Crime & Justice

Former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca pleads not guilty to federal conspiracy charges

File: L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
File: L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Leroy "Lee" Baca, the once-powerful sheriff of Los Angeles County and one of the most recognizable political figures in the region, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges he tried to thwart a federal investigation into brutality inside county jails. 

Baca, 74, was arraigned in front of U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson — the same judge that rejected a plea deal last month.

Baca told the judge that he had "cloudiness in my brain" at times due to his early onset Alzheimer's disease. Baca's attorney said they may use a medical defense based on his Alzheimer's in the case.

Under the plea deal, Baca would have pled guilty to one count of lying to a federal agent during the investigation, in exchange for no more than six months in prison. Anderson said the penalty was lenient.

Baca could have still pled guilty to the one count and faced whatever prison sentence Anderson thought appropriate, up to the five-year maximum prison time. Instead, he withdrew from the plea deal. That prompted the U.S. Attorney’s Office to add two additional charges: conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstructing justice.

He now faces a maximum 20 years in prison if convicted on all charges.

The case stems from Baca’s alleged efforts to hide an inmate who was acting as an informant to the FBI so that federal investigators could not talk to him. He allegedly also ordered deputies to try to intimidate one of the FBI agents.

In his previous plea deal, Baca admitted he lied when he said he did not know deputies would try to intimidate the agent. In fact, he admitted he directed the deputies to "do everything but put handcuffs" on her.

The new charges mean federal prosecutors believe they have enough evidence to prove Baca not only lied about the scheme to block the FBI investigation, but actually participated in it.

The trial is set to begin in Oct. 4, but it likely won't start until the new year because the defense team says it needs more time to prepare.

Prominent federal criminal defense attorney Nathan Hochman is Baca's new attorney. His former attorney, Michael Zweiback, was replaced with no explanation given.

Twenty-one current or former sheriff’s deputies have been convicted in connection with the federal investigation.

This story has been updated.