Plagued By Scandal, Sheriff Lee Baca Resigns to Avoid Bruising Re-Election Battle

Gene Maddaus (LA Weekly) | January 7, 2014

Sheriff Lee Baca announced his resignation this morning, bringing to an end a 48-year career that has lately been marred by corruption charges and woeful mismanagement of the county jails.

Baca choked up as he reflected on his career, but said stepping aside would spare the department from a bruising negative campaign.

“I know I’m 72 in May, and I don’t see myself as the future,” Baca said. “I see myself as part of the past.”

Baca’s resignation will take effect at the end of the month. He asked that the Board of Supervisors appoint Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald to serve out the remaining year of his term.

Baca also encouraged two other assistant sheriffs, James Hellmold and Todd Rogers, to enter the race to succeed him. After Baca’s press conference, Rogers announced that he would pull papers to run for sheriff today.

Baca’s troubles began three years ago, when the ACLU and clergy groups began sounding the alarm about rampant abuse in the jails. In 2011, the ACLU issued a report citing testimony of numerous jail chaplains who recounted excessive violence meted out against inmates. The ACLU said Baca had turned a blind eye to the abuse, and called on him to resign.

The L.A. Times and other media outlets published a series of reports on jail violence, and the FBI also launched its own investigation. The county Board of Supervisors created a citizens’ commission to investigate the claims. The commission’s report, issued in 2012, was damning of Baca’s leadership, stating that if he were a CEO, he would have been fired. The report also blamed much of the violence on a culture of poor accountability fostered in large measure by Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. The report recommended that Tanaka be removed from command of the jail system.

At first, Baca was defiant, saying that his critics were overstating their case and ignoring the innovative educational programs he had created in the jails. But by late 2012, he had begun to take the criticism more seriously.

Last spring, he forced Tanaka to retire. Tanaka turned around and launched his own campaign for sheriff, taking aim at Baca’s mismanagement and saying that he would restore clear and consistent leadership to the department.

Bob Olmsted, a retired commander who had blown the whistle on jail violence, also announced that he was running.

Early last summer, Baca promoted Rogers to assistant sheriff, and put him in charge of reorganizing the department and implementing reforms. Many reforms have in fact been implemented, and violence in the jails has been on the decline.

But Baca could not escape the scandal.

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Photo credit: Ted Soqui

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