LOS ANGELES – A federal appeals court panel Thursday upheld the obstruction of justice conviction of former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who began serving a five-year prison term in January at a minimum security camp in Colorado.
During his trial, prosecutors argued that Tanaka directed an operation to derail a 2011 FBI investigation into allegations of excessive force within the jail system. Tanaka maintained that his then-boss, former Sheriff Lee Baca, was actually giving the orders and the undersheriff didn’t know what was taking place.
In a four-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Tanaka’s conviction for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The panel rejected his primary contention that he did not receive a fair trial, in part due to the admission of evidence suggesting he was involved in a “deputy gang” called the Lynwood Vikings.
“Tanaka testified extensively about his commitment to upholding the law and the core values of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department,” according to the ruling. “He emphasized that he `had no tolerance for deputies who wore a badge and violated the law.’ Evidence of his involvement with the Vikings is relevant to assessing the veracity of these statements.”
However, the panel determined that although there was no reversible error, “we disapprove of the prosecutor’s use of the term `deputy gang’ to introduce its closing argument, given that Tanaka did not admit that he was a member of a sheriff’s gang and the prosecution did not offer admissible evidence that such a gang existed.”
Prosecutors showed that Tanaka oversaw a scheme in which deputies threatened an FBI agent with arrest, concealed a jail inmate who was working as a federal informant and pressured underlings not to cooperate with the investigation.
Tanaka, 59, of Gardena, was among 10 former sheriff’s officials — including Baca — convicted in Los Angeles federal court of criminal conduct based on the circumstances surrounding the hiding of inmate-informer Anthony Brown, a scheme that also involved witness tampering and the threatened arrest of the FBI agent.
Tanaka’s 60-month prison sentence is the longest stretch of any defendant in the Brown case.
The case stemmed from events six years ago when a cell phone was discovered in the hands of an inmate at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone found in Brown’s cell to the FBI, which had been conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.
At that point, sheriff’s officials closed ranks — at the direction of Tanaka — and began an attempt to halt the formerly covert investigation by concealing inmate-informant Brown from federal prosecutors, who had issued a writ for his grand jury appearance.
The charges included a host of “overt acts” — such as witness tampering and threatening an FBI agent with arrest. Defense attorneys contended that much of the prosecution testimony was motivated by jealousy, delivered by retired sheriff’s officials with grudges against Tanaka.
During two days of testimony last year, Tanaka denied remembering details of his communications with his now-convicted colleagues.
In their trial brief, government prosecutors maintained that Tanaka “fostered a culture that led to the significant problems in the Los Angeles County jails.”
Defense attorney H. Dean Steward countered that his client was actually “a fearless executive in the department who fought to weed out problem deputies, not encourage them. The only culture he fostered was excellence and he made daily efforts to accomplish it.”
Following his conviction, Tanaka was removed as mayor of Gardena, a post he held for 12 years.
Lawyers for Baca are in the midst of attempting to keep the former sheriff free on bond while he appeals his conviction on charges of obstruction of justice and making false statements. A separate panel of the 9th Circuit this week denied Baca’s latest attempt to delay going to prison and the case was returned to the trial court for a ruling.
Baca, 75, was sentenced in May to three years behind bars for his conviction on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements.
During Baca’s two trials, prosecutors described the ex-lawman as having given Tanaka the go-ahead to run the multi-part conspiracy.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for more than 15 years — was first tried in December on obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice counts, and prosecutors had planned a second trial on the false statements count. But a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting the former sheriff, and the judge combined all three counts in the retrial. Baca did not take the stand in either trial.
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