Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca renewed negotiations with federal prosecutors on Monday as he considered withdrawing a guilty plea to a charge related to a probe of inmate abuse at the county’s jail system that clouded the final years of his tenure.
The closed-door talks came during a three-hour recess called by a federal judge during proceedings that began as a sentencing hearing for Baca, 74, who was chief custodian of the nation’s largest county jail system.
Baca is considering whether to withdraw the guilty plea made earlier this year to a charge of lying to federal investigators and instead face trial after a judge ruled two weeks ago that a six-month prison term recommended by prosecutors as part of their deal with the former sheriff was too lenient.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said in his surprise ruling July 18 that a six-month sentence would minimize the seriousness of the offense, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Baca’s lawyer, Michael Zweiback, told reporters outside the court on Monday that defense attorneys and prosecutors were “discussing alternatives” that presumably would include a sentence tough enough to satisfy the judge but not too harsh to spoil the plea deal.
Baca served as the top elected law enforcement official in Los Angeles for 15 years before retiring in January 2014 amid a federal investigation of inmate abuse and other wrongdoing, including cover-up attempts, at two downtown Los Angeles lockups.
He pleaded guilty in February to a federal charge of making false statements to investigators when he asserted in 2013 that he had no prior knowledge of efforts by his deputies to harass a Federal Bureau of Investigations agent and thwart a criminal probe of his department.
Specifically, Baca admitted that he actually was aware that his deputies planned to intimidate the agent and that he had directed them to “do everything but put handcuffs” on her, according to his plea agreement.
Prosecutors cited Baca’s recent diagnosis as suffering from early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in their reasoning for a lenient sentence, though they said his cognitive impairment was mild and had nothing to do with his lying to investigators.
Baca’s plea made him the 18th current or former member of the sheriff’s department convicted of criminal charges arising from the probe of misconduct inside the Los Angeles County jail system, the nation’s largest with an inmate population of about 18,000.
His former second-in-command was sentenced to five years in prison in June after being found guilty of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)