By Matt Reynolds
A federal judge on Friday sentenced former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to three years in prison for obstructing a federal investigation, delivering a stinging rebuke to the official for trying to blame his closest aide and leverage a medical condition to avoid jail time.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson sentenced Baca after a jury convicted him in March of obstructing a federal investigation into corruption and civil rights abuses at two county jails through a scheme that involved hiding an FBI informant to prevent his testimony before a federal grand jury.
“This is a sad day for our community,” Anderson said, calling it “tragic” that Baca had fallen so spectacularly after leading one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation.
In addition to a 36-month sentence, Anderson ordered Baca to serve a year of probation and pay a $7,500 fine. Baca will surrender to authorities on July 25.
In arguments before Anderson delivered his verdict, Baca, wearing a blue-gray suit and striped tie, watched as his attorney Nathan Hochman urged the court to take into account the 74-year-old’s 48 years of public service, as well as his age and Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis.
Hochman described Baca as a progressive “visionary” who wanted to reform the jails, end homelessness and educate inmates and deputies.
Baca had “served with distinction, effectiveness and with all his soul,” Hochman said. He asked the court to sentence the former lawman to home detention or minimal time in jail.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox noted that a “shameful era” of deputy-on-inmate abuse had occurred under Baca’s watch, and said he had “destroyed” the Sheriff Department’s reputation.
“He abused the power that was entrusted to him,” Fox said. “He hurt so many people along the way.”
Anderson acknowledged Baca’s years of public service but criticized his attempt to blame convicted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is currently serving a five-year sentence. Baca and his legal team have consistently claimed Tanaka orchestrated the obstruction scheme and kept his boss in the dark.
But for Baca’s medical condition the court would have handed down the same five-year sentence to the former sheriff, the judge said.
“Mr. Tanaka was not some rogue deputy,” Anderson said. “You were all too happy to let people like Mr. Tanaka do your dirty work.”
Over six weeks in August and September 2011, Baca conspired with those under his command to thwart an investigation into inmate abuse at two jails by hiding inmate-informant and violent felon Anthony Brown within the jail system. The conspiracy began after jailers split apart a covert FBI operation into Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in the summer of 2011, after pulling a smuggled cellphone out of a Dorito’s bag from Brown’s belongings.
Anderson said that Baca had the power to call an end to the “misguided” and “clumsy” scheme which reached its nadir when deputies Scott Craig and Maricela Long approached FBI Agent Leah Marx outside her home and threatened her arrest.
“Your actions embarrass the thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line every day,” Anderson said.
The judge excoriated the official for suggesting in court papers that his Alzheimer’s disease was punishment enough, calling it an insult to the millions of people who suffer from the disease.
“Alzheimer’s disease is not a get out of jail card,” Anderson said.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Baca thanked his attorneys and his wife Carol Chiang but defended his actions, returning to a theme that his defense had presented over two trials: The introduction of a cellphone into the jails was a dangerous move by the FBI that could have jeopardized the safety of inmates and deputies.
“I will never accept a cellphone in a county jail given to a career criminal. I don’t care who puts it in,” Baca said outside the courthouse.
Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra Brown said the sentence showed no official is above the law.
“Rather than fulfill his sworn duty to uphold the law and protect the public, Lee Baca made a decision to protect what he viewed as his empire, and then he took actions in an effort to simply protect himself,” Brown said. “He wore the badge, but ultimately, he failed the department and the public’s trust.”
Anderson has presided over 10 cases connected to the scheme that has led to 21 convictions according to U.S. Attorney Office spokesman Thom Mrozek. Baca is the 10th member of the Sheriff’s Department convicted in the scheme.