L.A. County Sheriff: Too Close to Hollywood?

Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy (Lee) Baca has a distinguished record. A popular elected official, Baca, a Republican, has run virtually unopposed since first winning office in 1998. He has been praised by civil-rights groups, civil libertarians, minority activists and others for establishing programs for mental illness, drug abuse and domestic violence, plus an independent office to investigate officer misconduct. Despite all that, Baca will undoubtedly be best remembered as the man who gave Paris Hilton a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card.

Baca drew the world's attention when he released the hotel heiress from jail after having served only a few days of her sentence for violating probation on an alcohol-related reckless-driving charge. The move was swiftly reversed by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who sent Paris back to the pokey—and put Baca on the hot seat. A recall petition has been mounted by his critics. And the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has ordered Baca to report by next week on the circumstances surrounding Hilton's release.

It is not the first time that Tinseltown's sheriff has been criticized for being too cozy with the Hollywood crowd. Baca plays golf with actor Michael Douglas, and has received campaign contributions or endorsements from the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Les Moonves, Sylvester Stallone, Dustin Hoffman and Steven Segal. The sheriff has issued concealed-weapon permits to such actors as Ben Affleck, and in 1999, less than a year after being sworn in, he set up an "executive reserves" unit that allowed celebrities to wear a badge and carry a gun. All they had to do was take 64 hours of training and pass the department's background check.

Critics of the program, who said it was nothing more than a sly way for Baca to pay back friends and supporters, were incensed when, less than a month after the unit was initiated, one of those reservists—Scott Zacky of the Zacky Farms chicken dynasty—was stripped of his badge for drawing a gun outside his Bel Air mansion after mistaking a couple on a date for car thieves. The unit was suspended in late 1999 after one member, a wealthy Baca supporter who owns a jewelry store, was arrested for money laundering.

Last year, reports emerged that Baca's department sanitized the original report for Mel Gibson's drunk-driving arrest in Malibu to remove references to anti-Semitic comments by the actor, who had previously appeared in a promotional video for Baca's department. "There is no cover-up," Baca told the Los Angeles Times. "Our job is not to [focus] on what [Gibson] said. It's to establish his blood-alcohol level when he was driving and proceed with the case."

Before Baca, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department had never really embraced movie stars the way the Los Angeles Police Department historically has. But under Baca's watch, the department has gone Hollywood in a much more aggressive and calculated way. He is making his department available for reality TV shows, including "The Academy," "L.A. Homicide," "The Real CSI" and "Sheriff's Stories." Baca defended the programming to the Los Angeles Times, saying, "I think it's good marketing."

Baca has also used celebrities to recruit employees. In March, his department signed up actor Jackie Chan to help encourage members of the Asian community to join the department. In the press announcement of this program, Chan was seen wearing a sheriff's deputy uniform not unlike the one Mel Gibson wore in his promo video.

In the Hilton case, the sheriff went against the wishes of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer by releasing the 26-year-old from jail after only three days of a 23-day sentence. Hilton was free for what Baca called an unspecified "medical condition," which numerous legal analysts note almost never happens in Los Angeles, even with its overcrowded jails. Soon after, Radar Online reported that Hilton's grandfather, William Barron Hilton, had given the maximum $1,000 donation to the sheriff during his re-election campaign last year. Baca declined repeated requests for an interview with NEWSWEEK, but he has maintained throughout this controversy that he released Hilton because of genuine concern for her mental and physical health. Now retired, William Barron Hilton couldn't be reached for comment, and a spokesperson for Hilton Hotels Corp. had no comment on the donation.

There's no law that prohibits Baca from taking money from billionaires or playing golf with movie stars. After all, the L.A. County sheriff is an elected official—which means political fund-raising comes into play. But when he hands a badge and a gun to a chicken mogul, and his department possibly tries to protect a raging actor from embarrassment, and he sends home an infamous law-breaking heiress against a judge's written wishes, it raises legitimate concern that the rich and famous might be getting the meaty end of the drumstick in Baca's Los Angeles.

Baca's supporters—and there are many—insist the sheriff is concerned with fair and equal justice and that his schmoozing with show-biz types simply goes with the territory. L.A. is a company town—show business being the company—and good PR with celebrities ultimately leads to better policing, they say.

But Baca's critics insist he favors the rich and famous to a fault. "There's a pattern of political, financial and celebrity favoritism that the rank-and-file deputy sheriffs are concerned about." says Steve Remige, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents more than 8,000 deputies. "As an elected official, Sheriff Baca can talk to who he wants and have celebrity friends if he wants. The concern is when these celebrities receive different treatment in the criminal-justice system than the everyday person, and that appears to be the case."

It's undoubtedly been a difficult couple of weeks for Baca, 65, a smooth, personable pol who was born and raised in the City of Angels. The sheriff, who looks like a cross between Rudy Giuliani and the late character actor John McGiver, met Monday with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who's accused Baca of giving Hilton special treatment. Also this week, attorney Gloria Allred announced the filing of a claim against the county on behalf of a black woman whom Allred says had serious medical issues but received much worse treatment than Hilton. Baca's report to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on why he did what he did is due next week.

In a press conference after Hilton was returned to jail, Baca defended his decision to send her home but said he would not try to overrule the judge's decision. "The criminal-justice system should not create a football out of Ms. Hilton's status," the sheriff said. Several legal experts have told NEWSWEEK that while a noncelebrity who committed the same crimes as Hilton in Los Angeles might not have gotten any jail time, or a lighter jail sentence, the sentence imposed on Hilton by Sauer was still within the limits of the law.

Baca told the Los Angeles Times last week that the only celebrity with whom he spends any "great amount" of time is Michael Douglas, adding, "You don't do anything on a golf course except concentrate on hitting a ball." That remark ignores the fact that the golf course is a place where business is often conducted and intimate secrets are sometimes shared.

But Baca's charm can and often does disarm even his detractors. "I will say this for Lee: he really knows how to ingratiate himself with people," says Don Meredith, a lieutenant with the Glendale Police Department who ran a distant second to Baca in last year's election. "Not just celebrities, but everyone. I can't tell you how many people I met during the campaign who have his private contact numbers. He is the king of politicians."

So far, an effort to start a recall petition against the sheriff is languishing. Andrew Ahlering, a former county worker, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors candidate and political gadfly who served his own 23 days in Baca's jail after disrupting a county supervisors' meeting, admits, "I've had some difficulty getting signatures so far. People in Los Angeles just don't like being bothered."