By Christopher Zoukis
A federal judge has handed a three-year prison sentence to Leroy “Lee” Baca, who was sheriff of Los Angeles County for 15 years, for his role in covering up abuses in the county’s jail system that was being investgated by the FBI. The L.A. Sheriff’s Department has more than 18,000 employees and is responsible for policing over 4,000 square miles and the nation’s largest jail system.
Judge Percy Anderson, who last year rejected as too lenient a proposed plea bargain that would have brought Baca no more than six months in prison, said at the May 12 sentencing that the former sheriff was guilty of a “gross abuse”of the public trust placed in him. The judge said his stringent sentence was designed in part to act as a deterrent to misconduct by other officials.
In 2010, the FBI began to investigate reports of brutality by jail personnel and official cover-ups of inmate mistreatment. About 20 members of the county sheriff’s office were charged with conspiring in various ways to block the probe, lying to federal investigators, witness intimidation, and conspiring to cover up their actions. Baca stepped down in 2014, when the scandal gained high visibility. He and his right-hand man, undersheriff Paul Tanaka, were indicted in 2015.
In April 2016, a jury convicted Tanaka of obstructing the FBI’s probe, and sentenced him to a five-year term. According to complaints, after the FBI bribed a jail employee to smuggle a cellphone into an inmate cooperating with the probe, Tanaka and others conspired to keep the informant from communicating with the investigators, at one point shuttling him to various locations inside the Men’s Central Jail and outside it, under false names, for more than a month to keep the informant’s FBI handlers from communicating with him.
At one point, in an attempt to learn what the FBI had discovered, deputies reporting to Tanaka and Baca even threatened the lead FBI investigating agent with arrest. Eight other sheriff’s office personnel have been convicted in the long-running scandal, on charges ranging from inmate abuse to obstructing or lying to a federal investigator.
Baca’s first trial ended in a mistrial in December, when the jury deadlocked, with all but one member favoring acquittal. His defense argued any actions aimed at blocking the FBI probe were carried out without Baca’s knowledge, but some underlings testified that the chief had directed some parts of the plot and had been kept informed of others.
It has not yet been determined to which federal prison Baca—who is 74 and has been diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s—will have to report by July 25. Baca’s condition was doubtless a factor in his prison term being set lower than the sentencing guidelines recommendation of between 41 and 51 months. But Judge Jackson’s sentence was a year more than what had been recommended by federal prosecutors.
The ex-lawman has asked to be allowed to remain out on bail while his sentence is appealed, but it is not clear whether that request will be granted. He’ll also face a year’supervision after his release and have to pay a $7,500 fine.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.