LOS ANGELES — Former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty Wednesday to lying to federal authorities investigating corruption in the department, a probe that tarnished his long career and appeared to trigger his abrupt retirement.
Baca, a media-savvy lawman who used his platform as head of the nation's largest sheriff's department to travel the world touting progressive policing policies, had largely been out of sight since leaving office a year early in January 2014. He consistently dodged questions about any connection to the corruption even as other former underlings pleaded guilty or were convicted.
That changed Thursday with the surprise announcement by federal authorities that the corruption went all the way to the top of the department and that Baca had finally agreed to take the fall.
Within hours, Baca was in a federal courtroom pleading guilty to a single felony count that could put him behind bars for up to six months. He faces sentencing May 16.
With a brown suit and miniature sheriff's star gleaming on his lapel, the 73-year-old answered a judge's questions in a quiet voice. Outside court later, he chose to remain silent as reporters asked questions and his lawyer spoke for him.
Attorney Michael Zweiback said Baca had a 50-year career in law enforcement, does a lot of good in the community and doesn't deserve prison time.
In a brief typed statement signed "Lee Baca retired sheriff," he said he had made a mistake and accepted being held accountable.
"This is not a day of celebration for us," U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said earlier during a news conference. "It is 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."
Baca signed a plea agreement that said he ordered deputies to intimidate an FBI agent and "do everything but put handcuffs on her." Baca later lied to federal prosecutors and the FBI that he wasn't privy to discussions about trying to derail the investigation into beatings by guards at the jail.
Baca, who ran the department for more than 15 years, had said he was out of touch with what was going on and he denied knowing about efforts to stifle the probe by hiding an inmate who was an FBI informant.
Baca avoided charges for years as prosecutors moved up the ranks to indict a number of officers and, eventually, his second-in-command.
In May, when former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and another high-ranking member of the department were charged with obstructing justice, prosecutors declined to comment on whether Baca was under investigation.
Tanaka is facing trial, but his co-defendant, former Capt. Tom Carey, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in related court proceedings. It's not clear if that included providing testimony against Baca.
When Baca announced his abrupt retirement after 48 years at the sheriff's department, he sidestepped questions about whether he was worried he might be indicted but acknowledged that more of his employees may face charges.
"I'm not afraid of reality. I'm only afraid of people who don't tell the truth," Baca said at the time, adding that he wasn't retiring because of the FBI's investigation.
Just a month before that, when the indictments of 18 sheriff's officials were announced, the lawman strongly denied criticisms that abuse was rampant in his department.
"You haven't seen me retire from the job," he said. "You haven't seen me blame somebody else besides me for whatever the challenges are."
Seventeen members of the department have been convicted of federal crimes that include beating inmates, obstructing justice, bribery and conspiracy. The convictions stem from a grand jury investigation that began in 2010 into allegations of abuse and corruption at the downtown Men's Central Jail.
Deputies tried to hide an FBI jail informant from his handlers for weeks in 2011 by shifting him from cell to cell at various jails under different names and altering jail computer records. The FBI wanted the informant to testify to a grand jury.
After Baca learned of the investigation, he met with Tanaka, Carey and a lieutenant in September 2011 and told them to approach Special Agent Leah Marx, one of the inmate's handlers, according to court documents. The next day officers, threatened to arrest Marx for intervening in their jurisdiction.
Tanaka retired from the department in 2013 and ran unsuccessfully to replace his former boss, losing by a wide margin to Jim McDonnell.
Tanaka faces trial next month. Baca's deal does not require him to testify against his former undersheriff.
David Bowdich, the FBI's Los Angeles chief, said Baca had continuously denied playing a role in the corruption "even when some in the rank and file were under the gun and they were being prosecuted and ultimately convicted."
"He had the opportunity to lead," Bowdich said. "He did not lead ... There's no excuse for the decisions that were made."