File – In this Jan. 7, 2014, file photo, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announces his retirement at a news conference at Sheriff’s Headquarters Bureau in Monterey Park, Calif. Baca signed a plea agreement that said he ordered deputies to intimidate an FBI agent and “do everything but put handcuffs on her.” Baca, who pleaded guilty to trying to thwart an FBI investigation into abuses at the jails he ran, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and must decide whether he spends the best remaining days of his life fighting to stay out of jail or behind bars. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
By Brian Melley, Associated Press
Jul. 31, 2016 – 2:24 PM ET
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Former Sheriff Lee Baca, who pleaded guilty to trying to thwart an FBI investigation into abuses at the jails he ran, faces a difficult choice that will influence how he spends the healthiest days of his retirement.
Baca returns to federal court Monday with uncertainty hanging over his future and grimmer prospects than he faced two weeks ago when a judge rejected an agreement with prosecutors, saying a six-month sentence wasn’t tough enough even though Baca, 74, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
After talks broke down with federal prosecutors to reach a new deal, his choices are down to letting the judge impose a term of up to five years in federal prison or withdrawing his guilty plea and taking his chances at trial.
“There are no great options here,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor.
The prospect that Baca will serve a longer sentence or go through a public trial is another dramatic twist in a corruption scandal that blossomed after his deputies learned an inmate was an FBI informant.
Baca, who cut the figure of a fit, trim military officer in his crisp khaki uniform, was known for his unconventional approach to running the nation’s largest sheriff’s department. He jetted around the world to promote a softer style of law enforcement, advocating for jailhouse education and a better understanding of different cultures.
But in his jails, a band of rogue deputies was beating inmates, and supervisors were helping cover up the violence.
After discovery of the FBI mole who was trying to gather evidence of civil rights abuses, Baca and other higher-ups tried to derail the investigation, having underlings shuffle the inmate to different jails under different names and trying to intimidate an FBI agent.
Baca long denied any role in the scandal and claimed he was out of touch with the goings-on in the jails.
He pleaded guilty in February to lying to federal authorities about efforts to stifle the investigation. In the plea, he acknowledged ordering deputies to “do everything but put handcuffs on” a female agent.
More than 20 members of the department have been convicted on charges ranging from assault to obstruction of justice, including his former second-in-command, who was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Judge Percy Anderson rejected the six-month term prosecutors sought for Baca, saying it failed to address Baca’s “gross abuse of the public’s trust.”
“It’s one thing to lie,” Anderson said. “It’s another thing entirely … when the chief law enforcement officer of the county of Los Angeles is involved in a wide-ranging conspiracy to cover up abuse and corruption.”
Rejection of the plea deal created an awkward situation because federal court rules bar the judge from participating in plea discussions, Levenson said. That left the defense and prosecution in an “unusual posture” to blindly renegotiate a deal the judge might again reject.
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