A federal judge has rejected a plea deal for former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, saying the deal would have trivialized the seriousness of his offenses. Under the deal, Baca would have faced a maximum of six months in prison.
In February, Baca, once one of the most powerful local law enforcement officials in the nation, had agreed to plead guilty to one count of making a false statement to investigators about his role in a scheme to thwart the FBI’s investigation into inmate beatings in county jails.
Federal District Judge Percy Anderson said Baca is now free to withdraw his guilty plea.
Anderson had previously ruled Baca eligible to serve time in prison over the objections of Baca's attorneys, who said the former sheriff, in the early stages of Alzheimer's, presents no threat to public safety.
Baca's hearing is part of one of the most extensive criminal probes into a local law enforcement agency the federal government has pursued in recent years. Twenty-one former sheriff's employees received federal prison sentences on charges ranging from violating the civil rights of jail visitors and inmates to obstruction of justice and conspiracy.
The federal charges against Baca arose in part from his statement to investigators in 2013 that he "was not aware" deputies planned to try to intimidate an FBI agent investigating jail violence by showing up outside her apartment and threatening to arrest her.
The plea deal between Baca and federal prosecutors stated he directed the deputies to "do everything but put handcuffs" on her.
That Baca would order deputies to threaten the arrest of an FBI agent investigating his jails was an example of the former sheriff's hubris.
The investigation was no small matter. For years, civil rights groups had complained inmates were being abused. Baca had always downplayed those allegations.
In the end, a 2012 independent blue ribbon panel issued a scathing report on the jails, saying there had been a “persistent pattern of unreasonable force” by sheriff’s deputies against inmates. The report said the problem “dates back many years” and blamed Baca and his then-undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
“Both Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff [Paul] Tanaka have, in different ways, enabled or failed to remediate overly aggressive deputy behavior as well as lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct," the report stated.
Tanaka was sentenced to five years in federal prison for obstruction of justice last month.
Baca joined the Sheriff’s Department in 1965, the year of the Watts Riots. At the time, there were relatively few Latino deputies on the force. He is the son of a seamstress from Mexican state Michoacan who was brought to the U.S. by her parents when she was 1 year old. He was raised by his mother and his grandmother.
Baca retired from the Sheriff's Department in 2014, not long after the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles announced charges against handfuls of department employees.