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Judge Rejects Former Sheriff Lee Baca's Six Month Plea Deal As Too Lenient

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca speaks at a news conference at Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters October 6, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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A federal judge rejected a plea deal that had been struck between the U.S. Attorney's office and former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, arguing that Baca should serve more than six months for obstructing a federal investigation into abuse in the jail system. The terms of the plea deal, which were agreed upon in February, stated that Baca would serve no more than six months in federal prison. Baca's sentencing was complicated at the end of June, when court filings were released stating that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Speaking to the court Monday morning, the same judge who sentenced former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka to five years in prison in April said that the Baca deal "would trivialize the seriousness of the offenses... the need for a just punishment, the need to deter others," the L.A. Times reports. According to the Times, Baca now has two options moving forward: he can either accept whatever sentence Judge Percy Anderson thinks is appropriate, or he can withdraw his plea and "take his chances with charges the government might decide to bring."

Baca's charges result not from the abuse within his jail system, but rather his role in obstructing an FBI inquiry, specially stemming from a 2013 interview with the U.S. Attorney's office where Baca denied any knowledge of a 2011 plan to intimidate an FBI officer investigating the jail system. According to the U.S. Attorney's office, Baca told his deputies to do "everything but put handcuffs" on the FBI's lead agent on the investigation. Sheriff's deputies also went the FBI agent's home to confront and threaten her. The former sheriff denied any knowledge of both the abuse and the corruption up until February of this year, when he struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

In a written statement issued after agreeing to the deal in February, Baca said "I made a mistake and accept being held accountable.''

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City News Service reports that prosecutors met with medical experts to discuss Baca's condition; they verified his diagnosis but also declared that his cognitive impairments would not be "severe" for another five to ten years. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox, who heads the office's public corruption and civil rights unit, argued that Baca should still serve prison time, writing that his cognitive impairments were "slight," according to the L.A. Times.

Baca is the eighteenth Sheriff's Department official to be convicted on the charges stemming from the federal inquiry the abuse, according to KTLA.

Although the former top cop was known as thoughtful and relatively progressive on a number of issues, the jail system he oversaw was also rife with abuse and corruption. Echoing the sentiments of many, the L.A. Times described the career of the man who was named Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriffs' Association the same year he committed his offenses as "remarkable, albeit flawed."

For a longform account of Baca's stunning rise and fall we highly recommend Celeste Fremon's masterful 2014 Los Angeles Magazine feature, "Downfall."