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Judge throws out ex-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's plea deal, saying six months in prison not enough

A federal judge on Monday threw out a plea agreement that would have given former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca a maximum of six months in prison, saying the sentence was too lenient considering Baca’s role in obstructing an FBI investigation into the county jails.

Addressing a downtown courtroom packed with Baca’s supporters, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson said the deal “would trivialize the seriousness of the offenses … the need for a just punishment [and] the need to deter others.” 

Baca, 74, had pleaded guilty in February to a single charge of lying to federal investigators. But the former sheriff’s involvement in trying to derail the investigation reached further than that, Anderson said.

At stake was what the investigators were trying to expose, Anderson said: an “us-versus-them” culture in which deputies covered up for one another and responded to inmates with enough violence to send them to the hospital.

Six months in prison for the man who ran the Sheriff’s Department “would not address the gross abuse of the public’s trust … including the need to restore the public’s trust in law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” Anderson said.

The judge said he would allow Baca to withdraw his guilty plea, setting a new hearing date for Aug. 1. The maximum sentence for the false statement charge is five years -- the same amount of time that Baca’s former No. 2, Paul Tanaka, received last month after going to trial in a related obstruction-of-justice case.

Seven lower-ranking sheriff’s officials who have been convicted and sentenced in the obstruction case received a year and a half to more than three years in prison.

Baca’s plea agreement had called for a sentence ranging from probation to six months in prison. Prosecutors have said they agreed to the deal in part because of Baca’s willingness to plead guilty. Baca’s attorney, Michael Zweiback, argued that the former sheriff should not serve any prison time because he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Baca must now choose among several unappealing options. He could go ahead with the sentencing and accept whatever punishment Anderson has in mind. He could withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial, taking his chances with whatever charges the government might decide to bring. He could negotiate a new deal with federal prosecutors for a longer sentence that the judge would find more acceptable. 

After Monday’s hearing, Zweiback said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision but hoped to resume talks with prosecutors. He said that if he cannot reach an agreement that includes a specific sentence, rather than an open-ended guilty plea, he will not leave his client’s fate in Anderson's hands.

“At that point, we might as well take our chances at trial,” Zweiback said.

Baca’s Alzheimer’s could be a factor if the case heads to trial and his ability to understand the proceedings deteriorates. The trial could be put on hold if he is declared mentally incompetent.

“If the government believes it’s two years in ... getting to trial and sentencing him, that could leave Mr. Baca in very bad shape,” Zweiback said.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said prosecutors would not comment because the case is ongoing.

Legal experts said Anderson's move was unusual but not unexpected, considering his law-and-order reputation and comments he has made during sentencing in the related cases.

“We already knew the defendant was facing a federal judge who believed these kinds of acts were as serious as they come,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who was the executive director of a county commission that investigated brutality by jail deputies and who served as a top aide to Baca’s successor, Jim McDonnell, during his first year in office.

Anderson, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2002, is a former federal prosecutor who served on the Christopher Commission, which investigated excessive force by LAPD officers after the 1991 Rodney King beating.

In 2006, an appeals court removed Anderson from a wrongful conviction case, saying that the judge’s “impartiality might be questioned.” He was criticized again a few years later after the Daily Journal, a legal publication, published a story highlighting his delays in granting relief to three inmates deemed wrongfully convicted by lower judicial officials.

The Times reported in 2011 that Anderson allowed the cases to languish for several years, including one case in which a prisoner died behind bars while waiting for a ruling. But the chief judge at the time defended Anderson, telling The Times she didn’t believe bias played any role and that the district’s heavy caseload was to blame.

Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, said Anderson was not likely to be “swayed by sympathy or the emotional aspects of the case.” She said he was likely to be especially unforgiving of law enforcement officials who did not fulfill their duties.

“He views this type of abuse of trust more seriously, notwithstanding Baca’s health concerns,” Levenson said.

Federal sentencing law provides that people who are higher up in an organization -- mob bosses, for example — are more culpable than lower-level members, said Joseph Akrotirianakis, another former federal prosecutor now in private practice.

