Ex-sheriff Baca rolls the dice on a trial

bacas-team-wla.jpgBaca's lawyers. Photo: WitnessLA.com

Disgraced former Los Angeles County sheriff Lee Baca on Monday withdrew his guilty plea for lying to the FBI in his jail scandal and said he would take chances with a federal trial. He pulled back the plea bargain after the judge indicated he would not accept the six-month prison sentence that prosecutors agreed to with Baca. The former sheriff needed to serve more time, the judge said. So Baca took some time to think about it and decided to gamble his future on a trial. If convicted he likely would get a multi-year sentence like his former underlings have after their convictions.

Prosecutors now have to decide how many crimes they will charge Baca with, and then begins the dance by Baca and his lawyers to see how long they can delay a trial. A trial date of Sept. 20 was set, but the longer it goes, the more chance that witnesses could become unavailable or forgetful, and also Baca's health could deteriorate. He already has early signs of Alzheimer's, according to his doctors, and there was talk Monday that the disease could play a part in his defense. Baca, however, said he withdrew his plea so he could defend his reputation against "untruthful statements" by the judge.

From the LA Times story after court:

In deciding to walk away from the agreement he struck with federal prosecutors, Baca opened the door to the government bringing a broader and more serious case against him that could include charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy in addition to the lying allegation.

Michael Zweiback, one of Baca’s attorneys, said he expected prosecutors to level the more serious charges, which mirror those brought against Baca’s former second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, who was convicted earlier this year in an obstruction-of-justice case stemming from the same FBI investigation.

Baca’s decision came after U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said last month that he would reject the plea deal, which had limited the former sheriff’s prison time to a maximum of six months. Anderson had sentenced Tanaka to five years in prison.

After withdrawing his plea, Baca told a horde of reporters on the steps of the downtown courthouse that he had done so because of “untruthful statements” made by the judge and prosecutors about his involvement in a scheme by sheriff’s officials to thwart the FBI’s jail probe.

He did not specify what was untruthful. Instead, reading from a prepared statement, Baca referenced his recent diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease and said the inevitable progression of the illness had injected an element of urgency into the case.

Witness LA's Celeste Fremon reminds everyone how we got to this point:

In February of this year, the former sheriff pleaded guilty to one count of lying to federal officials having to do with an FBI investigation into corruption and brutality by deputies inside the sheriff’s department-run LA County jail system—an investigation that, according to the government, Baca, his former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, and others attempted to thwart.

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.

If all efforts fail to find a resolution to the plea deal standoff, then a trial becomes the only option. And that will mean additional charges, according to [Baca attorney] Zweiback, who said that the prosecutors had indicated that they would definitely add a charge of obstruction of justice and likely conspiracy to obstruct justice, the same two charges of which former LA County undersheriff Paul Tanaka was convicted. Anderson also presided over that trial, and sentenced Tanaka to five years in a federal prison. (Tanaka’s conviction has been appealed to the Ninth Circuit, thus he remains out of prison at this time)

Zweiback, a former assistant U.S. attorney has been with his client through the lengthy plea process.

On Monday, however, in advance of a possible trial, he was joined by a new team member, attorney Nathan Hochman, who was the Assistant Attorney General for the US Department of Justice’s Tax Division, and also served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Criminal Division of the Central District of California.

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