Ex-LA sheriff withdraws plea, will go to trial

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has withdrawn his guilty plea and chosen to go to trial on a charge of lying to federal investigators about allegations of corruption in his jail

After withdrawing his plea, Baca told a horde of reporters on the steps of the downtown courthouse that he had done so because of “untruthful statements” made by the judge and prosecutors about his involvement in a scheme by sheriff’s officials to thwart the FBI’s jail probe.

Negotiations are continuing between prosecutors and defense lawyers to reach an agreement on how much time in prison former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca should serve for lying to federal authorities.

The hearing was delayed so that Baca’s legal team can negotiate with prosecutors on a possible new plea agreement. FILE – In this Feb. 10, 2016, file photo, former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca leaves U.S. Court House building in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016.

Anderson surprised many court observers when he rejected the plea deal.

Baca, who pleaded guilty to trying to thwart an FBI investigation into abuses at the jails he ran, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and must decide whether he spends the best remaining days of his life fighting to stay out of jail or behind bars. But a federal judge rejected that sentence last month as too lenient, saying it failed to address Baca’s “gross abuse of the public’s trust”.

The former sheriff needed to serve more time, the judge said.

“He is suffering from Alzheimer’s, which has become advanced and it’s a very significant and concerning time for him about what he should do next”, Zweiback said today outside court. “If he’s not going to be in a situation where he has some understanding of what he’s walking into, then he may feel he has no alternative but to fight for his life and go to trial”. Rescinding his previous guilty pleas, Baca will go to trial on September 20.

Jurors in the case will not be able to hear about the guilty plea, but widespread publicity about it could make it harder to seat a jury.

He pleaded guilty in February to a charge of making false statements to investigators when he asserted in 2013 that he had no prior knowledge of his deputies’ efforts to harass a Federal Bureau of Investigations agent and thwart a criminal probe of his department.

In deciding to walk away from the agreement he struck with federal prosecutors, Baca opened the door to the government bringing a broader and more serious case against him that could include charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy in addition to the lying allegation. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, Baca’s health is expected to get worse over the next two years, according to his attorney.

After discovery of the FBI mole who was trying to gather evidence of beatings, Baca and other higher-ups tried to derail the investigation, having underlings shuffle the inmate to different jails under different names and trying to intimidate an FBI agent. Baca’s second-in-command Paul Tanka has already been sentenced to five years for obstruction of justice. Anderson said it was “one thing to lie. another thing entirely” for the county’s top cop to be “involved in a wide-ranging conspiracy to cover up abuse and corruption”. His attorney, Michael Zweiback, told City News Service on Friday that the first option was off the table since no new deal with federal prosecutors was reached. “I need to set the record straight about me and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on misleading aspects of the federal investigation while I am capable of doing so”.

But FBI agents found a deeply rooted culture of corruption in which sheriff’s deputies actively attempted to thwart federal attempts to enlist a jailhouse informant.

“I thank my friends and family for encouraging me to stand up for what is right”, Baca said, with a male supporter punctuating his words with “God bless you” and “We love you, sheriff”.

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