, prosecutors say.
After the sheriff concluded that informant Anthony Brown was cooperating with the FBI when investigators found an FBI cell phone in his cell, the department’s highest-ranking official ordered Brown isolated from the rest of the jail population, prosecutors say.
Baca instructed officials to “do everything but put handcuffs” on FBI Agent Leah Marx who had been working with Brown, according to prosecutors.
In an infamous video encounter, Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau officers Sgt. Scott Craig, and Sgt. Maricela Long approached Marx outside her apartment complex after she returned home from work on in September 2011.
Craig told Marx 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.”
Marx was never arrested.
Baca wrote to federal prosecutors in LA and accused the FBI of violating state law, demanded that the government reveal the extent of its investigation into the jails, asked it to withdraw federal grand jury subpoenas and threatened to withdraw department support of federal task forces, the indictment says.
On the same day that Long and Craig approached Marx, the indictment says, Baca went on television and said that he suspected that the FBI had committed a crime.
During an interview with investigators in 2011, Baca falsely stated that he did not know about an FBI investigation into the jails and was not part of conversations between department officials to keep investigators from making contact with Brown, according to prosecutors.
Anderson scheduled the trial for Oct. 4. Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman said that he would need close to six months to go through the 1 terabyte of discovery that the government had provided. He also told Anderson that there was potential for Baca to mount a medical defense related to his Alzheimer’s.
The judge told the parties to meet and confer on Aug. 19 and then come back to him to request a new trial date if necessary.