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Feds: Former LA County Sheriff Baca 'abused his power'

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca (center) and his attorney Nathan Hochman (right) outside federal court in Los Angeles after a judge declared a mistrial in the obstruction of justice case against Baca. He's now being retried.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC
File: Baca (center) and his attorney Nathan Hochman (right) outside a federal court in Los Angeles after a judge declared a mistrial in the obstruction of justice case against him. He's now being retried.

Opening statements in the corruption trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca began Friday with federal prosecutors proclaiming Baca "abused his power." 

"Instead of bringing criminal conduct to light, he tried to conceal it," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the newly seated jury. 

The strong allegations come after a defeat for federal prosecutors last December when they fell short of winning a conviction against Baca for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The jury was split 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal. Baca is being retried on those charges as well as lying to federal investigators. 

During opening statements, Fox outlined the slew of phone logs, emails, recordings and witnesses he said will tie Baca to a 2011 scheme to block an FBI investigation into abusive deputies at the L.A. County jail.

Prosecutors accuse Baca of being part of a conspiracy to hide an inmate informant from the FBI and threatening to arrest an FBI agent. Several people within the Sheriff's Department have already been convicted or pleaded guilty for their role in the scandal.

But Baca's defense attorney Nathan Hochman said none of the evidence connects Baca to any illegal activity. He said the government will "fail" to prove their case — again.

Hochman told jurors Baca wanted to work with the FBI, not obstruct them, but needed to start his own investigation when the FBI informant's phone turned up in a bag of Doritos. 

The flip phone, Hochman said, is an "extremely dangerous form of contraband" that could be used to organize crime, and that the extent Baca got involved with the informant and the federal agent was to ask questions about how it got in the jail. 

"Carrying out that agenda is not an abuse of power," Hochman said. 

Baca is also accused of lying in a 2013 interview with federal investigators "about his conduct."

The defense painted Baca as an aging man in his 70s with a lot on his plate running the largest sheriff's department in the country, saying that he may not have remembered specific details in interviews years later. 

The trial is expected to last a couple of weeks.