From celebrated lawman to disgraced defendant: Lee Baca faces jury in L.A. corruption trial

The question at the heart of the most significant public corruption trial to hit Los Angeles in decades is clear: Did Lee Baca, a powerful and celebrated law enforcement figure, block the FBI from investigating abuse and violence in county jails when he was sheriff?

Answering that question will be less straight forward.

Jury selection began Monday in the federal criminal trial of Baca, who faces obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges that could send the 74-year-old former sheriff -- who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease -- to prison for several years.

Baca also is charged with making false statements to federal investigators about his involvement in the plan to interfere with the jail investigation. That allegation, however, will not be argued in the current trial since the judge overseeing the trial decided to divide the case into two proceedings.

Prosecutors allege Baca resented the FBI’s efforts to investigate his jails and believed the sheriff’s officials should, according to a television interview he gave, “police ourselves.” So far, the U.S. attorney’s office has secured convictions in the obstruction case against nine former sheriff’s officials, including Baca’s top aide, but legal experts said prosecutors face greater challenges in taking on the former sheriff.

For more than 15 years, until he resigned in 2014 as the obstruction scandal enveloped his department, Baca served as the county’s highest elected police official. He won reelection easily several times and built a reputation as a quirky but decidedly progressive leader who favored educating jail inmates and community-based policing over traditional law-and-order strategies.

His trial overshadows several other high-profile corruption cases against government officials in recent years, including those of Ron and Tom Calderon, former state lawmakers who pleaded guilty in a bribery scandal, and several top administrators from Bell who enriched themselves on the back of the small city with huge salaries and other perks.

Baca stands alone in light of the clean-cut image he projected and the immense autonomy he wielded as sheriff for millions of people with few checks on his authority, said Jaime A. Regalado, professor emeritus at Cal State Los Angeles and a longtime observer of the county’s power players.

“Having somebody of this ilk, who was elected and reelected handily, and who appeared to walk a very straight line as a reform agent — for someone like that to fall and to fall so disgracefully really makes it significant,” Regalado said.

The case against Baca dates to 2011, when deputies working in the county’s main jail facility found an inmate with a cellphone. The discovery led sheriff’s officials to realize the inmate was serving as an FBI informant, feeding agents information about conditions inside the jail as part of an investigation into claims of beatings and other widespread abuses by deputies.

Instead of cooperating, the department struck a defiant stance. Prosecutors allege a group of deputies and higher-level officials devised a plan to interfere with the FBI by keeping the informant hidden and threatening the lead FBI agent with arrest in an attempt to intimidate her.

Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s public corruption and civil rights division have methodically moved their way up through the ranks of the group. They won convictions against seven of the low- and mid-level participants in a pair of 2014 trials, while another captain admitted guilt in a plea deal. Then, this year, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was convicted of spearheading the obstruction effort after unsuccessfully arguing that Baca had been the one pulling the strings without his knowledge.

To secure a conviction against Baca, however, legal experts said Asst. U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox will have to get over or around a new set of challenges. Baca’s defense will center on his claims that he delegated away the day-to-day operations of the department and was largely unaware of what Tanaka and the others were carrying out beneath him. 

“It’s the ‘I’m too important to know what was going on’ defense,” said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor. “I think jurors are open to hearing that kind of argument, especially from someone like Baca, who served the community for so long and doesn’t seem particularly venal.”

And where there was a lengthy trail of emails, phone records and other documents linking the subordinates to the crimes, there is no such cache of evidence Fox can show jurors to implicate the former sheriff. 

Instead, the case against Baca will rest heavily on the testimony of several of the subordinates already convicted of obstructing the FBI, as well as other current and former sheriff’s officials. Through them and others, Fox is expected to try to establish that Baca had brushed off previous warnings about problems in the jail and, while he did not directly orchestrate the effort to thwart the FBI, he conceived it, kept tabs on what was going on and could have stopped it.

“It’s always challenging to make your way up the chain of command,” said Miriam Krinsky, another former federal prosecutor who led a blue-ribbon commission on jail violence. “The higher up you go, the fewer fingerprints you see on the criminal acts at issue.”

Baca’s lead attorney, Nathan Hochman, faces his own daunting challenges.

He will have to counter testimony by witnesses who will place Baca at two crucial meetings in the days after the discovery of the cellphone and say the sheriff was involved in coming up with the plan to conceal the informant’s whereabouts and was aware of the operation as it unfolded.

Prosecutors also allege Baca lied to Fox and others repeatedly during a 2013 interview he gave voluntarily, when he was not yet a target of the investigation. The decision on Friday by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson to hold a separate trial for the lying charge delivered a last-minute curve ball to Fox and Hochman, who had spent months preparing for a single trial.

Anderson made the unusual move in light of Baca’s diagnosis this year of Alzheimer’s disease. While both sides agreed the diagnosis is not relevant to whether Baca played a role in the obstruction plan in 2011, Hochman said he wanted a UCLA psychiatrist to testify that the illness had already begun to erode Baca’s memory in 2013 and was a factor in what he said during the interview with federal authorities.

Fox objected, saying it was speculation and could cause jurors to feel sympathy for Baca when reaching a verdict. The solution, Anderson concluded, was to have a second trial on just the lying charge. A date has not yet been set for the second trial.

Attempts to select a jury dragged on throughout Monday as Anderson privately heard dozens of potential jurors tell him why they were unable to commit to a trial that is expected to last about two weeks.

The selection process was also bogged down by Baca’s high profile and the extensive media attention his case has garnered. Although it is common for judges to inquire whether potential jurors come to the trial with strong opinions already formed about a defendant, the process is especially complicated in this case in light of an earlier plea deal Baca struck.

In February, after prosecutors signaled they were preparing to bring charges against him, Baca agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of lying to investigators. In exchange, the agreement called for him to spend no more than six months in prison. Anderson, however, rejected the deal, calling it too lenient.

Now, potential jurors must be painstakingly questioned about whether they knew of the guilty plea.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

victoria.kim@latimes.com

For more news on the corruption trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, follow us on Twitter: @joelrubin and @vicjkim

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