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.
See photos of Baca:
"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.
More from AOL.com:
Couple allegedly kept Nigerian woman as slave for 2 years
North Carolina releases results of welfare-applicant drug tests, and barely any came back positiveMichigan officials could get hit with manslaughter charges in Flint water scandal