Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty Wednesday to lying to federal investigators conducting a corruption and civil rights probe into the county jail system he once ran.
Baca’s decision to plead guilty to willfully making false statements was announced by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.
“Today’s charge and plea agreement demonstrate that illegal behavior within the Sheriff’s Department went to the very top of the organization,” Decker said. “More importantly, this case illustrates that leaders who foster and then try to hide a corrupt culture will be held accountable.”
The false statements occurred in a 2013 interview regarding corruption and civil rights abuses at the county’s Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Decker said.
“During this interview, Sheriff Baca lied,” Decker said. “He lied when he stated that he did not know that members of the Sheriff’s Department had approached an FBI agent outside her home, and he lied when he stated he was unaware of efforts within the Sheriff’s Department to keep the FBI informant away from the FBI.”
The informant was an inmate at Men’s Central Jail who agreed to cooperate with the FBI, and had received a cellphone smuggled in by a sheriff’s deputy who had been bribed, Decker said.
The inmate was identified Los Angeles Times as Anthony Brown — who was serving a lengthy sentence for bank robbery.
He told the Times the cellphone was to be used to take photos of deputies beating inmates — images he would then send to the FBI.
Sheriff’s officials, at odds with the FBI’s investigation, approached an FBI agent at her home and threatened to arrest her, Decker said.
The threatened arrest was in relation to the cellphone smuggling, according to audio tapes obtained by This American Life.
Further, sheriff’s officials hid the informant from the FBI.
“This inmate and cooperator was essentially made to disappear within the jail system when the deputies learned he was cooperating with the FBI,” Decker said.
Baca appeared in U.S. District Court Wednesday to enter his plea to a single felony count.
Baca’s attorney, Michael Zweiback, said Baca was facing a maximum of six months in custody under the agreement. He said both he and prosecutors were bound by the deal. If the judge did not agree to such a sentence, the deal would become moot, he said.
Baca retired from the department in 2014 amid the ongoing FBI probe into alleged beatings and cover-ups within the sprawling county jail system.
To date, more than a dozen sheriff’s employees have been convicted in connection with the probe.
Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, once Baca’s second in command, was indicted last year. He is accused of orchestrating a cover-up and has pleaded not guilty.
Tanaka’s indictment raised questions among observers as to whether Baca would be charged.
H. Dean Steward, one of Tanaka’s defense attorneys, said that he plans to call Baca as a witness when Tanaka goes to trial in March.
“We had planned to call Sheriff Baca as a witness, and that continues to be our plan,” Steward and his co-counsel said in a joint statement. “His guilty plea changes nothing for our defense.”
The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs said Baca deserves punishment.
“The plea agreement sends a strong message that no one is above the law. There must be zero tolerance for this type of failed leadership. This by no means undermines the dedication and hard work of the more than 9,000 deputy sheriffs who put their lives on the line protecting L.A. County residents,” the group said in a statement.