The rise and fall of Lee Baca, L.A. County’s onetime ‘Teflon Sheriff’
Former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca’s conviction Wednesday for obstructing a federal investigation into abuses in county jails and lying to cover up the interference is a dramatic end to career marked by both early promise and running scandal.
For years, Baca won praise in law enforcement circles around the nation for his outreach to Muslim groups, progressive views on educating jail inmates and battling homelessness. But in the years before he stepped down from office in 2014, his department had been mired in scandal.
Here is a look at Baca’s record from the pages of The Times:
An East L.A. native
Raised by his grandparents in working-class East Los Angeles, Baca dropped out of community college. He was hired as a beat cop with the Sheriff’s Department and worked his way up the ranks, earning a doctorate from USC. Along the way, he developed a philosophy about policing that went beyond simply arresting criminals and included rehabilitation and education.
In 1998, as a top commander within the department, he launched a campaign to unseat his longtime mentor, incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block. One top aide recalled Baca’s approach then as being the opposite of Daryl Gates, the controversial former LAPD chief criticized for a militaristic take on law enforcement that alienated minority communities. Baca drew his support from ethnic communities within the county.
Hailed as reformer
In his first years in office, Baca impressed some reformers.
He required his deputies to memorize a pledge to fight against racism, sexism and homophobia. He created dozens of ethnic advisory committees, formalizing a pipeline between his office and the county’s many minority groups. He opened a drug and alcohol treatment center for jail inmates as part of rehabilitation efforts.
Baca successfully pushed for a watchdog agency that would monitor how the department handled allegations of misconduct by deputies. The move was all the more notable because it came at a time when the LAPD was mired in the Rampart corruption scandal.
A few years into his tenure, Baca was faced with a series of problems. Racially motivated violence erupted between black and Latino inmates. Sheriff’s officials were blamed for failing to prevent a string of inmate killings by other inmates.
Then-Chief Deputy Lee Baca poses with a group of supporters for a photo in downtown Los Angeles following his announcement that he is a candidate for L.A. County sheriff on January 22, 1998.(Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times)
Sheriff–elect Lee Baca meets with rank-and-file sheriff’s deputies at the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station in November 1998.(Rolando Otero / Los Angeles Times)
Lee Baca is sworn in as sheriff of Los Angeles County on December 12, 1998.(Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Supervisor Gloria Molina hold a news conference on a proposed ban on gun sales on August 24, 1999.(Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times)
Vice President Al Gore and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca arrive at the Sheriff’s Department training academy in Whittier on June 8, 2000.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Sheriff Lee Baca speaks with news media on October 6, 2000, about a pilot program that linked the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the Sheriff’s Department in the event of an emergency.(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Gov. Gray Davis appears at a news conference with L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and other law enforcement personnel on July 24, 2003, in a push to pass Davis’ proposed budget.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, left, and L.A. Police Chief William Bratton share a light–hearted moment with Torrance Police Chief Jim Herren and Long Beach Police Chief Tony Batts as they appear before the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on July 20, 2004. The board approved placing on the ballot a half–cent sales tax to fund law enforcement needs.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, right, arrives at Compton City Hall to announce the department’s new shooting policy at a news conference on June 9, 2005.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Community activist Morris Griffin, left, shakes hands with Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca after he outlined the department’s new shooting policy at a news conference at Compton City Hall on June 9, 2005.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca holds a modified AK–47, one of hundreds of firearms confiscated, during a Compton-area gang task force news conference on May 8, 2006, at the Compton Sheriff’s Station.(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Sheriff Lee Baca, center, with Sheriff’s Chief Ronnie Williams, left, and LAPD Det. Art Placencia during an election night party at the Holiday Inn in downtown Los Angeles on June 6, 2006.(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca meets with inmates to listen to their complaints and issues at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles on October 1, 2011.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca examine a high-capacity shotgun, one of 363 shotguns among more than 2,000 firearms collected during a gun buy-back program, on Dec. 27, 2012.