BACA GOES TO COURT
On Wednesday afternoon, around five minutes before the 2:30 p.m. plea hearing was to begin in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his attorney, Michael Zweiback, walked down the left aisle of the courtroom, through the waist-high swinging door, to the defendant’s table where Baca carefully folded his lanky frame into a chair.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox, who is chief of the federal district’s public corruption and civil rights section, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lizabeth Rhodes, chief of general crimes, were already seated on the other side of the room at the prosecution’s table.
The purpose of the hearing was for Baca to formally plead guilty to one felony count of lying to federal authorities when they questioned him in the course of a wide-ranging investigation into “corruption and civil rights violations” in the department he’d led for fifteen years.
Specifically, Baca admitted that he lied to the FBI and members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office during a round of questioning on April 12, 2013. At that time, among other denials by Baca, the former sheriff falsely claimed ignorance of the fact that, in 2011, two LASD sergeants were going to approach FBI special agent, Leah Marx, and threaten her with arrest, hoping to get information about the feds’ rapidly expanding investigation into brutality by deputies in the county’s large jail system.
In fact, Baca has now admitted, he gave instructions that the officers “should do everything but put handcuffs on her.” Her being Agent Marx.
Now the act of pleading guilty in open court was the next step in the process of executing the plea agreement with the feds that Baca signed on Monday in lieu of facing a federal indictment for his alleged part in obstructing the government’s probe into LASD wrongdoing.
The idea of a plea was reportedly floated by Baca’s attorneys months ago, according to members of the U.S. Attorney’s office. But it was only in the last few days that the final language of the deal had been nailed down in a flurry of negotiations.
Baca was arraigned on the single charge on Wednesday morning, then at noon U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker held a hastily arranged press conference to announce the existence of the deal, an event that had the LA press corps scrambling wildly to get to the downtown federal building and up to the 7th floor conference room on time to report on what was about to become a national story.
And now, finally, there was the hearing. Now the man who had, for most of his fifteen years in office, arguably been California’s most popular elected official, would publicly plead to a felony, that in all likelihood would lead to time in a federal prison, albeit probably for no more than six months.
The plea hearing was originally randomly assigned to U.S. District Court Judge John Kronstadt, but most people who had been following the multiple federal trials involving members of the LA Sheriff’s Department assumed that Judge Percy Anderson would manage to wrestle the proceeding into his own court room.
Anderson had been the jurist to preside over all three previous obstruction of justice trials, pertaining to the hiding of FBI informant and convicted bank robber Anthony Brown in what has come to be known as Operation Pandora’s Box, an ill-considered strategy that was, it seems, directed from the department’s highest levels, and that has, to date, resulted in the conviction of seven former LASD members, with accompanying prison sentences ranging from 18 to 41 months. (These cases are all on appeal with the Nineth Circuit Court of Appeals). One more department member, former captain Tom Carey, was indicted last year pertaining to Pandora’s Box, but he too has made a deal, in his case, in exchange for truthful testimony at the upcoming trial of his fellow indictee. That is, of course, Paul Tanaka, the once powerful former LASD undersheriff who, even with a potential federal indictment looming, came in second in the 2014 race for LA County Sheriff.
Tanaka’s trial, scheduled to begin jury selection on March 22, was also originally assigned to another judge. But exactly no one was surprised when the highly intelligent and decidedly quirky Anderson managed to arm wrestle the sure-to-be-theatrical Tanaka proceedings into his courtroom.
For the occasion of his plea hearing, Lee Baca wore a highly-tailored dark brown suit, a pale shirt, a gold and brown striped tie, and a melon pink silk handkerchief carefully arranged in his left breast pocket.
Both of Baca’s parents struggled with impoverished circumstances, but according to the former sheriff, his father always somehow managed to be a snappy dresser and Baca too came to find pleasure in nice clothing. On Wednesday, in addition to the good suit, he’d fastened a small decorative pin to his left lapel. The shiny thing was smaller than a quarter, but shaped like the bright LASD sheriff’s star he’d worn for 49 years, 15 of those years as the Los Angeles County Sheriff.
As Baca and everyone else sat waiting for Judge Anderson to make his appearance, the former sheriff’s expression was one of enforced calm that appeared as if it could easily fracture. As the minutes passed, he seemed less and less sure what to do with his hands, which he finally laid half-clasped on the table in front of him, the tips of his long fingers touching, as if he was gently holding a thin glass ball the size of a navel orange between his palms.
At 2:33 p.m., Judge Anderson arrived, and the formal hearing began. Making a plea of this sort is a highly ritualized affair in which the judge asks a series of questions, and the defendant replies briefly. For the next 30 plus minutes, Anderson performed his side of the ritual, making programmed inquiries that allowed his honor to determined that Baca was not presently drunk, or on drugs, or suffering from a mental illness, reacting to threats or coercion, or anything else that might keep him from understanding and freely making the decision at hand.
