LOS ANGELES – Prosecutors in the criminal trial of the once second- highest law enforcement official in Los Angeles County Tuesday played recordings revealing a climate of paranoia among sheriff’s deputies when they discovered that the FBI had launched a probe of the jail system.
Ex-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka “managed” an August 2011 plan to thwart the jails investigation, partly by approving a scheme to “hide” an inmate- turned-informer from officials wanting him to testify before a grand jury, prosecutors allege.
According to tapes played for the Los Angeles federal jury, a group of jail guards, while interviewing informant Anthony Brown, found out that a fellow deputy had smuggled a phone to Brown so the inmate could report incidents of excessive force in real time to FBI agents.
Two days later, FBI agents went to visit Brown at the downtown Men’s Central Jail.
Within 10 minutes, “the door was thrown open and a deputy shouted, ‘This interview is over. Who gave you permission?”‘ testified FBI special agent David Dahle, who was part of the team investigating the jails.
Other deputies then stormed the interview room, grabbed Brown, and took him away, Dahle told the five-man, seven woman jury.
Later that day, sheriff’s deputies again interviewed Brown, telling the inmate that they needed to “protect” him, according to the recordings.
Brown was informed that he would be moved elsewhere so that he could have more privileges and he would be safe, the tape showed.
Brown’s name and booking number soon disappeared from the jail computer system and the inmate was whisked away to outlying facilities so federal investigators could not locate him, prosecutors allege.
Tanaka’s attorneys counter that their client was kept in the dark about details of the plan to keep Brown “safe,” and knew only that then-sheriff Lee Baca had ordered that the informant be “protected” from other inmates and potentially angry jail guards.
Tanaka, 56, of Gardena, is charged with one count each of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. Baca, his former boss, pleaded guilty last month to a charge of lying to investigators and is awaiting sentencing in May.
Brown, the inmate at the center of the case, became an issue for jail guards when an FBI cellphone was found in his possession on Aug. 8, 2011, and sheriff’s officials realized that he was cooperating in a secret federal probe they previously knew nothing about.
“Paul Tanaka had a scandal on his hands,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told jurors in his opening statement last week. “He learned about a federal investigation into the culture of the sheriff’s department — a culture Paul Tanaka created. Instead of squashing the scandal, Mr. Tanaka created a greater one.”
The defense maintains that Tanaka was merely following orders from Baca, who was himself following a directive from the FBI agent in charge of the Los Angeles office to simply “protect” Brown.
Fox contends that Tanaka oversaw a conspiracy that included tampering with witnesses, and threatening to arrest a federal agent who had been carrying out her lawful duties. The trial before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson is expected to last about three weeks.
Tanaka — who is on leave as mayor of Gardena — retired from the sheriff’s department in August 2013.
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