LOS ANGELES – Prosecutors told a jury Thursday that the former second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department managed a plan to derail a federal grand jury investigation of alleged brutality in the county jails, but the defense countered that Paul Tanaka was merely following orders from the then-sheriff and is not guilty of any crime.
Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, 56, of Gardena, is facing trial in Los Angeles federal court on one count each of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. His former boss, former Sheriff Lee Baca, pleaded guilty last month to a charge of lying to investigators and is awaiting sentencing in May.
The case stems from what prosecutors describe as a secret top-level sheriff’s department plan in 2011 to “hide” an inmate-turned-informant from FBI handlers and the grand jury during a time when federal officials were conducting a probe of alleged deputy violence against prisoners.
Anthony 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 said in his opening statement. “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.”
Fox said 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.
However, Jerome Haig, one of Tanaka’s attorneys, told the panel that his client had been ordered by Baca to address the Brown situation by “protecting” the inmate-informer and by “investigating” how the FBI managed to smuggle a cellphone to Brown behind jail walls.
According to Haig, the plan to move Brown throughout the county under a fake booking name and number “was actually set in motion” by Steven Martinez, the FBI’s then-assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles office.
After the cellphone was found, Haig said, Martinez called Baca and suggested he “protect the inmate.”
Tanaka “knew some of what was going on,” Haig told the five-man, seven woman jury.
“It wasn’t his investigation to run,” the defense attorney said, adding that Tanaka never ordered his deputies to threaten the FBI agent or hamper the federal probe.
“The last thing Mr. Tanaka wanted to do was put up a wall so nobody could see what was going on,” Haig said. “He wanted to cooperate.”
Fox portrayed Tanaka’s management style as arrogant, controlling, paranoid and highly ambitious.
“Tanaka stated over and over again ‘F the FBI”,’ Fox said, adding that the now-retired lawman also repeated to his deputies a mantra that “we’re going to make sure the FBI stays out of our jails.”
During three previous trials of deputies in the case, Tanaka testified for the defense, admitting to his knowledge of much of the conduct he is now charged with, Fox said.
“Paul Tanaka tried to cover up the crimes of his deputies — and committed his own in the process,” the federal prosecutor said.
Haig, though, painted Tanaka as a tough, honest, long-serving public servant who “lived by a creed: to honorably perform his duties.”
Tanaka “expected excellence” from his underlings, and didn’t care if he made enemies in the process, Haig said.
“He wasn’t this meglomaniac,” the attorney said. “This wasn’t the Paul Tanaka sheriff’s department.”
At the same time, Tanaka “didn’t think that being a nice guy was in his job description,” Haig said.
Tanaka’s co-counsel, H. Dean Steward, has predicted the proceedings before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson — expected to last about three weeks — would be a “dogfight.”
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 Baca and Tanaka 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 thwart the federal jails probe.
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.
Tanaka — who is on leave as mayor of Gardena — retired from the sheriff’s department in August 2013. 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.
Previous related story: Jury selection underway for Tanaka trial