Baca 'was aware' of plan to obstruct FBI, former sheriff's official tells jury

Despite his claims of ignorance, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was deeply involved in efforts to interfere with FBI agents as they investigated abuses in county jails, a retired sheriff’s official testified Thursday.

William “Tom” Carey, a former Sheriff’s Department captain who has admitted to playing a central role in the scheme to obstruct the FBI, told jurors that he personally updated the sheriff on the efforts to thwart the federal investigation and that Baca attended several crucial meetings to discuss how to handle the crisis. 

Speaking in a sober monotone during several hours of testimony, Carey, 58, was a potentially powerful addition for government prosecutors as they try a second time to convict Baca.

The first attempt ended in a mistrial in December when the jury failed to reach a verdict. All but one of the 12 jurors in the earlier trial voted to acquit Baca, with several of them saying afterward that prosecutors had built a circumstantial case against the former sheriff and failed to prove he was involved.

Baca, 74, retired in 2014 amid the jail crisis. He is charged with obstruction of justice, conspiracy and making false statements. He faces several years in prison if convicted.

Putting Carey on the stand, however, comes with some risk. Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, is expected to cross-examine Carey on Friday and hammer him on the plea agreement he struck with prosecutors shortly after being indicted in 2015.

As part of the deal, Carey agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to a single count of lying during testimony he gave at an earlier trial of a deputy convicted in the obstruction case. In exchange, the government dropped obstruction and other lying charges.

The deal opens Carey to attacks on his credibility.

"Once you've admitted to lying on the stand, who can believe anything you say?" defense attorney Dean Steward said at the time of the plea deal. Steward represented former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, Baca’s second-in-command, who ultimately was convicted of directing the obstruction plan.

Carey has not yet been sentenced.

Nonetheless, Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox looked to make the most of Carey. As the head of an internal department unit that investigated criminal behavior by sheriff’s employees, Carey was among a group of officials that responded in August 2011 when it was discovered that FBI agents were looking into allegations of widespread abuses by deputies against inmates in county jails.

Baca was present when the group met shortly after learning of the FBI inquiry. At the meeting, he ordered Carey’s group to investigate how the FBI had smuggled a cellphone to an inmate working as an informant. Baca also ordered that the informant be kept safe. 

Under Fox’s questioning, Carey told jurors that Baca was aware his subordinates were carrying out a plan to hide the informant from FBI agents by registering him under fake names in the jail computer system and moving him to a holding cell in a distant station.

Baca was also present for a meeting with Tanaka, Carey and another sheriff’s official in Tanaka’s office, where it was decided that two of Carey’s investigators would confront the lead FBI agent in the case at her home.

While the home visit was nominally an attempt to question the agent about the smuggled phone, its real purpose was to send a message of defiance to the FBI and intimidate the agent by threatening her with arrest, Carey said.

“He was OK with it,” Carey testified of Baca. “He didn’t tell us not to do it. His advice to us was just not to put handcuffs on her.”

In a rare show of some emotion, Carey’s voice raised slightly when Fox played a clip of an interview Baca gave to federal investigators in 2013, in which he claimed not to know anything about the plan to approach the agent until after it occurred.

“Absolutely, he was aware,” Carey said.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Follow @joelrubin on Twitter

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