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Baca Loses Bid for New Judge in FBI Case

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A judge has denied former LA County Sheriff Leroy Baca's move to disqualify a federal judge who has overseen several high-profile cases involving sheriff's officials obstructing an FBI investigation into civil rights abuses at county jails.

In September, Baca moved to recuse U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, claiming he would not get a fair trial on conspiracy and obstruction charges because the judge is already convinced of his guilt.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright's 11-page order on Thursday said Baca's concerns are unfounded and declined to grant the retired official's motion.

Baca took issue when Anderson had said at a July sentencing hearing that Baca was part of a "wide-ranging conspiracy" to obstruct the FBI's probes at Men's Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

But Wright said Anderson was only citing court records as well as evidence the judge heard in three related cases he had presided over, including the trial of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was convicted in April for conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

"All of these matters could have been consolidated and tried together," Wright wrote. "They are that closely related."

Baca is accused of participating in a conspiracy to hide informant Anthony Brown from investigators after an FBI phone smuggled into Men's Central Jail by Deputy Gilbert Michel was found in his cell by jailers.

In August 2011, Baca asked Tanaka to investigate how the phone had ended up with Brown. The following month, Baca instructed officials to "do everything but put handcuffs" on FBI agent Leah Marx, who was investigating the case, the government says.

This year, Baca agreed to plead guilty lying to prosecutors in April 2013 about his awareness of the conspiracy and his knowledge his officials were going to approach Marx. But Baca withdrew his guilty plea after Anderson said at the retired official's July 18 sentencing that the government's recommendation of a six-month sentence was too lenient and indicated that he would receive a harsher sentence.

Anderson said it was "one thing to lie to" prosecutors and "another thing entirely, as the evidence has shown, where the chief law enforcement officer of the County of Los Angeles is involved in a wide-ranging conspiracy to cover up abuse and corruption occurring in the Men's Central Jail."

Baca said in court papers filed last month that Anderson's comments show he will not remain impartial.

Judge Wright disagreed.

"Could anything said by Judge Anderson at the sentencing hearing be reasonably construed to evidence a deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible? No," Wright wrote.

Wright said that Anderson said nothing to signal he had reached a predetermined outcome and had only stated his reasoning for rejecting a six-month sentence.

"He discussed the sentences he had handed down to other members of the conspiracy, all of whom where subordinates of Baca and all of whom were acting either at his direction or with his knowledge in carrying out his directives," Wright wrote. "He also addressed, as he was required to do, the issue of unwarranted sentencing disparities among members of the conspiracy who had been found guilty of similar conduct."

He added, "These were all proper."

With a Dec. 6 trial date on the calendar, Baca asked to remove his case to another courthouse, arguing he has been prejudiced by media coverage of the case. He wants the case moved to another district or to either Riverside or Orange counties.

Baca also wants the court to recuse prosecutor Brandon Fox who was present at the April 2013 interview. Baca says that he intends to call Fox as a witness during the trial.

The government responded to both motions earlier this week.

If a federal jury finds Baca guilty, he faces a maximum of five years in prison on the conspiracy charge, 10 years for obstruction and up to five years in prison for making a false statement.

Twenty current or former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials have been convicted in connection with the crimes, according to federal prosecutors.

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