Prosecutors pull out all the stops in retrial of former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca

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Opening statements for the retrial of former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca started Friday, with prosecutors contending he led a criminal conspiracy while the defense blames the undersheriff. (KABC)

Former Sheriff Lee Baca is in the fight of his life - a high-stakes rematch in federal court between prosecutors who contend the 74-year old led a criminal conspiracy - and the defense's side of a man's betrayal by his right-hand man, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

"Kind of like father and son," Baca said of his relationship with Tanaka in a video played for jurors during opening statements in the former sheriff's corruption retrial Friday.

Baca's first round in court ended in December with a mistrial. The jury hung -- voting 11-1 for acquittal. The U.S. Attorney's Office opted to retry the former Los Angeles County sheriff, who faces a maximum of 20 years in prison if he's found guilty on all counts.

In court Friday, federal prosecutor Brandon Fox turned Baca's own words against him, telling jurors that Baca ran the 2011 alleged conspiracy to obstruct justice the same way he led the department - by putting "one man in charge and that was Paul Tanaka, the undersheriff."

In a 2015 deposition video, Baca described Tanaka -- who is now serving five years in federal prison for his role in the conspiracy -- as someone Baca raised "through the ranks," someone who did everything "on a high level of great competence."

The defense told jurors a much different story - that Tanaka was the "heartbeat" of the conspiracy - that the undersheriff had his "own agenda," one entirely at odds with Baca's belief that the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the FBI were partners in law enforcement.

Tanaka screamed, slammed his fists on a table and repeatedly said "F--- the FBI," according to defense attorney Nathan Hochman.

Baca, on the other hand, was simply trying to get to the bottom of how a contraband cellphone ended up in the hands of a "violent and dangerous" jail inmate, according to Hochman.

That cellphone was part of an undercover FBI sting to determine if corrupt deputies were taking bribes to smuggle contraband to inmates behind bars. Deputy Gilbert Michel took the bait, accepting a bribe from inmate Anthony Brown. Michel later confessed, cooperated with prosecutors and served six months in federal prison.

Brown, a convicted armed robber now serving a prison term of 423 years to life, had been recruited by the FBI in 2010 to report on abuse and corruption in the jails.

Hochman told jurors it was an FBI agent's "rookie mistake" to trust Brown with a contraband phone that could be used to plot an escape or kill witnesses.

Deputies discovered the cellphone during a routine search in August 2011. It was hidden inside a latex glove, stashed inside a bag of Doritos. The investigation was "routine" until investigators traced Brown's phone calls to the FBI's civil rights squad and determined he was a federal informant.

"Poof - Mr. Brown disappeared," Fox told jurors of the subsequent efforts to hide Brown from his FBI handlers.

Brown vanished from the LASD computer system - his name was changed, records were falsified to indicate he'd been "released" from LASD custody, and he was moved repeatedly.

"Mr. Baca abused his power in order to obstruct justice and lied to conceal his crimes" Fox told jurors. "Instead of bringing criminal conduct to light, Mr. Baca tried to conceal it."

Fox described a "sham investigation" that involved "several divisions" of the LASD all working together to hide Brown from his FBI handlers and "shut down" the federal investigation of L.A. County jails.

Fox told jurors they'll hear from witnesses at the center of the conspiracy - one who says Baca watched a video of LASD investigators falsely threatening lead FBI Agent Leah Marx with arrest.

"Best laugh I've had in a while," Baca said after viewing the confrontation outside Marx's home, according to Fox.

"This is a chess match," Baca reportedly told LASD Lt. Greg Thompson after learning the FBI had managed to visit Brown in jail, despite orders to keep them away from the inmate.

"He was moving pieces to force the feds to back down" from their investigation, according to Fox.

Hochman told jurors the FBI "stonewalled" Baca for weeks, refusing to answer questions Baca believed were crucial to ensuring the security of the jails, inmates and his own LASD employees.

Were there more contraband cellphones? Or drugs in the jail? How many deputies were accused of misconduct?

Hochman told jurors Baca had a duty and responsibility to investigate.

Baca "did not authorize, condone or agree" with others in the department who went beyond Baca's orders to protect Brown and determine how the phone was smuggled into the jail, according to Hochman.

"Sheriff Baca did not have any problem with the FBI or anyone else looking at the jails," Hochman told the jury.

"Forty-eight years of service" to the people of L.A. County should not be judged by the short time period it's alleged Baca attempted to block the FBI's investigation into the jails, Hochman said.

Got a tip? Email ABC7 investigative producer lisa.bartley@abc.com.

Related Topics:
corruptionlos angeles county sheriff's departmentlee bacatrialcourt caseFBIinvestigationsLos AngelesLos Angeles County
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