LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges he sought to obstruct a federal corruption probe that overshadowed the final years of his tenure as chief custodian of the nation's largest county jail system.
Baca, who is 74 and suffers from Alzheimer's disease, was indicted last week on three new criminal charges after he backed out of an earlier plea agreement rather than face a sentence tougher than the six-month term a federal judge rejected as too lenient.
He entered a not guilty plea on Friday to all three new felony charges - obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and lying to federal investigators - and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Federal prosecutors previously had agreed to recommend a prison term of no more than six months in return for Baca's guilty plea to a single count of making a false statement to investigators.
Both prosecutors and defense lawyers cited the retired lawman's recent Alzheimer's diagnosis in their reasoning for seeking a sentence under the original deal that was far less than the maximum five-year penalty.
But in a surprise decision in July, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson refused to approve the agreement, ruling that it understated the seriousness of the offense.
Baca served as the top elected law enforcement official in Los Angeles for 15 years before retiring in January 2014 amid a federal investigation of inmate abuse and other wrongdoing, including cover-up attempts, at two downtown lockups.
(Reporting by Paula Lehman in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Tom Brown)