For more than 15 years, Lee Baca was one of Los Angeles’ most prominent politicians and law enforcement leaders.
But on Wednesday, Baca’s legacy as the former sheriff of Los Angeles County took a dark turn when he agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of making false statements as part of a sweeping federal investigation into corruption and abuse in his department.
Baca resigned under pressure in 2014. But the criminal charge still stunned some observers, who reacted with a mixture of disappointment and gratification that justice was served.
“It is an unfortunate end to lengthy career in public service,” said Richard E. Drooyan, general counsel to the Citizen Committee on Jail Violence that examined the misconduct inside the county system. “This is a very significant event to charge and convicted a sheriff at the highest level.”
“What this says is the Department of Justice viewed this as a systemic problem of violence and not just a problem with individual deputies. They wanted to hold people accountable all the way to the top,” Drooyan said.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich added: “This sad saga is now over for Lee. Hopefully the remaining prosecutions will end shortly so the Sheriff’s Department can move forward.”
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said Baca demonstrated arrogance and a belief that he was untouchable and ultimately he was caught not for the crimes of deputies abusing inmates, but for covering up those crimes.
“There were terrible things that went on in the jails for a long time,” he said. “In terms of people in the jails, what happened to inmates was horrible. He is in large part to blame for that.”
Chuck Jackson, a former sheriff’s chief who oversaw custody operations before the abuse allegations, said Baca contributed to his own downfall because he listened to and promoted the wrong people and they became his information network and advisors.
“Lee is loyal to a fault,” Jackson said.
Jackson said Baca did many good things to improve the department, but allowing his friends to do what they liked in the jails caught up with him. “It is too bad …. He got and made some bad decisions at the end of his career,” he added.
In a plea agreement filed in federal court Wednesday morning, Baca admitted to lying twice about his involvement in hiding an inmate from FBI agents who were investigating brutality and corruption by sheriff’s deputies in the county jails.
In fact, Baca ordered the inmate to be isolated, putting his second-in-command, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, in charge of executing the plan, the agreement said.
Baca also admitted that he lied when he said that he was unaware that his subordinates planned to approach an FBI special agent at her home. In a meeting the day before that meeting, Baca directed the subordinates to approach the agent, stating that they should “do everything but put handcuffs” on her, the agreement said.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors have agreed not to seek a prison sentence of more than six months for Baca, said Eileen Decker, U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, 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.”