September 05, 2008

The System


Sheriff under fire for ordering Paris’ release

Lee Baca has a history of accepting money, free meals, sports tickets

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
June 8, 2007


LOS ANGELES - This is not the first time that Lee Baca, the sheriff who opened the jail door for Paris Hilton, has had his judgment questioned.

He’s been accused of using his authority to benefit friends and supporters. Since taking office he’s accepted thousands of dollars worth of freebie meals, sports tickets and trips.

Now Baca is facing accusations of favoritism after making the decision that allowed Hilton to leave jail Thursday to serve out her sentence at her West Hollywood home.

He dismissed that criticism, saying Friday that Hilton had been ordered to spend an unusually long time behind bars.

Under his department’s early release program, Hilton would not have served any time in jail and would have been put on home electronic monitoring, Baca said.

“The special treatment, in a sense, appears to be because of her celebrity status,” he said. “She got more time in jail.”

After ordering Hilton back to her cell Friday, Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer said he “at no time condoned the actions of the sheriff.”

The union representing deputy sheriffs demanded that Baca “put a stop to his special treatment for celebrity inmates.” And county Supervisor Don Knabe said he was stunned to find out Baca released Hilton without consulting the court.

“I would have thought he would have better judgment than that,” Knabe said.

The county Board of Supervisors will demand a report on Hilton’s release and Baca’s decision-making in the matter, Knabe said.

For Baca, 65, who has led the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department since 1998, the blowback is not extraordinary.

When Mel Gibson was arrested for drunken driving, the department withheld video and audio tapes of the arrest, asserting they were exempt from open-government laws.

There were questions about favorable treatment for Gibson after a sheriff’s spokesman initially said the arrest occurred “without incident” and made no mention of the superstar’s now-notorious anti-Semitic rant.

“When a celebrity is involved, that’s when people pay attention,” said Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, a research group. “The big question ... is why didn’t the sheriff go to the judge” before Hilton was released.

Baca has dismissed criticism over the decision.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported Baca put one of his closest friends on the payroll as a $105,000-a-year adviser.

The newspaper also said he had accepted more than $42,000 in gifts since taking office, including some from those who do business with his department.

In 2004, he took more gifts than California’s other 57 sheriffs combined.

Baca oversees an 8,000-officer force that has been vexed by low morale, tight budgets, overcrowded jails and the persistence of gang crime.

Jonathan Wilcox, a Republican strategist who teaches a course on politics and celebrity at the University of Southern California, said Baca may be caught between public expectations and the reality of the criminal justice system:

“Sheriff Baca needs to be very concerned with at least the impression that the final frontier — the law — is now as affected by celebrity as almost every other aspect of our lives.”

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