LOS ANGELES — A pair of former Los Angeles County district attorneys were among those testifying Dec. 16 in defense of former Sheriff Lee Baca, who is facing federal corruption charges in a trial that will move to closing arguments next week.
Ira Reiner, who was the county’s top prosecutor from 1984-92, and Steve Cooley, the D.A. from 2000-12, were called to the stand in downtown Los Angeles by Baca’s defense team, with both speaking to the former sheriff’s above-board reputation as a lawman.
Michael Gennaco, who headed the county’s Office of Independent Review that provided oversight of the Sheriff’s Department from 2001-14, also testified about Baca’s work and cooperation with the panel.
Baca, 74, did not testify in his own defense. Closing arguments are scheduled for Dec. 19.
The former sheriff is being tried in downtown Los Angeles on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges for his alleged part in what prosecutors contend was an plot to thwart a federal probe into abuses in the jail system.
The defense counters that Baca’s former second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, was to blame and the retired lawman is innocent.
The six-man, six-woman jury has been hearing evidence since last week.
Baca will be tried separately at a later date on a charge of making false statements to the federal government in April 2013. Prosecutors contend Baca lied to the FBI about his knowledge of department efforts to subvert a federal probe into corruption and inmate abuse in the jail system.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson split the trial into two parts after he agreed to allow testimony by an expert on dementia — but only as it relates to the false-statements charge. Anderson agreed to hold a separate trial on those counts so the jury could hear the medical testimony.
Baca is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
The charges focus on a period of time five years ago when sheriff’s deputies based at Men’s Central Jail stumbled upon the FBI’s secret probe of alleged civil rights abuses and unjustified beatings of inmates within jail walls.
After guards discovered that inmate Anthony Brown was an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators. They also went to the home of an FBI agent and threatened her with arrest.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — says he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that Tanaka was in charge of the operation.
Nine ex-sheriff’s officials — including Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case, and 10 others have been convicted of various charges connected to the overall federal probe.
Tanaka, who alleges Baca initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison and is expected to begin serving his time next month.
Baca previously backed out of a plea deal on the lying count — which called for him to serve no more than six months in prison — after the judge rejected the agreement as too lenient. If Baca had not withdrawn from the plea, he could have been handed a sentence of five years behind bars. He was subsequently indicted on the three felony counts he now faces, and he could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
Although Baca admitted in court to lying to investigators, that and other previous admissions cannot be used against him in the current case.
Baca retired suddenly in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
A federal appellate panel upheld the convictions of seven former sheriff’s department officials convicted in the conspiracy.