Judge Anderson explained that the plea would not be finalized until sentencing, which would take place a few months hence. Between then and now, Baca would meet with a representative from probation, who would then submit a report that recommended a sentence within the federal guidelines—specifically from 0 to 6 months in a federal prison– for the crime to which he was pleading. Once in receipt of the probation report, the prosecution would make its own recommendation that could be higher or lower than whatever probation suggested, but that—according to the terms of the plea deal—would remain within the 0-6 month parameter.
Only then would the judge make his decision as to what sentence he intended to impose.
But, Anderson said, leaning slightly forward for emphasis, according to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the court “is not bound by advisory guidelines,” but is able to impose a sentence that “could be greater or lessor than the guideline range,” up to a maximum of five years in prison, plus three years of post-prison oversight, and a cash fine of up to $250,000. Anderson’s words were pro forma but his tone and bird-of-prey posture communicated an additional message. The 0-6 sentence was not a done deal. He would look at a multiplicity of factors before making his decision. And if he determined the six month ceiling was too low, he could and would spike the plea deal.
All the participants were quite aware that, according to the terms of the agreement signed Monday, if the judge’s sentence strayed from the 0-6 guidelines, it would, in fact, nullify the painstakingly hammered out deal if either of the parties wished it.
Moreover, in the course of the hearing, prosecutor Brandon Fox made it clear that, if at any point in the process Baca was to bail from the deal, the government was fully prepared to proceed to a grand jury in order to indict the sheriff, and that the charges that came with an indictment—that the feds maintained they fully believed they could prove—would likely be more extensive than the single count to which he was now about to plead.
Toward the hearing’s end, Anderson recited some of the privileges Baca would lose, either temporarily or permanently, as a convicted felon: the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, the right to own, carry or use a firearm…and more.
In response to the ongoing questions and statements, Baca and his attorney occasionally conferred when the former sheriff looked unsure, but in the end Baca acknowledged that he understood all that had been said, and the decision he was making.
Finally Judge Anderson asked the main question: How do you plead…?
In return, Lee Baca recited the necessary words: Guilty, your honor.
Despite the dark storms of scandal unleashed by Baca and Tanaka in recent years, it was an oddly unsettling phrase to hear coming out of the former sheriff’s mouth.
A date of May 16 was set for the sentencing hearing at which point, if all went well, Baca’s plea would be finalized and a sentence imposed.
And that was that.
FACING THE CAMERAS
After the courtroom emptied, a mass of reporters, photographers and TV camera people waited on the east side of the federal courthouse for Baca, his wife, and his lawyer to emerge, along with a couple of supportive personal friends. Baca had planned to read a short statement and then leave while his lawyer stayed to answer reporters’ questions. But before an increasingly grim looking Baca could read his prepared words, reporters closed in and some began shouting agressive questions at him featuring words like “corruption” and “disgraced.”
Evidently the noisy questioners hoped to provoke a soundbite, but instead Baca’s face began to collapse, and he yanked himself away from press and lawyers and all but ran to a waiting car, his friends and wife racing beside him.
Once Baca was gone, attorney Michael Zweiback answered questions, as promised: Was he worried about his client’s safety? asked one reporter.
“I leave that to the Board of Federal Prisons,” Zweiback replied.
He and his co-counsel, Zweiback told reporters, were hoping to persuade the court that Baca “does not deserve prison time, that he is currently involved in many, many projects in the community that are doing a lot of good…”
ABC7’s Lisa Bartley asked Zweiback to “explain the difference” between his client and the “other members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department” who were sentenced to multiple years in prison, ostensibly for following the orders of the former sheriff and the former undersheriff.
“I’ll let the U.S. Attorney’s Office speak to that,” said Zweiback smoothly. “I’m only responsible for representing the interest of my client. And he’s accepted responsibility for [the things for which] he needs to accept responsibility.” (Zweiback is, by the way, a former assistant U.S. attorney.)
Baca’s lawyer also reiterated that if Judge Anderson decided to hand down a sentence that was longer than what is specified in the guidelines, “that would nullify the plea agreement,” and the parties would go back to square one, which likely meant proceeding to trial.
In addition, Zweiback noted that, , as part of the sentencing process, Baca would do what is known as a plea colloquy, a public statement “to explain his side and to express is remorse for what he’s done. I do expect him to do that,” said the attorney.
Finally Zweiback handed out copies of the one page “statement” Baca had originally intended to deliver himself, prior to the shouting and fleeing. It consisted of two sentences written in what looked like 25 pt type:
I made a mistake and accept being held accountable.
I will always love the men and women of the Sheriff Department and serve human life no matter where and who they are.
It was signed with a looping signature: Lee Baca Retired Sheriff.