LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com/AP) — Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was sentenced Friday to three years in prison and one year of supervised release for obstructing a federal probe into corruption in the jails.
Baca was sentenced by a judge who has shown little leniency to the 74-year-old Baca who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Nor was the judge moved by Baca’s otherwise distinguished 48-year career or celebrity character witnesses.
Prosecutors had asked for a two-year prison term because Baca was atop a conspiracy to obstruct justice in an investigation that focused on corruption in the nation’s largest jail system. Baca had faced up to 20 years in federal prison.
Defense lawyer Nathan Hochman asked the judge to allow Baca to remain free while he appeals the jury verdict on three convictions.
Hochman also plans to challenge several unfavorable rulings the judge made against Baca prior to two trials.
Baca abruptly resigned in 2014 after the probe netted several underlings. The FBI used an inmate informant with a cellphone they provided to record incidents of corruption.
The crimes tarnished Baca’s reputation as a man on a mission to promote education and rehabilitation behind bars and who preached tolerance and understanding between people of different cultures and faiths.
The question is how to reconcile the image of the soft-spoken, rail-thin, Zen-like reformer with the man who told the local FBI head and top federal prosecutor he was ready to “gun up” for battle with them and furiously stated: “I’m the goddamn sheriff, these are my goddamn jails.”
Baca, who jetted around the world to speak about his approach to law enforcement, denied any involvement in the scandal, but acknowledged he had fallen out of touch with what was happening in his department. But prosecutors said he had turned a blind eye to problems at his jails, including vicious beatings by guards who covered up the abuse by falsifying records.
Baca’s “crimes showed that corruption went all the way to the top,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox wrote in sentencing papers. “Instead of acting as a leader, Baca distanced himself from the actions of his subordinates, and lied about his own conduct.”
Prosecutors also won convictions against 20 other members of the department for crimes ranging from assaults by rank-and-file deputies to the department’s second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, who oversaw efforts to derail the federal probe.
While Tanaka, also convicted of the obstruction and conspiracy charges, was sentenced to five years in prison, prosecutors said Baca deserved the lighter term because there was no evidence he tampered with witnesses and Tanaka fostered a culture of corruption. They also cited Baca’s degenerative disease.
Baca had originally pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to federal investigators in a deal that would have required no more than six months in prison. But when Judge Percy Anderson rejected that as too lenient, Baca withdrew his plea.
Prosecutors then hit him with the two additional obstruction counts. At Baca’s first trial, a jury deadlocked 11-1 for acquittal and a mistrial was declared. He was convicted three months later by a different jury at his second trial.
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman said Baca’s misdeeds over six weeks in 2011 and four false answers to 400 questions during a voluntary interview with authorities in 2013 must be weighed against an “extraordinary record of public service” over 48 years and along with his condition, which has progressed from mild cognitive impairment to mild dementia.
More than 200 friends and supporters wrote letters of support to the court on behalf of Baca, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former California Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, former Los Angeles Ram-turned-minister Rosey Grier, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, Hollywood executives, former jailbirds — even a public relations executive whose firm represents the deputies union that has been critical of Baca.
They hailed his unconventional style of policing, his compassion and a lifetime of good works.
Hochman plans to challenge several of Anderson’s rulings that he said were improper and showed bias toward Baca, including a decision not to allow medical experts to testify whether Baca’s medical condition impaired his memory when he lied to federal authorities.
“This diagnosis is a sentence of its own,” Hochman wrote. “In this case, a sentence of imprisonment is essentially a cognitive death sentence given the progression of Mr. Baca’s Alzheimer’s disease.”
But as CBS 2’s Dave Lopez reports, Baca’s medical condition was not a factor in the judge’s sentencing decision.
“Alzheimer’s,” said Judge Anderson, “is not a get out of jail card.”
Lopez said post-sentencing, Baca remained steadfast that he did nothing wrong.
“In the final comments,” he said, “I will never accept a cellphone in the county jail given to a career criminal. I don’t care who puts it in.”
The judge’s tongue lashing made it clear that he did not want to see Baca play the blame game.
“Without your criminal activity,” the judge said, “none of this would have happened. In the end, this is your legacy.”
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)