Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded not guilty Friday afternoon to felony charges arising from an FBI probe into county jails.
At an arraignment in a downtown federal courtroom, Baca entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson and told the judge he suffers from periods of “cloudiness in my brain” brought on by Alzheimer’s disease.
Prosecutors last week leveled the allegations of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and lying, days after Baca withdrew a guilty plea that was part of an agreement that he had struck with the government.
Under the terms of the deal, Baca was to admit that he lied to federal officials about his involvement in a 2011 scheme to interfere with an FBI investigation into widespread abuses at the county jails. In exchange for his guilty plea, the agreement called for Baca, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, to spend no more than six months in prison.
But Anderson derailed the deal, concluding the six-month sentence was too lenient for the 74-year-old man who led the Sheriff's Department during a period when violent attacks by deputies on inmates were commonplace and readily covered up.
With Anderson signaling clearly that he intended to hand down a stiff punishment, Baca opted to back out of the deal and take his chances instead at a high-stakes trial. Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office followed up quickly, announcing a grand jury had indicted the former sheriff on the serious charges.
The hearing Friday was notable for Baca’s comments about his variable mental acuity, which underscored how his recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis will complicate the case.
Questions a judge must ask a defendant about his ability to understand the charges against him took on heightened importance as Anderson pressed Baca on his ability to comprehend the allegations.
“My mind is clear enough, your honor,” Baca said, “but I do have circumstances of cloudiness in my brain. I’ve had that for quite a while.”
Baca and his attorney, Nathan Hochman, ultimately told Anderson that Baca was able to understand the charges and entered the not-guilty plea.
Afterward, Hochman said that if Baca’s condition deteriorates rapidly over the coming months leading up to trial, Anderson might need to decide if the former sheriff is competent to stand trial.
Hochman also made clear that he plans to investigate the possibility of using Baca’s mental condition as part of his defense at trial. To do so, Hochman would need to be able to show through doctors’ testimony and other medical evidence that Baca’s mind was already deteriorating during the FBI jail probe in 2011.
Prosecutors and Hochman were at odds on when to hold the trial. Assistant U.S. Atty. Lizabeth Rhodes told the judge the government could be ready in a matter of weeks. Hochman countered that he needed about six months to wade through the massive amount of documents in the case and to devise a strategy for defending Baca.
Anderson instructed the two sides to report back to him after trying to reach a compromise.
The charges against Baca mirror those brought against Paul Tanaka, Baca’s former undersheriff who ran much of the department’s day to day operations. Tanaka was convicted earlier this year after jurors found he had been at the center of the plan to obstruct the FBI.
Anderson sentenced Tanaka, who is appealing his conviction, to five years behind bars. Seven lower-ranking sheriff's officials have also been convicted and sentenced by Anderson to terms ranging from a year and a half to more than three years for their roles in the case.
The indictment against Baca alleges that he conspired with Tanaka and the others to keep federal investigators away from a jail inmate, Anthony Brown, who was providing information about deputies who were allegedly abusing inmates.
After sheriff's officials caught Brown with a cellphone the FBI smuggled to him through a bribed jail deputy, Baca ordered his subordinates to keep Brown isolated and to interview him, according to the indictment. Baca is accused as well of approving overtime payments to the deputies who kept Brown hidden.
The indictment also highlights meetings and letters in which Baca made clear to federal officials he was unhappy with the jail probe. Baca is said to have pressed prosecutors to withdraw the grand jury subpoenas they had served on the Sheriff's Department, warned that sheriff's officials would investigate the FBI for violations of state law, and threatened to pull deputies off of joint task forces with the FBI.
The allegations against Baca include a meeting he attended with Tanaka and other subordinates in September 2011. The group allegedly discussed a plan to send deputies to confront an FBI agent at her home. Days later, they did just that, threatening her with arrest for her part in smuggling the cellphone into the jail informant.
In his plea deal with prosecutors, Baca was prepared to admit he lied during a 2013 interview when he told investigators he did not know about the plan to go to the FBI agent's house. Prosecutors used that statement, along with four other alleged lies, to bring the indictment’s charge of lying.
Faced with the likelihood of a bruising criminal trial, Baca on Friday made a move to formally change attorneys, court records show. After months of being represented by Michael Zweiback, he has brought on Hochman, the former head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Tax Division.
In recent days Baca's wife has sent friends and supporters emails asking for contributions to help defray mounting legal bills that she wrote could top $1 million.
In the solicitation, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, Baca’s wife said her husband had rejected a new deal with prosecutors that would have capped his time in prison at two years. The harsh stance Anderson has taken in the obstruction-related cases and Baca’s worsening dementia pushed him to go to trial, she said.
“Knowing the judge, we do not feel comfortable to let him decide Lee’s fate without a fight … I cannot imagine having a husband who might not recognize me after 2 years separation because of Alzheimer’s.”
4:50 p.m.: This article was updated.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with details from the arraignment.
This article was originally published at 2 p.m.