LOS ANGELES – Nearly three years after his conviction on federal obstruction charges, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was ordered to begin serving his three-year prison sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take his appeal.
Leroy “Lee” Baca, 77, served as the top-ranking elected law enforcement official in LA County from 1998 until his fourth term starting in 2010. He was ordered to surrender to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in the next three weeks.
In 2017, a jury convicted Baca for orchestrating a scheme to interfere in a federal investigation into widespread abuse of inmates by officers at the LA County Jail.
Baca’s downfall began with a smuggled cellphone hidden in a Doritos bag at the county jail.
In 2011, jailers discovered the phone in the belongings of Anthony Brown, an inmate-informant who was enlisted to work with the FBI looking into the abuse claims.
Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka carried out a series of maneuvers over the course of six weeks in August and September 2011 to hide Brown within the jail system. Codenamed Operation Pandora’s Box, sheriff’s officials moved Brown – a convicted bank robber – into a different jail under an alias to keep him out of reach of FBI agents.
The FBI’s investigation into the Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towards Correction Facility stalled as sheriff’s officials tried to keep Brown from testifying before a grand jury. An FBI agent was threatened at her home by Baca’s officers and deputies also sought a warrant to search the FBI’s Los Angeles offices, but a superior court judge said neither the court nor Baca’s department had the authority for such a search.
Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman framed Baca’s conduct as the furious reaction of an experienced official who knew only too well the dangers of allowing a cellphone into his jails. Though the FBI said it only wanted Brown to use the phone to report to FBI agent Leah Marx, Hochman said it was far from benign. The concern for Baca was that any cellphone could be used to plan a drug deal or even a hit on another inmate.
While prosecutors argued Baca was at the head of Operation Pandora’s Box, the sheriff continued to maintain publicly that he was displeased that federal agents smuggled a phone into his jail system.
At his first federal trial in 2016, Baca was nearly acquitted save one juror.
During the retrial, U.S. Attorney Lizabeth Rhodes said phone records, emails, documents and witness testimony from convicted officers showed that while Baca had placed Tanaka in charge, he had called the shots.
Jurors in that case listened to testimony about deputy-on-inmate violence at the Men’s Central Jail, including a marauding gang of deputies on the 3000 floor who brutally beat inmates and then covered up the abuses.
After two days of deliberations, the jury found Baca guilty of obstruction – adding his conviction to the list of nine deputies, commanders and Tanaka who had been convicted in the scheme.
Baca lost in his appeal to the Ninth Circuit this past April; his requests for rehearing were denied. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Baca’s appeal.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson ordered Baca to begin serving a three-year prison term on or before Feb. 5. Anderson wrote that Baca’s “convictions are now final. There is no basis for defendant to continue to remain on bond.”
An email to Baca’s attorney for comment was not immediately answered.