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca faces the media during a news conference on December 9, 2013, in response to an announcement of the FBI arrests of 17 sworn members of the Sheriff’s Department in connection with a federal probe into activities at L.A. County jails.(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announces on January 7, 2014, that he will not seek a fifth term and will retire.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca shakes hands with Celes King, vice chair of the Congress On Racial Equality of California, after Baca announces his retirement on January 7, 2014.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca admires the craftsmanship in a court chamber on the eighth floor of the of the newly refurbished 1925 Hall of Justice in Los Angeles on Oct 8, 2014. Baca was instrumental in saving the earthquake-damaged building.(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca leaves U.S. District Court after being arraigned on charges of obstructing justice and lying to the federal government on August 12, 2016.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca waits for a vehicle on the loading dock of the L.A. Federal Courthouse on July 18, 2016, after a judge threw out the ex-sheriff’s plea deal, calling a 6-month prison term too lenient.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, center, escorted by his wife, Carol Chiang, right, and his attorney, Nathan Hochman, center left, walks out of the federal courthouse after Baca’s first obstruction trial ends in a mistrial on December 22, 2016.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, left, with his wife, Carol Chiang, walks to court on March 15, 2017.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca talks to the media outside the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse after he was found guilty of obstruction on March 15, 2017.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The ‘Teflon Sheriff’
By the mid-2000s, Baca was under fire for releasing thousands of inmates early from his cash-strapped jails, with many of the freed going on to commit new crimes.
His department was accused of giving actor Mel Gibson preferential treatment following his 2006 drunk driving arrest in Malibu. A year later, Baca’s decision to free Paris Hilton weeks before she finished her jail term for a probation violation made international news.
The sheriff weathered the storms, comfortably winning reelection. L.A. Weekly began calling him the “Teflon Sheriff.”
Brought down by jail scandal
The beginning of the end of Baca’s career as sheriff came several years ago when federal authorities began investigating allegations of abuse in the jail system, which he oversaw.
The investigation led to numerous prosecutions and convictions of lower-level jail officials and sheriff’s commanders.
But the federal prosecutors focused on Baca’s role in trying to impede the investigation.
To get to Baca, prosecutors methodically worked their way up the ranks of a group of sheriff’s officials who were accused of conceiving and carrying out a scheme to impede the FBI jail inquiry. In all, 10 people — from low-level deputies to Baca and his former second in command — have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Several other deputies have been found guilty of civil rights violations for beatings they delivered on inmates and visitors in the jails.
Prosecutors argued that Baca was part of a conspiracy, hatched in the summer of 2011, to obstruct attempts by the FBI to investigate allegations of corruption and abuse by deputies in his jails.
Although Baca delegated day-to-day handling of the obstruction plot to his trusted undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, he helped direct it and was kept apprised of developments from his place at the top of the command chain, prosecutors led by Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox told jurors. The scheme, prosecutors argued, included efforts to keep FBI agents away from an inmate who had been working for them as an informant, manipulating potential witnesses in the federal inquiry and intimidating an FBI agent.
In his closing words to the jury before they began deliberating, Fox excoriated Baca, comparing him to a cowardly chess king who remained safely back while dispatching pawns and other underlings to do his “dirty work.”
The government’s first trial against Baca ended in a mistrial. So prosecutors adjusted their case this time around.
The addition of new witnesses, elimination of others, and playing excerpts of Baca’s interview were an attempt by prosecutors to address what jurors from the first trial said was a fundamental problem with the government’s case: A lack of hard evidence tying Baca directly to the plot to interfere with the FBI investigation.
In the face of the government’s adjustments, Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, stuck largely to the script that almost won Baca his freedom in the first trial. He argued that Tanaka took advantage of the sheriff’s trust, keeping Baca in the dark while he carried out the obstruction scheme. And as before, Hochman tried to poke holes in the government’s case by emphasizing the lack of any smoking gun that proves Baca’s guilt.
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