« Some notable first-cut reactions to the Sessions Memo | Main | "Courting Abolition" »

May 13, 2017

Former LA Sheriff gets three years in federal prison after obstruction convictions connected to corruption scandal involving county jails

This Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Ex-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca sentenced to three years in prison in jail corruption scandal," effectively reports on the final federal sentence handed down late yesterday to a high-profile former law enforcement official. Notably, as discussed below, the defendant here had a much more lenient plea deal rejected, was nearly acquitted at a trial, and ultimately got a prison term 50% longer than what prosecutors recommended.  Here are the details:

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, once a towering, respected figure in policing, was sentenced Friday to three years in federal prison for his role in a scheme to obstruct an FBI investigation of abuses in county jails, marking an end to a corruption scandal that has roiled the Sheriff’s Department for several years.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson announced Baca’s fate in a downtown courtroom filled with loyal supporters on one side and the FBI agents and prosecutors who ensnared him on the other. Baca, 74 and suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, showed no emotion as the decision was read. Before issuing the sentence, Anderson, who has dealt unsparingly with the former sheriff throughout his legal battle and last year threw out a plea deal that would have sent Baca to prison for no more than six months, unleashed a scathing rebuke of the man who ran one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies for 15 years.

Excoriating Baca’s refusal to accept responsibility for having overseen and condoned the obstruction ploy carried out by subordinates, the judge portrayed him as a man driven by his desire to protect his own reputation and maintain control over the Sheriff’s Department. “Your actions embarrass the thousands of men and women [in the department] who put their lives on the line every day,” Anderson said to Baca. “They were a gross abuse of the trust the public placed in you.”

The prison term, Anderson added, should serve as a deterrent to other public servants. “Blind obedience to a corrupt culture has serious consequences,” he said. “No person, no matter how powerful, no matter his or her title, is above the law.”

Baca was ordered to surrender to federal prison officials by July 25. Although he is expected to ask to remain free on bail while he pursues an appeal, it is an open question whether he will be allowed to do so. Anderson denied the same request from Baca’s second in command, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was forced to begin his five-year sentence....

In going after Baca, a team of prosecutors headed by Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox meticulously worked its way up the department’s ranks, charging lower-level figures and members of Baca’s command staff before bringing charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and lying against the sheriff himself.

He is the ninth person to be convicted and sentenced to prison as part of what Fox convinced several juries was a cunning conspiracy to interfere with FBI agents as they worked to gather evidence for a grand jury investigation into allegations of widespread abuse by deputies working in county jails run by the sheriff’s department. A 10th conspirator, former sheriff’s Capt. William “Tom” Carey, pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors and testified against Baca. Carey is scheduled to be sentenced later this month. Several other deputies were convicted in a series of trials for beating inmates or helping to cover up the abuse....

Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, nearly won Baca an acquittal at a trial late last year by hammering the government for the scarcity of hard evidence tying Baca directly to the obstruction plan. That proceeding ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked with all but one juror voting to acquit Baca. For the second trial, however, Fox revamped his case and Anderson issued a string of rulings that hamstrung Hochman. All along, Hochman argued that while Baca was upset by the FBI investigation, he never authorized anything illegal. Tanaka, he said, was the ringleader who carried out the obstruction without Baca’s knowledge.

In giving Baca three years in prison, Anderson struck a middle ground of sorts. Federal sentencing guidelines called for a term of 41 to 51 months. Under normal circumstances, the government would have urged Anderson to come down within that range, Fox wrote in court filings.

But Baca’s age, his diagnosis last year with Alzheimer’s and medical experts’ expectation that his mind will have deteriorated badly within a few years were legitimate mitigating factors in determining his punishment, Fox said. “The interests of justice will not be served by defendant spending many years behind bars in a severely impaired state,” the prosecutor wrote. He recommended that Baca be sentenced to two years in prison.

Hochman, meanwhile, urged Anderson in court papers and again on Friday to spare Baca any time in prison, saying he should instead be confined to his home for a period of time and perform community service. In a lengthy last-ditch bid for leniency, Hochman reviewed Baca’s nearly five decades of service in the sheriff’s department, saying he served “with distinction and honor.”

The true measure of the man, Hochman insisted, was seen in the the education programs he started as sheriff for inmates and at-risk youth. Hochman submitted to Anderson letters from a few hundred of Baca’s supporters, including former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and several local religious leaders. The inevitable toll from Alzheimer’s was another reason to spare him prison, Hochman said. “This diagnosis is a sentence of its own. It is a sentence that will leave him a mere shell of his former self and one that will rob him of the memories of his life,” he wrote in a court filing.

Anderson rejected out of hand the idea that Baca should avoid time in prison. He acknowledged Baca’s lengthy record as a public servant, but said it made his crimes more perplexing. "Mr. Baca's criminal conduct is so at odds with the public image he carefully crafted,” Anderson said. Like old B-movies, "you seem to have your own version of the good cop/bad cop routine … that allowed you to keep your hands clean but did not make you any less culpable.”

While the two-year sentence suggested by the government was not enough in Anderson’s eyes, the judge said he did take Baca’s failing health and career into account. Absent those factors, he said he would have imposed on Baca the same five-year sentence he gave Tanaka.

The sentence deepens the stain already imprinted on Baca’s legacy and the reputation he enjoyed as one of the nation’s most visible and respected reformers in law enforcement. While quirky to the point of being enigmatic, Baca was seen as a champion of progressive ideas, including the need for police to build strong ties to minority communities. He stepped down in 2014 with the department engulfed in the jail scandal.

May 13, 2017 at 01:45 PM | Permalink

Comments

And I still have problems with a hung jury being a redo for the prosecution. They should get one attempt to secure a conviction and anything else is an acquittal (I would say even if it can be proven that the defendant interfered with the jury, that would simply be a new charge).

I _might_ be willing to see something like 11-1 or 10-2 for conviction being different but by the time you reach the opposite end of the spectrum the case should be over.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 13, 2017 1:52:31 PM

Vicious criminal attack the officers. They beat him with flashlights, and Taser him. He sues for excessive force. There is no discount for the crime the prisoners committed against the officers, in jail. It should be a matter of policy that criminals should not be rewarded with tort damages.

Now the pro-criminal Obama FBI, in another Ferguson, comes after law enforcement. Baca fails to cooperate enough or enthusiastically with his own destruction, with the destruction of his department, and with the FBI attack on the ability of the sheriffs to keep inmates safe from ultra-violent predators.

We are in The Inquisition 2.0. Please, explain to me what I am missing. The FBI protect criminals and attack law enforcement. Then the LA Times and this blog David Duke them. The article does not even briefly report the crimes of the victim of the department. What David Duke does to bash Jews and blacks is worth reviewing elsewhere. The reason is that all media outlets have become the David Duke web site.

Posted by: David Behar | May 13, 2017 2:41:02 PM

Martha Stewart lies about not receiving a phone call telling her to sell her shares before the market hears bad news. 5 months in prison, 5 months house arrest.

Sheriff Lee Baca fails to cooperate with the FBI witch hunt of his department enthusiastically enough. 3 years.

Hillary Clinton puts a private server in her bathroom to evade scrutiny and starts an auction business of State Department favors in exchange for donations to her Foundation. She is notified of an investigation, and 30000 emails are erased, using military grade file eradication software. She is a lawyer. She has experience in the criminal law, and understands the meaning of legal notice. No problem.

The FBI has become politicized, and is now an organ of the Democratic Party hierarchy. The Democratic Party is the party of the lawyer, the one promoting larger government and the crushing of its competitors for moral authority.

Posted by: David Behar | May 13, 2017 2:58:10 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB