Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is facing up to six months in prison after he pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents during an investigation into civil rights abuses by his officers at LA County jails.
The case revolves around a federal investigation launched in 2011 into misconduct at the LA county jails that authorities say was purposefully thwarted by Baca and his deputies.
In 2011, the FBI used an inmate at LA's Men's Central Jail as an informant to try to gather intelligence about rumored abuses on the jail's notorious "3000 floor," where a group of sheriff's officers who called themselves the 3000 boys were believed to exhibit "gang-like and violent" behavior, according to court documents.
The inmate successfully bribed a sheriff's department officer into smuggling him a cell phone before the officer realized the inmate was actually an informant. Once tipped off to the federal investigation, the sheriff's department tried to obstruct it.
Seventeen employees of the LA County Sheriff's Department have already been convicted of criminal charges in connection with the obstruction case, and more are facing charges, the US Attorney's Office said. Baca's second in command, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, will face a criminal trial next month over conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Baca retired from his post in 2014.
The former sheriff's admission of guilt on Wednesday showed that efforts to obstruct went to the top of the agency, according to prosecutors.
"Today's charge and plea agreement demonstrate that illegal behavior within the sheriff's department went to the very top of the organization," United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement. "More importantly, this case illustrates that leaders who foster and then try to hide a corrupt culture will be held accountable."
Prosecutors say that the department, once they found out that the inmate was working with the FBI, took steps to hide him from federal agents. They moved him to a different jail, doctored his records to make it appear as though he had been released, and then re-booked him under a different name. In his new location he was constantly under the watch of deputies specially assigned to him. They prohibited the FBI from contacting the inmate and told the inmate that the deal he had with federal agents was over, according to the prosecutor's office.
As the sheriff's department learned of the threat of federal investigation, Baca met with Tanaka and other senior staff members to decide what to do. The group met on September 25, 2011, and the next day two sergeants approached the FBI agent who was working the case and threatened her with arrest, according to the felony charges outlined against Baca in court.
That directive would ultimately be the downfall of Baca. In 2013, he told federal investigators that he had no knowledge of his deputies' plans to intimidate the FBI agent on September 26, 2011. But this week, in his plea deal, Baca admitted that wasn't true. He had given the order to his deputies, and had told them, in fact, they "should do everything but put handcuffs" on her, according to the plea deal.
Baca was also accused in court papers of lying about other obstruction-related behaviors, including telling federal agents he had no role in keeping the informant and federal investigators away from one another and that he had no knowledge of his sheriff's officers abruptly ending a conversation between the FBI and the informant at the jail. The plea deal, however, only included an admission of guilt to the FBI intimidation incident; Baca agreed in the deal that he would not contest the other allegations.
The plea agreement was filed in US District Court Wednesday in Los Angeles, where Baca appeared and told a judge he understood he was admitting to lying to the FBI agents and US Attorney's Office investigators, a felony crime.
"One of the measures of an organizational culture is how it handles its allegations of misconduct," David Bowdich, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office, said in a statement. "Mr. Baca set the wrong command climate and allowed that culture to fester, instead of fostering an environment of accountability. In short, he did not lead when he had the opportunity to do so."
Federal Magistrate Judge Patrick J. Walsh will ultimately decide Baca's sentence.
Baca's attorney, Michael Zweiback, told reporters at the court appearance Wednesday that Baca "definitely feels bad… about a lot of things." He noted that Baca could be sentenced to probation rather than prison. Zweiback did not immediately return calls for comment.