A federal judge Monday rejected a plea deal for former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, which would have seen the former top cop serve zero to six months in prison for lying to investigators during an FBI probe of civil rights violations in the jail system.
The arrangement has been criticized as lenient, and the judge asked Baca if he wanted to reconsider his guilty plea.
Baca's attorney, Michael Zweiback, said the judge was not considering his client's real crime, which he said was three lies he told, under oath, almost three years after the jail scandal.
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"That's the conduct that's at issue," Zweiback said. "But clearly, the judge wants to hold him accountable for everything that occurred."
Baca, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and is showing signs of dementia, is arguing for a probationary sentence, claiming his medical condition and past career make him susceptible to abuse while in custody.
However, federal prosecutors contend that the county's former top lawman deserves six months behind bars for lying to investigators in 2013 when he said he was unaware that sheriff's deputies were going to the home of an FBI agent to confront and threaten her over her involvement in the probe of corruption within the department.
The same year Baca committed the offense, he was named Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriffs' Association.
Before Baca was sentenced, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson was needed to first sign off on a plea deal that a fellow federal judge recently called "troublesome."
The plea agreement would have allowed Baca to serve anywhere from zero to six months in prison. Anderson, who has rejected leniency in related cases, was allowed to nix the deal, forcing Baca to attempt to negotiate a new agreement or go to trial.
Federal prosecutors wrote in pre-sentencing papers that the 74-year-old Baca is physically fit and "able to function in his daily life," and his Alzheimer's diagnosis has "an uncertain prognosis for how quickly it will deteriorate his cognitive function."
"The agreement and the six-month sentence are appropriate after taking into account all sides of defendant Baca, including his crime, his current health and his likely prognosis," according to the document signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox.
Hundreds of letters in support of probation for Baca have been filed with the court, including a note from Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda.
Baca pleaded guilty Feb. 10 after denying for years that he had played any role in the wide-ranging scandal that stained the department and led to his retirement.
"I made a mistake and accept being held accountable," Baca said in a written statement issued on the courthouse steps following his plea hearing.
His former No. 2, Paul Tanaka, was sentenced last month by Anderson to five years behind bars for his role as ringleader of the conspiracy to thwart the federal jails probe.
According to his proposed plea deal, Baca agreed not to contest other allegations leveled by prosecutors, including that in 2011 he directed subordinates to approach the FBI agent, stating that they should "do everything but put handcuffs" on her.
Prosecutors also accused Baca of lying about his involvement in hiding a jail inmate from FBI investigators. Baca, they alleged, ordered the inmate to be isolated, putting Tanaka in charge of executing the plan.
In addition, Baca falsely claimed he was unaware that some of his subordinates had interrupted and ended an interview FBI agents were conducting with the inmate, who was working as a federal informant, prosecutors alleged in the court documents.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
According to the court filing, the U.S. attorney's office "does not view defendant's current condition as having any effect on his decision to lie to the federal government during his interview."
Prosecutors consulted with a medical expert who reviewed Baca's test results and clinical reports, confirming that the former sheriff is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, but his cognitive impairment so far is mild. The expert concluded that Baca's cognitive impairment will be "severe'' in five to 10 years.
Prosecutors note in the document that Baca lied to investigators to either avoid "political fallout" or to avoid criminal charges.
"Defendant's lies showed that corruption went all the way to the top of the Sheriff's Department," prosecutors wrote in the document. "But his crime is not as serious as the crimes by the members of the Sheriff's Department who were convicted of beating inmates and filing false reports in order to have people charged with offenses they did not commit."
As for Baca's claims that he could be in danger of abuse if sent to a federal facility, prosecutors wrote that the Bureau of Prisons houses many "well-known inmates" who are well protected. In any case, the ex-lawman would not be jailed with violent criminals, prosecutors said.
The BOP currently houses some 300 inmates with severe forms of cognitive impairment resulting from dementia or Alzheimer's, and they are treated and kept safe, according to prosecutors.
At a May sentencing hearing in a related case before U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O'Connell — whose courtroom is opposite Anderson's — the judge mentioned the Baca plea deal in the context of the tough sentence prosecutors were seeking for two deputies found guilty of a similar charge.
O'Connell described the agreement with Baca as "troubling."
When questioned by O'Connell about the difference in sentencing recommendations, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams said the cases were "apples and oranges," and noted that Baca had turned himself in, admitted guilt and had not been accused of using excessive force himself.
"He accepted responsibility," Williams said, adding that Baca's agreement was "very favorable."