Lee Baca, the former Los Angeles County sheriff who had pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about reports of corruption and prisoner abuse in his jail, changed his plea Monday. He backed away from a deal calling for a six-month sentence, which a federal judge has ruled is too lenient.
Baca, 74, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, was the top elected law enforcement official in Los Angeles beginning in 1998. By withdrawing his plea, Baca chose to face trial.
As the Two-Way previously reported, Baca retired under pressure in 2014 amid "allegations of widespread abuse of inmates' civil rights." For example, Baca's jail staff was accused of assaulting unresisting inmates.
Initially, Baca blamed the allegations on rogue officers. "There is no institutional problem within the sheriff's department when it comes to correcting itself," he said.
But FBI agents found a deeply rooted culture of corruption in which sheriff's deputies actively attempted to thwart federal attempts to enlist a jailhouse informant. According to the Los Angeles Times, Baca's subordinates hid the informant from the FBI by moving him to a different jail and assigning him a fake name.
Baca's deputies were also accused of attempting to intimidate an FBI agent leading the investigation by confronting her at her home. As part of his plea agreement, Baca had acknowledged that he lied when he told the feds he had no prior knowledge of his deputies' plan to approach the FBI agent.
Baca faced a maximum penalty of five years. As part of his original plea deal, prosecutors had recommended a six-month prison term. But two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson ruled that the deal was too lenient. The judge called Baca's actions a "gross abuse of the public trust."
Outside the court, Baca explained why he is withdrawing his guilty plea and taking his chance with a trial.
"I made this decision due to untruthful comments about my actions made by the court and the U.S. Attorney's Office that are contradicted by evidence in this case," he said. "While my future and my ability to defend myself depends on my Alzheimer's disease, I need to set the record straight about me and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on misleading aspects of the federal investigation while I'm capable of doing this."