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Courts & Trials

Ex L.A. County Sheriff Sentenced to 3 Years for Obstructing Federal Jail Investigation

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Lee Baca (center) on May 12, 2017.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

Los Angeles County’s former top cop was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison on Friday, in connection with what authorities said was a scheme to obstruct a federal corruption and civil rights investigation, PEOPLE confirms.

Lee Baca, the 74-year-old former sheriff of Los Angeles County, was ordered to begin serving his sentence by July 25. His attorney said he will appeal and maintains his innocence.

“Mr. Baca’s fall from such heights is tragic for so many reasons,” U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said at his sentencing, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Baca’s behavior is “so at odds with the public image he carefully crafted,” Anderson said.

Baca, who reportedly has Alzheimer’s, was found guilty in March of conspiracy and obstruction charges and making false statement to federal investigators. He was accused of lying to them and overseeing efforts to obstruct a federal probe of corruption and civil rights violations at L.A. county jails.

“Rather than fulfill his sworn duty to uphold the law and protect the public, Lee Baca made a decision to protect what he viewed as his empire, and then he took actions in an effort to simply protect himself,” Acting United States United States Attorney Sandra R. Brown said in a statement, obtained by PEOPLE, following the sentence.

“He wore the badge, but ultimately, he failed the department and the public’s trust,” Brown said. “Today’s sentence demonstrates that no one is above the law — not even the leader of the largest municipal police agency in the nation.”

Current L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement that he is “confident in the justice system and how law enforcement and its leadership are held accountable to the laws of our country and to the people we are entrusted to serve.”

“The trials and the resulting convictions have been difficult for the men and women of the Sheriff’s Department,” McDonnell said.

Defense Responds: ‘Conviction Will Be Reversed’

In a statement to PEOPLE, Baca’s defense attorney, Nathan Hochman, described him as a tireless public servant who had been unjustly covnicted.

“For over 48 years, Sheriff Lee Baca served the people of Los Angeles County with all his heart, his soul and his energy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Hochman said.

He continued, “The court in the second trial improperly excluded key defense evidence establishing Mr. Baca’s innocence. When the appellate court hears all the evidence in the case, something which the second jury did not, we are confident that Mr. Baca’s conviction will be reversed and we will be back for a third trial.”

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Baca left his top post in 2014 after federal agents got wind of a plot by some of Baca’s top subordinates to conceal a federal jail informant from his FBI handler when they learned the jails were being investigated.

Federal authorities said that Baca ordered a criminal investigation into the agents looking into the jails, and his subordinates threatened to arrest the lead investigator on the case.

The obstruction case netted nine other members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, including Baca’s right-hand man, then-undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was sentenced last year to five years in federal prison.

Under Baca’s leadership, the sheriff’s department was also not devoid of celebrity scandal.

The department was accused of giving Mel Gibson special treatment after the actor’s notorious drunk driving incident in July 2006. Those claims were followed by a lawsuit by L.A. County sheriff’s deputy James Mee, who alleged he was subject to disciplinary actions and overlooked for promotions after he complained to his superiors about Gibson’s treatment.

In addition, Mee claimed, his superiors ordered him to delete portions of Gibson’s arrest report “covering up the anti-Semitic posture of Mr. Gibson, ” the lawsuit stated.

Gibson had close ties to the sheriff’s department, Mee alleged, and was a friend of Baca and other top officials.

The actor also lent his time and name to various law enforcement initiatives, according to Mee’s suit, which a sheriff’s spokesman “categorically” denied. It was settled in 2012 for $50,000, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A watchdog for the sheriff’s department later “found that Gibson was given special treatment, including being given a ride to a tow yard by a sheriff’s sergeant,” the Times reported.

Baca was further scrutinized for his treatment of Paris Hilton, who was released early from jail in 2007 following a probation violation.

He defended that decision as medically necessary for Hilton and the result of jail overcrowding.