LOS ANGELES (CN) - Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty Wednesday to lying to investigators during a federal probe of corruption in the county jail system.
The retired sheriff appeared at an afternoon hearing in U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson's courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, and waived his right to an indictment and trial.
Wearing a brown suit with a small sheriff's badge on his lapel and a silk handkerchief in his top pocket, Baca sat stiffly at counsel's table and stared straight ahead after entering the courtroom, occasionally glancing into the packed gallery.
He consulted quietly with his attorney as Anderson questioned him, waiving his right to an indictment by a grand jury and a bench or jury trial.
"How do you plead to the one-count information?" Anderson asked Baca.
"Guilty, your honor," Baca said.
Baca faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. At Anderson's discretion, he may not do any jail time at all.
He will return to the court for sentencing on May 16.
With his guilty plea, Baca becomes the 18th person convicted in an FBI investigation of corruption and civil rights abuses at two downtown jailhouses in Los Angeles - Men's Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
Charging information issued on Wednesday states that while Baca was sheriff he "knowingly and willfully" made false statements to investigators during an interview in April 2013.
The roots of Baca's fall from grace can be traced to when a sheriff's deputy took a bribe to smuggle a cell phone into Men's Central Jail. That phone was delivered to an FBI informant, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
After jailers discovered the phone and concluded the inmate was cooperating with the FBI, Baca ordered the man, identified in the charging information as "AB," isolated from the rest of the jail population.
In August 2011, Baca asked his second in command, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, to investigate how the phone had ended up with the inmate, his plea agreement states.
That same month Tanaka and Capt. Tom Carey met with the U.S. attorney and asked the office to work with the department to investigate the allegations of civil rights violations and exclude the FBI, prosecutors say.
In September 2011, Baca instructed officials to "do everything but put handcuffs" on an FBI agent investigating the case, the plea agreement says.
On Sept. 26, two sergeants in the department's Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau cornered the agent outside her residence and threatened to arrest her, prosecutors say.
U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said at a news conference that Baca told investigators he had not been involved in discussions about moving the inmate away from FBI investigators, and that he was not aware that Sheriff's Department officials had canceled an Aug. 23, 2011 interview with the informant at Men's Central Jail.
In both cases Baca's representations were false, Decker said.
Baca also told investigators that he did not know that department officials had harassed the FBI special agent until after they had approached her.
Decker said the federal investigation demonstrates that corruption by officials at the top of the sheriff's department will not be tolerated.
"This is not a day of celebration for us. It is indeed a sad day when a leader of a law enforcement agency fails to uphold his oath," Decker said. "No one is above the law."
As part of the investigation of jail abuse and corruption, eight sheriff's deputies have been convicted on federal criminal charges.
The case against Tanaka is scheduled to go to trial on March 22.
"One of the measures of an organizational culture is how it handles its allegations of misconduct," the FBI's David Bowdich said in a statement. "Mr. Baca set the wrong command climate and allowed that culture to fester, instead of fostering an environment of accountability. In short, he did not lead when he had the opportunity to do so."
Under the plea agreement, Baca would not serve more than six months in prison. If Judge Anderson decides to hand down a stiffer sentence, Baca can withdraw from the plea agreement - but prosecutors could then seek a grand jury indictment against the former official, Decker said.
Law enforcement officers did not arrest Baca, who was placed into the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service on Wednesday morning, the U.S. Attorney's public information officer Thom Mrozek said. Baca was arraigned in U.S. District Judge Patrick Walsh's courtroom.
Decker said the plea was the result of months of talks with Baca's counsel.
Baca oversaw the largest jail system in the country from December 1998 until he retired in January 2014.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.