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Baca Found Guilty of Orchestrating Scheme to Obstruct Federal Investigation into Jails

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was found guilty on March 15 of leading a conspiracy to obstruct justice by overseeing a scheme designed to impede a federal investigation into corruption and civil rights abuses at county jail facilities.

Baca was also convicted of lying to federal investigators when he denied knowledge of key aspects of the obstruction plot.

Former Sheriff Lee Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka

After about two days of deliberations, a federal jury found that Baca authorized and condoned a scheme that now has resulted in the conviction of 10 former members of the Sheriff’s Department. During the trial, prosecutors described Baca as being the top figure in the conspiracy, which also involved his right-hand man and deputies who implemented orders from the sheriff.

The jury convicted Baca on three felony counts: conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statement to federal investigators. As a result of the guilty verdicts, Baca, 74, faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who has presided over several trials involving members of the conspiracy, has scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 15.

The obstruction plot began in August 2011 after LASD officials discovered a cell phone in an inmate’s cell at the Men’s Central Jail, linked the phone to the FBI’s Civil Rights Squad and learned that the inmate was an FBI informant. The cell phone had been smuggled into the jail by a corrupt deputy who took bribes. The FBI developed the informant as part of an investigation into the county jail system, which for years had been the subject of allegations of inmate abuse and subsequent cover-ups. The evidence presented at trial showed that the sheriff wanted to avoid federal scrutiny of his troubled jails.

As part of the obstruction scheme, Baca ordered a criminal investigation of the FBI agents conducting an undercover investigation, and he directed that the informant be concealed from federal investigators. Members of the conspiracy then hid the informant from federal authorities, engaged in witness tampering in an effort to prevent information from being shared with federal authorities, and threatened to arrest the lead FBI agent on the case.

While Baca put his right-hand man, then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, in charge of the scheme, Baca participated in dozens of meetings and phone calls with members of the conspiracy and admitted directing his deputies to approach the FBI agent. Baca participated in the scheme after being warned by a top deputy that the actions would amount to obstruction of justice.

“The former sheriff has now been held accountable for overseeing a widespread scheme to obstruct justice by issuing orders designed to protect a corrupt culture,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra Brown. “As the sheriff for Los Angeles County, Mr. Baca had a duty to uphold the law, a duty he utterly failed when he played an active role in undermining a federal investigation into illegal conduct at the jails. Today’s verdict shows that no one is above the law.”

“By obstructing the rule of law, Mr. Baca failed both the dedicated men and women of the largest sheriff’s department in the country, as well as the community he swore to serve,” said Deirdre Fike, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “As this dark chapter for the LASD nears to a close and the department embarks upon reform under new leadership, we owe a debt of gratitude to the agents and prosecutors who worked on this case over several years and, at times, under very difficult circumstances. Their unfailing commitment to this case and to rooting out corrupt officials can only restore faith in law enforcement going forward.”

The case against Baca is the result of an investigation by the FBI and is one in a series of cases resulting from the investigation into county jail facilities in Downtown Los Angeles that has resulted in 21 convictions.

As a result of the latest verdicts, Baca becomes the tenth member of the LASD to be convicted in the obstruction scheme, including Tanaka, who was sentenced to five years in federal prison and surrendered to authorities in Colorado in January. During Baca’s trial, his defense attorneys blamed Tanaka for the conspiracy; during Tanaka’s trial last year, his attorneys placed the blame on Baca.

Eleven other former deputies have been convicted of federal charges, mostly related to unprovoked beatings of inmates and subsequent cover-ups.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox, chief of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section; Assistant U.S. Attorney Lizabeth Rhodes, chief of the General Crimes Section; and Assistant U.S. Attorney Eddie Jauregui of the Major Frauds Section.

Defense attorney Nathan Hochman said that Baca, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, will be examined by medical experts before the judge imposes sentence. The defense has suggested that Baca was telling the truth when he told investigators he didn’t remember certain details.

Baca told reporters that he looks forward to winning on appeal.

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