LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -- Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty on Wednesday to lying to federal investigators who were conducting a corruption and civil rights probe of the nation's largest county jail system.
The felony charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, but a federal judge ordered probation officials to prepare a pre-sentencing report before deciding on Baca's punishment.
Baca's plea makes him the 18th current or former member of the sheriff's department convicted of criminal charges that stem from a long-running federal investigation of inmate abuse and other wrongdoing, including an alleged cover-up, at two downtown Los Angeles lockups.
Baca, 73, served as the top elected law enforcement official in Los Angeles for 15 years before retiring in January 2014 rather than seeking a fifth term as sheriff.
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Former LA county Sheriff Lee Baca pleads guilty to corruption
Former LA County Sheriff pleads guilty to corruption charge
Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca, center, urges Californians not to take out their anger over last week's terrorist attacks on innocent Arab and Muslim Americans, during a news conference Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2001, at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles. Salam Al -Marayati, far left, executive director, and Maher Hathout, far right, senior advisor both with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, second from from right listen. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, right, with case manager Lt. Jim Taylor, talks about the arrest of Patrick Graber, a Swiss national, in a plot to murder the alleged victim in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case, at Sheriff's Headquarters Bureau in Monterey Park, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 18, 2003. Graber had allegedly contacted Bryant's representatives, who then contacted law enforcement. A sting operation was arranged and Graber was arrested in the Los Angeles-area city of El Segundo when he accepted money for the crime. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
FILE - This May 19, 2004 file photo shows Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca during a tour of the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been accused of hiding details of deputy assaults on inmates, but also has had to scrap a questionable program where official-looking badges were given to local civic leaders. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Commander Lee Baca takes questions from the media about a videotaped shooting in Compton, during a news conference, Monday, May 9, 2005, at the Sheriffs headquarters in Los Angeles. A high speed chase ended Monday ended in a barrage of gunfire that injured two men, including the suspect and a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, at podium, and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, right, county and state officials announce the cause and successful conclusion in the investigation into the Corral Fire that raged through Malibu, during a news conference at the Sheriff's Headquarters in Los Angeles Thursday, Dec.13, 2007. Arrest warrants have been issued for five men accused of causing a Malibu fire that destroyed more than 50 homes and caused over $100 million in losses, Sheriff Lee Baca said Thursday.(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, left, appears at a news conference Friday Sept. 17, 2010 in Los Angeles. Sheriff's detectives told reporters Friday that Chinese immigrant Deqiang Song, shown lower right, who is charged with the kidnap and attempted murder of a 21-year-old woman from the Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley, may have been involved other attacks.(AP Photo/Nick Ut)
MONTEREY PARK, CA - APRIL 10, 2013: Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and detectives from the Major Crimes Bureau address a press conference about their year long investigation into a bank heist crew that accessed the roofs of banks with power tools to get into cement vaults. Five men were arrested last Friday in connection with at least three burglaries in Walnut, Diamond Bar and Rowland Heights. Booking photos and recovered evidence pictures are displayed at the press conference. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca shows U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) some of the assault rifles and other illegal automatic weapons his department has seized from civilians, at a news conference in which Baca endorsed Boxer's candidacy for reelection, citing her ongoing support for a federal ban of such weapons, at the Sheriff's Headquarters Bureau in Monterey Park, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
FILE - An Oct. 3, 2012, file photo is of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca at the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. A law enforcement official says the embattled sheriff will announce his retirement Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca at the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca takes questions from the media after the FBI released results of a federal probe, Monday, Dec 9, 2013 at a news conference in Los Angeles. Federal officials say 18 current and former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies saw themselves as being "above the law," engaging in corruption and civil rights abuses that included beating inmates and visitors, falsifying reports, and trying to block an FBI probe of the nation's largest jail system. Sheriff Baca said that he was troubled by the charges and called it a sad day for his department. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2014, file photo, then Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lee Baca speaks to the media in Los Angeles. Baca has agreed to plead guilty to lying to investigators during a federal corruption probe that tainted his career, federal prosecutors said Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (AP Photo, File)
Former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca, left, leaves U.S. Court House building in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. Baca pleaded guilty Wednesday to lying during a federal probe into beatings by deputies and corruption at the jails he ran. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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"Today's charge and plea agreement demonstrate that illegal behavior within the sheriff's department went to the very top of this organization," U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker told a news conference announcing the plea agreement.
Defense lawyer Michael Zweiback said Baca was permitted to remain free without bond after his court appearance because of his cooperation with the legal proceedings surrounding his plea and because he was deemed not to be a flight risk.
Zwieback said Baca, who returned home after Wednesday's hearing, will be required to appear for an interview with federal probation officials in about a month.
Baca joined the Sheriff's Department as a deputy in 1965 and was first elected in 1998 to lead the 10,000-member law enforcement agency that controls the Los Angeles County jail system, which houses an inmate population of about 18,000.
Under the terms of his plea agreement with prosecutors, Baca would serve up to six month in jail, Decker said. But he would be free to withdraw his guilty plea if the judge decides to impose a harsher penalty, in which case prosecutors would seek a federal indictment, she said.