Ex-LA County Sheriff Faces Months Behind Bars After Jail Scandal

Feb 11, 2016
Originally published on February 12, 2016 3:38 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Los Angeles, the former sheriff has pleaded guilty to lying to federal prosecutors during an investigation into corruption and abuse inside the county's massive jail system. Seventy-three-year-old Lee Baca abruptly retired from the department two years ago. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, until yesterday, it was not clear he'd be charged.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The man who once ran the nation's largest jail system could now face six months or more behind bars himself. No one is above the law, said U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker yesterday, as she announced the plea deal Baca accepted.

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EILEEN DECKER: It is indeed a sad day when a leader of a law enforcement agency fails to honor his oath and instead of upholding justice, chooses to obstruct it.

SIEGLER: Federal prosecutors say the former sheriff lied to the FBI and deliberately tampered with an investigation by trying to hide an FBI informant from the investigators. Court documents also show Baca knew his deputies tried to intimidate the FBI's lead investigator, at one point directing them to, quote, "do everything but put handcuffs on her." For years, Baca claimed that the corruption inside his jails was committed by a few rogue deputies - that it wasn't systemic. Again, Eileen Decker.

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DECKER: Illegal behavior in the sheriff's department went to the very top of this organization. More importantly, the case illustrates that those who foster and then try to hide a corrupt culture will be held accountable.

SIEGLER: Baca's guilty plea yesterday follows the convictions of 17 of his former deputies in the investigation.

PHIL STINSON: I think that what we learn from it is first of all, don't lie to the FBI. And secondly, sometimes the cover-up is worse than the underlying crime.

SIEGLER: Phil Stinson researches police crime and corruption at Bowling Green State University. He's also a former cop. Stinson says it's unusual, yet not unprecedented, to see the person once at the top of a large law enforcement agency brought down like this. This is more common in smaller, less-monitored police forces. Going forward in Los Angeles, he says, the plea from Lee Baca is no guarantee that the inmate abuse and the culture of corruption is over.

STINSON: It's so systemic, the problems, that it's very difficult to change the behaviors from the top all the way down. So no - I guess that sounds a bit jaded, but I don't expect to see much changing.

SIEGLER: For their part, federal prosecutors yesterday commended the new sheriff here in his department's progress in implementing court-ordered reforms, especially with regard to the treatment of mentally-ill inmates. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.