LOS ANGELES (CN) – In former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s obstruction trial, a prosecutor likened efforts to obstruct the FBI investigation to a chess match in which Baca was the king, and his underlings were pawns. In contrast, Baca argued that his involvement in the scheme was non-existent, not even amounting to a game of checkers.
Now Baca is almost out of moves. A jury convicted him on Wednesday for leading an obstruction scheme that over five years of legal battles has led to the convictions of nine other sheriff deputies and commanders, including Baca’s closest aide, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
The former sheriff, dressed in a brown suit and wearing a black and yellow striped tie, stared without emotion as the clerk read the verdict at 2 p.m. Wednesday with his wife Carol Chiang watching from the courtroom.
Jurors began deliberations at around 2:45 p.m. on Monday. Prosecutors said the 74-year-old retired lawman conspired with those under his command to thwart an investigation into inmate abuse at two jails by hiding inmate-informant Anthony Brown within the jail system. That was after deputies cracked open a covert FBI operation into Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in the summer of 2011 when they pulled a smuggled cellphone out of a Dorito’s bag among Brown’s belongings.
The discovery led to a series of foolhardy maneuvers over the course of six weeks in August and September 2011. Obstruction trials would expose corruption in one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation.
Officials conspired to keep Brown from testifying before a grand jury, rebooking him within the jail system under different aliases. Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau deputies Scott Craig and Maricela Long approached FBI Agent Leah Marx outside her home and threatened her with arrest, taping the encounter on video for good measure.
In another brazen move, Craig asked Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Torribio to sign off on a warrant to sweep the FBI’s offices in Los Angeles. The state court judge calmly explained that neither he nor the sheriff’s department has the power to investigate a federal agency.
Baca, according to prosecutors, had a view of the entire board and moved all the pieces.
But in the first trial, persuading a jury that Baca was the lynchpin of efforts to obstruct – or that he even had direct involvement – proved problematic. That explained, at least in part, why all but one juror voted to acquit the congenial former official just before Christmas last year.
On the one hand, Baca was vocal in his disdain for the FBI, telling presenters on the television show “Good Day LA” in the summer of 2011 that the department could police itself and that he was investigating the feds for smuggling a phone into the Men’s Central Jail. Never mind that the FBI’s move to get the phone to Brown was entirely lawful. To Baca, it represented an unconscionable intrusion and a criminal act.
In Sept. 26, 2011, letter to then-U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, Baca wrote: “I am extremely displeased with the conduct of the FBI in causing the introduction of a cellphone into the jail system as illegal, unethical, and irresponsible. The Sheriff’s Department will be conducting an investigation into this breach of security of the jail system and will be examining inmate Anthony Brown’s allegations that he received a cellphone from a deputy who received it from an FBI agent.”
Baca’s attorney Nathan Hochman, on the other hand, framed Baca’s conduct as the furious reaction of an experienced official who knew only too well the dangers of allowing a cellphone into his jails. Though the FBI said it only wanted Brown, a violent felon, to use the phone to report to Marx at the FBI, Hochman said it was far from benign. The concern for Baca was that any cellphone could be used to plan a drug deal or even a hit on another inmate.
Hochman said it was federal officials who kept Baca in the dark and Tanaka who obstructed the FBI behind his boss’ back, leaving Baca to worry about what would happen if deputies or other inmates exposed Brown as an FBI snitch. The agency had let Marx, a “rookie,” lead the investigation. Baca was never secretive, and was always “open, transparent and direct” as evidenced by his appearance on “Good Day LA” and the letter to Birotte, Hochman told the jury on Monday.
Moreover, Hochman argued there was little direct evidence of contact between Baca and other officials in phone records and emails.
“This isn’t chess. It’s not even checkers,” Hochman said during his closing argument.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Lizabeth Rhodes offered a sharply different portrait of Baca in her final pitch to jurors this week.
Rhodes said phone records, emails, documents and witness testimony from convicted deputies, including Mickey Manzo, Thomas Carey and Greg Thompson, showed that while Baca had placed Tanaka in charge, he had called the shots.
“He knew what was going to happen and when it was going to happen because he ordered it,” Rhodes said.
Lingering in the background was testimony about deputy-on-inmate violence in Men’s Central Jail. Over the course of the legal battles, jurors have heard testimony about a marauding gang of deputies on the 3000 floor who brutally beat inmates then covered up the abuses.
ACLU Southern Californian’s chief counsel Peter Eliasberg welcomed the decision but said despite Tanaka and Baca’s convictions there is still an urgent need for reform in county jails.
“The jury’s decision to convict Lee Baca for obstructing an FBI investigation into widespread abuse of jail inmates was yet another acknowledgment that for many years our county jail system has been broken and must be held up to greater public scrutiny,” Eliasberg said in a statement.
Outside the courthouse, Baca thanked his wife, friends and supporters, and said he respected the jury system.
“However, I disagree with this particular verdict,” Baca said.
Hochman said the government took a “win-at-all-costs approach,” but that he and Baca had “fought the good fight” and would appeal.
That appeal will likely namecheck U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson. In September, Baca asked the court to disqualify Anderson, arguing he was already convinced of Baca’s guilt.
Baca had worn a sheriff’s pin during the first trial. And Anderson stripped Baca of the ceremonial badge for the retrial, ruling that it prejudiced the government.
The defense rested last week after only putting one witness on the stand, since Anderson had ruled out evidence of Baca’s so-called “good acts” – including a program to teach wrestling moves to jailers in response to excessive force complaints.
In a bigger blow, Anderson ruled before trial that jurors could not hear expert testimony about Baca’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The defense wanted to put a psychiatrist on the stand to argue that Baca was cognitively impaired at the meeting where he lied to prosecutors.
The outcome could have been so different. Just over a year ago, Baca had entered into a plea agreement admitting to making the false statements. The government had recommended six months in jail.
But Anderson rejected the deal, leaving Baca with a dilemma: Accept a potential five-year sentence or withdraw from the agreement and face a trial.
Baca’s gambit failed. The retired official now faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The jury foreman who delivered the verdict to the court told reporters that the testimony of Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo had swayed jurors. During the trial, Rhambo told the court that he had warned Baca not to interfere with the investigation, warning him, “Don’t fuck around with the feds.”
The 51-year-old juror, a salesman, said he believed the evidence showed that Baca had attempted to squelch the FBI’s investigation.
“We also felt at times he was trying to protect his empire and what he’d worked so hard to obtain,” he said.
Anderson ordered Baca to return to court on Monday. The judge is expected to set a date for sentencing at that status conference.