Retired Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty Wednesday to lying to federal investigators, a stunning reversal for the longtime law enforcement leader who for years insisted he played no role in the misconduct that tarnished his agency.
Baca’s plea in a downtown courtroom capped a string of prosecutions that began with low-ranking officials and worked up the chain of command.
His former No. 2, Paul Tanaka, is scheduled to stand trial in March on charges that he obstructed a federal investigation into brutality and corruption by sheriff's deputies in the county jails.
In a plea agreement filed in federal court Wednesday morning, Baca admitted that he lied when he told federal authorities that he was unaware that his subordinates planned to approach the FBI agent leading the jail investigation at her home.
Baca agreed not to contest other allegations leveled by federal prosecutors, including that he directed subordinates to approach the agent, stating that they should "do everything but put handcuffs" on her, the agreement said.
Prosecutors accused Baca in court records of lying about his involvement in hiding a jail inmate from FBI investigators. Baca, they alleged, ordered the inmate to be isolated, putting Tanaka in charge of executing the plan.
In addition, Baca falsely claimed he was unaware that some of his subordinates had interrupted and ended an interview FBI agents were conducting with the inmate, who was working as a federal informant, prosecutors alleged in the court documents.
As part of the plea deal with Baca, prosecutors have agreed not to seek a prison sentence of more than six months, Eileen Decker, U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, said at a news conference Wednesday.
Baca's guilty plea "demonstrates that the illegal behavior in the Sheriff's Department went to the very top of this organization," Decker said. "More importantly, it illustrates that those who foster and then try to hide a corrupt culture will be held accountable."
Tanaka is scheduled to stand trial in March for his alleged role in obstructing the federal investigation into the jails. In related cases, a retired sheriff's captain has pleaded guilty to lying under oath, and six other lower-ranking officials have been convicted of obstructing justice.
Baca's plea agreement does not require him to testify against Tanaka or anyone else, Decker said, but she declined to discuss the Tanaka case further.
Baca appeared in court Wednesday morning for an arraignment on the felony charge. Wearing a brown suit with a sheriff's star on the lapel, Baca said little other than to answer questions from the judge.
"You know what the government is claiming you did in this case?" U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick J. Walsh asked.
"Yes," Baca responded.
After the hearing, Baca referred media queries to his attorney, Michael Zweiback.
“He definitely feels bad,” Zweiback said about his client. Asked what Baca specifically feels bad about, the attorney said: “He feels bad about a lot of things.”
Zweiback said that federal sentencing guidelines specify up to six months in prison for making a false statement, but that Baca could also be sentenced to probation and not serve any time behind bars.
“He is ready for whatever outcome is deemed appropriate by the court,” Zweiback said.
Prosecutors have been negotiating with Baca for several months, according to Decker. Zweiback said the talks stepped up five days ago, when it became clear Baca would likely face charges.
“It’s time to put this behind him,” Zweiback said. Baca “doesn’t want the men and women of the Sheriff’s Department to be under this cloud.”
Baca is expected to appear in another courtroom Wednesday afternoon to enter his plea.
Baca, who ran the department for more than 15 years, retired in 2014 amid an FBI probe into misconduct and abuse by deputies in the county's jail system. So far, more than a dozen former sheriff's officials have been convicted as a result of the wide-ranging investigation, which began more than five years ago.
Last year, Tanaka was indicted on charges of orchestrating an elaborate scheme to thwart the FBI, raising questions about whether Baca would be the next to face prosecution.
The grand jury indictment of Tanaka offered a portrait of a department adrift, with senior officials who were responsible for investigating abuses working instead to undermine internal safeguards and ignoring repeated warnings of widespread problems in the nation's largest jail system.
In sketching out the case against Tanaka, who resigned in 2013, and another former high-ranking official, prosecutors accused them of directing a group of deputies who were convicted of carrying out the plot to impede the FBI's investigation into misconduct at the jail.
The plot was called Operation Pandora's Box.
It was launched after sheriff's officials learned in the summer of 2011 that the FBI had enlisted Anthony Brown, an inmate in the Men's Central Jail, to collect information on abusive and corrupt deputies.
In an unusual move, sheriff's officials responded by moving the convicted bank robber to a different jail under a fake name and preventing FBI agents from talking to him.
They assigned at least 13 deputies to watch him around the clock. And when the operation was over, the deputies received an internal email thanking them for helping "without asking too many questions and prying into the investigation at hand."
Baca has said Brown was moved not to hide him from the FBI, but to protect him from deputies.
Baca’s false statements occurred on April 12, 2013, during an interview with officials from the FBI and U.S. attorney's office, the plea agreement said.
“When Mr. Baca was interviewed, he denied some things. And he continued with those denials even when some in the rank-and-file were under the gun," said David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office. "He had the opportunity to lead, and he did not lead."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Kate Mather contributed to this report.