Leroy “Lee” Baca, the man served for 16 years as L.A. County’s top cop, has admitted to charges of lying to the FBI in a coverup of inmate abuse at the county jail. But even if convicted, the retired Los Angeles County Sheriff will continue to receive retirement benefits – today valued at more than $342,000 annually.
A conviction would put him in a unique position to corner the prison commissary.
Baca’s legal saga is a circuitous one. In February 2016, he accepted a deal with the U.S. Attorney under which he would plead guilty to one count of making a false statement to federal authorities. In July, a federal judge threw out the agreement because Baca’s maximum six-month sentence “would trivialize the seriousness of the offenses” he acknowledged committing.
Baca withdrew his plea, and his trial in December ended with a hung jury. In addition to a possible retrial, Baca still faces a second trial on two other counts.
Charges against Baca revolve around his alleged role in covering up beatings of inmates at county correctional facilities. A 2011 ACLU report stated:
In the past year, deputies have assaulted scores of non-resisting inmates, according to reports from jail chaplains, civilians and inmates. Deputies have attacked inmates for complaining about property missing from their cells. They have beaten inmates for asking for medical treatment, for the nature of their alleged offenses, and for the color of their skin. They have beaten inmates in wheelchairs. They have beaten an inmate, paraded him naked down a jail module, and placed him in a cell to be sexually assaulted. Many attacks are unprovoked. Nearly all go unpunished: these acts of violence are covered up by a department that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness of deputy violence in the jail system.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors reacted to the ACLU report by forming a Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence. The commission concluded, in part:
Both Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff [Paul] Tanaka have, in different ways, enabled or failed to remediate overly aggressive deputy behavior as well as lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct in the jails for far too long.
After a series of further investigations and lawsuits (including one in which he was found personally liable for an inmate beating), Baca resigned as Sheriff in 2014 and began collecting his generous pension.
The law that allows that is complex.
Section 7522.70 of the California Government Code denies pension benefits to elected officials convicted of felonies after January 1, 2006. In 2013, the California Pension Employee’s Pension Reform Act (PEPRA) extended this measure to non-elected public employees, but in a limited way. Under PEPRA, pubic employee felons only lose benefits that accrued after the felony was committed. They are still eligible to receive benefits that accrued prior to the date on which they committed the crime, along with the value of any member contributions they made after committing the crime (for the precise legal text, look here).
In Arizona, the law is stricter. Under that state’s statute 13-713, convicted felons “forfeit all rights and benefits earned under the state retirement system or plan,” receiving instead only their member contributions plus interest. In both states, the felony conviction must relate to an employee’s job to trigger a claw-back.
So, if Baca was convicted of official corruption in Arizona, he would lose his entire pension. In California, he will face only a slight reduction of benefits since his alleged crimes were committed near the end of his career. By the time of his alleged misconduct, he had already put in more than 30 years as an unelected Sheriff’s department employee.
Similarly, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who has already been convicted and incarcerated for his role in the jail beating scandal and coverup, should be able to continue receiving almost all his retirement benefits – which totaled $229,000 in 2015.
Arizona offers a roadmap that California would do well to follow. Taxpayers should not be compelled to provide large pension payouts to retirees who disgraced their offices.
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