Prosecutors: Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca was heartbeat of jail conspiracy
By: Susan Abram
Former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was “the heartbeat of conspiracy” when it came to hiding abuses within Men’s Central Jail, and he did nothing to hold deputies who beat inmates accountable, prosecutors said in federal court Wednesday.The remarks were part of opening statements during the first day of Baca’s jail corruption trial, held at the downtown L.A. federal courthouse. In a 40-minute presentation, federal prosecutor Brandon Fox outlined for the jury how Baca and other top brass at the Sheriff’s Department allegedly worked to quash an FBI investigation into jail abuses in August and September of 2011. They moved an inmate around, changed his name, and threatened other inmates with retribution if they spoke to outsiders about what happened inside the jails, he said. Baca, said Fox, was entrusted by the public to defend them, but when it came down to his department, his deputies, his jails, Fox added, “Mr. Baca abused that power.”
Fox further suggested to the six men and six women on the jury that like police who keep the public away from a crime scene, Baca, too, pushed away the spotlight on jail abuse.
“Nothing to see here,” Fox repeated again and again of how Baca reacted to abuses.
But Baca’s defense attorney, Nathan Hochman, disagreed with that assessment in his opening statement, saying instead that FBI investigators looking into abuse had endangered inmates’ safety and that the former sheriff tried to protect inmates. Baca’s mission was: “Defend the rights of all, including the incarcerated.”
Hochman went on to say that former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka — Baca’s second-in-command — had his own agenda, orchestrated the corruption and did not tell his boss what was happening. Tanaka is serving five years in federal prison on corruption charges.
“The evidence will show the FBI stonewalled Sheriff Baca,” Hochman said. “The evidence will show the sheriff was not afraid of having anyone looking into the jails.”
Baca, now 74, oversaw the largest jail system in the country before he retired in 2014. There were 18,000 inmates at that time.
A federal grand jury indicted him in August on charges alleging that he conspired to obstruct a grand jury investigation, obstructed justice, and lied to the government in connection with the FBI probe into jail-abuse allegations.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson decided to split those charges so that testimony from a mental health expert could be heard by one jury, but not another.
Anderson agreed with federal prosecutors that testimony from a defense expert, who is expected to say Baca was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease while being investigated, is irrelevant to two of the three allegations against him: conspiracy and obstruction.
The first jury, seated Tuesday, will hear the case against Baca on those two charges alone.
A second jury will then be selected at a later date to hear the third charge against him of allegedly making a false statement to federal investigators.
Baca pleaded guilty in February to lying to investigators in an April 2013 interview when he said he did not know that Sheriff’s Department officials planned to approach an FBI special agent who was investigating the abuses.
But during his sentencing on July 18, Anderson rejected the former sheriff’s plea agreement with prosecutors, saying a six-month sentence was too light and diminished his role in a series of events that led to deputies covering up abuses, looking the other way and altering records.
Five witnesses were brought in to testify Wednesday, one of them a Catholic chaplain who said he saw a beating of an inmate at Men’s Central Jail in 2009. The chaplain became emotional when he described for the jury how the inmate, who was handcuffed, was punched and kicked as he begged the three deputies to stop. The chaplain said he filed a report and met Baca two years later. He said he remembered Baca asking his staff “Why wasn’t I told about this sooner?”
Testimony is expected to continue today from a retired sheriff’s commander who supervised deputies at the Men’s Central Jail and who said he was threatened by a group of them. He said he saw deputies with broken right hands, suggesting that beatings were common at the jail.