Two sheriffs elected as reformers end up destroyed by corruption scandals

They swept away an old guard to lead the two of the largest sheriff’s departments in the nation, promising reforms — treating drug offenders in jail, reaching out to long-neglected minority communities, training officers in a gentler approach with the homeless and mentally ill.

They both left in disgrace.

Former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona finished his four-year federal prison term in 2015.

This week, 18 years after they both took office, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted of obstructing a federal inquiry into abuses in county jails and lying to investigators. He faces up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary.

The final chapter was victory for corruption prosecutors, who retried Baca after an earlier jury voted 11 to 1 to acquit him.

This time, with several new witnesses, jurors agreed that Baca willfully took part in a conspiracy to interfere with an FBI investigation into police brutality against inmates in county jails. Baca’s undersheriff and more than a dozen officers in his chain of command have been sentenced to federal prison for the scheme.

Jurors convicted Baca on three felony counts: obstruction of justice, conspiracy and making false statements to federal investigators.

The conviction and the inmate abuse that occurred under his command deeply tarnished his legacy and overshadowed the improvements he brought to the largest sheriff’s department in the United States.

“I think Lee intended to do good things,” said R. Samuel Paz, a longtime civil rights attorney who attended high school with Baca in Highland Park and went on to file dozens of lawsuits against him and his department.

Paz initially supported Baca, raising money for his campaign. Baca promised to create an independent board to investigate officer-involved shootings and potential misconduct, which he did. And he said he would take measures to stop the violence, overcrowding and inmate abuse in the jail system.

“I started brutality cases in the jail in 1992,” Paz said. “We had people in four-point restraints losing limbs to gangrene because nurses wouldn’t see them. Suicides were rampant.

“I believe the culture is such that you have to back your fellow officers. The only way to get along is to go along. Instead of supervising, he became compliant and is now facing these charges.”

Baca and Carona rose to power in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and both, in different ways, sought to bring new ideas and a new shine to their sprawling law enforcement agencies. Both replaced longtime sheriffs who had been controversial — in Baca’s case, Sherman Block, and in Carona’s, Brad Gates.

Carona, with his fireplug build and ramrod gait, rose briefly to wider fame when he emotionally vowed at news conferences to run down and arrest the killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. Larry King dubbed him “America’s Sheriff.” There was talk of Carona rising to higher office — state attorney general, even governor.

Baca was different. Thin as a reed from his daily seven-mile runs, he rarely wore a gun and showed a quirky curiosity and down-to-earth demeanor. His mother had migrated illegally from Mexico, and he was raised by his grandparents along with a mentally disabled uncle, who could not read, write or speak in sentences. As a boy, Baca was deeply affected by how people treated his uncle on bus rides with his grandmother.

“People would sneer at my uncle, laugh at him, make fun of him, and I believe that’s wrong,” Baca told The Times in 2011. “We’re not bothering anyone. So how about just leaving us alone?”

Laurie Levenson, criminal justice professor at Loyola Law School, said the men’s downfalls were different.

Carona was accused of a broad conspiracy to get a steady stream of cash and gifts for him and his mistress in return for favors only he, as the county’s top lawman, could give. The criminal activities, the feds charged, started before he was even elected, with illegal fundraising on his first campaign.

Though the jury convicted him on only one count of witness tampering, jurors in interviews said they believed he accepted the cash and gifts but that the statute of limitations had passed on many of those alleged acts.

“Even if Baca is found guilty, his crime is not the same ilk as Carona’s, which was more significant and more clear-cut,” Levenson said in an interview before the retrial.

She said Baca, in the end, was simply not a strong leader.

“His albatross was and always will be the jails.”

Baca was a retired division chief with 32 years in the department when he shocked the political establishment by running against incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block, who had run the department since 1982. Baca won 61% of the vote after Block died three days before the election.

Carona, the Orange County marshal, had been in that office since starting as a deputy in 1976. He had promised to bring a corporate-like professionalism to the force, measuring performance, cutting budgets, filling administrative posts with civilians.

He and Baca became allies of sorts, with similar agendas. Both wanted to have treatment facilities in the jail system and create advisory committees to reach out to minority communities.

When residents of South Los Angeles accused deputies at the Century Station of abuse and misconduct, Baca replaced the captain and transferred 25 women and African Americans to the station.

After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he met with local Muslim leaders and promised them protection. He read the Koran and memorized parts of it. When he heard that Pakistani store owners were being harassed, Baca ordered deputies “to go by the 7-Elevens and offer support.”

But since the beginning of his tenure, Baca failed to address mounting evidence in the jails of beatings by deputies and otherwise abysmal conditions. When he learned that the FBI was investigating corruption and had bribed a deputy to smuggle a cellphone to an informant in 2011, prosecutors said he was furious.

They said Baca orchestrated a conspiracy to hide the inmate and subvert the FBI investigation.

Now 74 and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, he awaits sentencing by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who rejected an earlier deal in which Baca would plead guilty and serve up to six months in prison. Anderson said such a short sentence would diminish the seriousness of the crime.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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