“Today’s events are not entirely surprising in light of the sentence that Mr. Tanaka received,” Akrotirianakis said. “That was not a fact known to the government at the time that Baca entered into his plea.”

Baca, who retired in 2014 before completing his fourth term as the head of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, won praise in office for establishing close relationships with local Muslim leaders and championing education for jail inmates.

Meanwhile, some of his deputies were brutally beating inmates as well as a jail visitor. He adopted a hands-off management style, delegating many day-to-day decisions to powerful underlings such as Tanaka.

In 2010, federal officials secretly launched an investigation into corruption and brutality by jail deputies. After sheriff’s officials discovered that an inmate, Anthony Brown, was an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and shuttled him to different locations. They also went to the home of an FBI agent and threatened her with arrest.

Prosecutors alleged that Tanaka directed the efforts to hide Brown from the FBI and intimidate the FBI agent, with Baca playing a lesser role.

In his plea agreement, Baca admitted to lying in an April 12, 2013, interview with investigators, stating that he was not aware of the plan to confront the FBI agent at her home. In fact, according to the agreement, Baca was at a meeting where officials came up with the plan, telling his subordinates that they "should do everything but put handcuffs" on her.

Baca was also involved in a conversation with subordinates about keeping Brown away from the FBI, though he denied knowledge in his interview with federal investigators, the agreement said. He was also aware that his subordinates had stopped FBI agents from questioning Brown, contrary to what he had said in the interview, according to the agreement.

In entering his guilty plea, Baca admitted only to lying about the visit to the FBI agent’s home while agreeing not to contest the prosecutors' other allegations.

In the courtroom Monday, many of Baca’s supporters wore yellow pins to express solidarity with the former sheriff.

Zweiback quoted from some of the more than 200 letters filed with the court in support of Baca. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, local elected officials, religious leaders and former jail inmates were among those who wrote to the judge describing Baca’s good deeds and empathetic nature.

A letter from Baca’s wife, Carol, included a passage about her husband’s deteriorating mental abilities. The former sheriff loses his keys and forgets appointments, Zweiback said in court on Monday, referring to the letter.

Because his short-term memory is increasingly unreliable, Baca would have trouble following the rules in prison, exposing him to punishment from staff as well as fellow inmates, Zweiback said in arguing for a sentence of probation only.

Wearing a dark suit, with sheriff’s star pins affixed to his lapel and shirt cuffs, the former sheriff addressed the judge. He said he regretted not taking control of the investigation into Brown.

“I stand here today humbled and filled with remorse for my mistakes as sheriff of Los Angeles County,” Baca said. “I did not lead. Instead, I delegated the responsibility for this important duty, and I should not have.”

Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox told Anderson that Baca’s lies were part of an attempt to cover up what had been going on in the Sheriff’s Department.

“That’s not what a leader does,” Fox said. “That’s what a coward does.”

Brian Moriguchi, head of the union that represents Sheriff’s Department supervisors, said Baca is responsible for the actions of his subordinates, especially Tanaka, and should receive more than six months considering the sentences the others will serve.

Many sheriff's deputies have been closely watching the criminal prosecutions to see if the punishments for former bosses would approach those of lower-ranking employees following their orders.

“It’s not only widespread in the department, it’s widespread in society — the feeling that those who have power seem to be exempt from the same rules as everyone else,” Moriguchi said.

cindy.chang@latimes.com

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more Southern California news, follow us on Twitter: @cindychangLA and @marisagerber

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UPDATES:

7:55 p.m.: This article was updated with minor rewriting and additional comments from legal experts.

3:20 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional comments from Baca’s attorney.

1:15 p.m. This article has been updated with comments from a legal expert. 

10:45 a.m.: This story was updated with more details from the court hearing.

10:20 a.m.: This story was updated with a comment from Baca’s attorney and an explanation of the decision Baca must now make.

This story was originally published at 9:50 a.m.

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