LOS ANGELES – Jury selection got underway Wednesday in the obstruction of justice trial of the former second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Ex-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, 56, of Gardena, is charged with one count each of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. His former boss, ex-Sheriff Lee Baca, pleaded guilty last month to a charge of lying to investigators and is awaiting sentencing in May.
Jury selection in downtown Los Angeles could take two days, followed by opening statements from attorneys at the end of the week.
Tanaka’s attorney, H. Dean Steward, predicted the proceedings before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson would be a “dogfight.”
Prosecutors contend that Tanaka managed a secret plan in 2011 to “hide” inmate-turned-informant Anthony Brown from FBI handlers and a grand jury during a time when federal officials were conducting a probe of alleged deputy violence against prisoners.
Brown was booked and re-booked under a series of false names, and was eventually told he had been abandoned by the FBI.
Prosecutors said that the alleged conspiracy overseen by Tanaka also included tampering with witnesses, and threatening to arrest a federal agent who had been carrying out her lawful duties.
Eight former sheriff’s department officials — including a captain, two lieutenants and two sergeants — have been convicted for their roles in the cover-up.
All claimed they had been following orders from superiors in assisting a legitimate investigation into how and why a cell phone had been smuggled into the Men’s Central Jail.
Tanaka and retired captain Tom Carey, who headed an internal investigations unit, were charged in May with the alleged attempt to derail the federal jails probe.
In court papers, prosecutors wrote that Tanaka had a history of “closing ranks” to keep hidden problems within the department.
“When concerns about illegal acts by deputies were brought to his attention, Tanaka largely ignored them and he rebuffed and rebuked whistleblowers,” according to federal prosecutors.
“Tanaka went out of his way to disparage the internal bodies charged with rooting out corruption in his ranks, and ignored outside entities warning that the brutality in the jails had become institutionalized,” prosecutors wrote. “Instead, he fostered a corrupt culture within the jails and the department.”
Carey pleaded guilty to a charge of lying on the witness stand during the 2014 trial of former Deputy James Sexton, who was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for trying to obstruct the jails investigation.
In exchange for his plea and cooperation, Carey can expect to receive a reduced prison sentence of not more than 16 months when he goes before Anderson for sentencing in August, according to his plea agreement.
Tanaka — who is on leave as mayor of Gardena — retired from the sheriff’s department in August 2013. He testified for the defense in three trials of former deputies.
The charges against Tanaka and Carey brought to 21 the number of current or former sheriff’s officials charged in an ongoing federal probe into corruption and civil rights violations by guards at two downtown jail facilities.
Baca was the highest-ranking department official to be enveloped in the corruption scandal stemming from violence in the jail system. Baca, 73, retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
The former sheriff is not expected to testify at the Tanaka trial.