By Katherine Davis-Young
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A plea agreement between U.S. prosecutors and former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who had pleaded guilty to lying to investigators in a corruption and civil rights probe, was rejected on Monday by a federal judge who said it "understates the seriousness of the offense."
Baca, who had previously run the largest U.S. jail system, faced a maximum six-month prison sentence under the agreement in a case that clouded his 15-year tenure as sheriff. He resigned in January 2014 during the probe.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson introduces uncertainty over how the case could proceed. One possible outcome is for Baca, 74, to accept a harsher sentence at the next hearing on Aug. 1.
In February, Baca pleaded guilty to a federal charge of making false statements to investigators in 2013 when he asserted no prior knowledge of efforts by his deputies to intimidate a U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and thwart a criminal probe of his department.
Baca's plea made him the 18th current or former member of the sheriff's department convicted of criminal charges that stem from a federal investigation of inmate abuse and other wrongdoing, including cover-up attempts, at two downtown Los Angeles lockups.
Baca's attorney outside court expressed surprise at the ruling. "We were blindsided," Michael Zweiback said.
At the Aug. 1 hearing, Baca could, if he decides against accepting a harsher sentence, withdraw his guilty plea and head toward a trial, Miriam Krinsky, a prosecutor-turned-law professor told reporters.
The plea agreement stated Baca admitted he actually was aware his deputies were going to contact the agent and he had directed them to "do everything but put handcuffs on her."
"It's one thing to lie to (federal prosecutors). It's another thing entirely when the chief law enforcement officer for the county of Los Angeles is involved in conspiracy to cover up abuse," Anderson said at the hearing in Los Angeles.
Baca has been diagnosed as suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a pre-sentencing memorandum filed by the government, though his diminished cognitive impairment was described as mild.
Prosecutors, who declined to comment on the ruling, cited Baca's condition in their reasoning for seeking a penalty far less severe than the five-year maximum sentence he faced.
But Anderson said the proposed sentence "would not address the gross abuse of the public trust" the case represented. He did not indicate what sentence would be fair.
(Reporting by Katherine Davis-Young, writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Cynthia Osterman and Alan Crosby)