LOS ANGELES — The former undersheriff and an ex-sheriff’s captain are facing obstruction of justice charges for allegedly directing efforts to thwart a federal investigation into excessive force and corruption in the county’s jails, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Thursday.
The charges against Paul Tanaka and William “Tom” Carey bring to 22 the number of current or former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials charged in an ongoing federal probe into corruption and civil rights violations by guards at two downtown jail facilities.
“The scheme to obstruct justice rose to the executive level — all the way up to the second-ranking member of the Sheriff’s Department,” Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Yonekura said.
Tanaka — formerly the department’s second in command and the current mayor of Gardena — and Carey, who oversaw an internal sheriff’s criminal investigations unit, entered not guilty pleas Thursday afternoon to charges contained in a five-count indictment returned Wednesday by a federal grand jury.
Seated in a courtroom holding cell alongside a handful of gangland racketeering defendants, Tanaka and Carey rose to respond to U.S. Magistrate Judge Victor B. Kenton’s questions during their post-indictment arraignment in downtown Los Angeles.
“I do, sir,” Tanaka answered, when asked if he understood the charges against him.
Kenton ordered Tanaka released on a $50,000 property bond linked to a Diamond Bar condominium he owns with his wife, a Sheriff’s Department detective.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the judge that a secured bond for Tanaka was warranted because the evidence against him is “somewhat strong” and the potential of a multi-year federal prison term could give the former undersheriff reason to flee.
Carey, who like Tanaka, appeared for the hearing in street clothes, was released on a $100,000 unsecured bond — essentially a promise to show up for all future court dates.
Kenton outlined supervised release conditions for both men, including restricted travel, no contact with potential witnesses, and no access to law enforcement databases or weapons.
A tentative July 7 trial date was set.
H. Dean Steward, one of Tanaka’s attorneys, said his client planned to “aggressively defend” himself in court against “baseless” charges.
“After all the facts come to light, we are confident he will be exonerated of any wrongdoing,” Steward said.
Carey’s lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment.
Tanaka and Carey, both 56, surrendered at the FBI offices in Westwood around dawn.
“As the allegations demonstrate, Tanaka had a large role in institutionalizing certain illegal behavior within the Sheriff’s Department,” Yonekura said at a crowded news conference a few hours later. “This case also illustrates how leaders who foster and then try to hide a corrupt culture, will be held accountable, just like their subordinates.”
Yonekura declined to answer specific questions regarding ex-Sheriff Lee Baca’s possible involvement in the alleged conspiracy.
Tanaka and Carey are charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice, and each is named in one count of obstruction of justice. Carey is charged with two counts of lying on the witness stand last year during the trials of co-conspirators.
Carey was head of the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, tasked to “root out the very corruption” charged in the federal probe, Yonekura said.
Tanaka, who, like Carey, testified for the defense at all three trials thus far in the federal probe, “ran the day-to-day operations” of the Sheriff’s Department, she said.
“They knew there was rampant inmate abuse” and “did not want the FBI and federal investigators to know,” Yonekura alleged.
According to the indictment, the defendants were well aware of “problem deputies” at the jails, but told guards to work in a quasi-legal “gray area.”
Tanaka said he believed the sheriff’s internal affairs unit should be reduced from 45 investigators to just one, according to the indictment.
The defendants’ alleged “criminal conduct” stemmed from a “command climate” that “fostered a gang-like mentality” among some jail guards, said David Bowditch, head of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.
Tanaka and Carey are the eighth and ninth Sheriff’s Department officials to face criminal charges connected to actions taken in August 2011 when inmate-turned-FBI informant Anthony Brown was hidden from his FBI handlers.
Brown was booked and re-booked under a series of false names and eventually told the FBI had abandoned him, prosecutors said.
A half-dozen former department officials — two lieutenants, two sergeants and two deputies — were convicted in 2014 for their roles in the cover-up, and received federal prison sentences ranging from 21 to 41 months.
Stephen Leavins, Gregory Thompson, Scott Craig, Maricela Long, Mickey Manzo and Gerard Smith “endeavored to obstruct justice in a misguided attempt” to protect the Sheriff’s Department from outside scrutiny, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said before sentencing them.
“Blind obedience to a corrupt culture has serious consequences,” the judge said.
All claimed they had been following orders in assisting a legitimate investigation into how and why a cell phone had been smuggled into a jail. But Anderson said an “us-versus-them” mentality had been inculcated into them and into jailers and internal investigators alike.
The FBI was investigating claims of excessive force against inmates by Sheriff’s Department jailers and had intended to have Brown testify to this before a grand jury.
Former deputy James Sexton was separately sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for trying to obstruct the federal probe.
Tanaka, who has been mayor of Gardena since 2005, announced his retirement from the Sheriff’s Department in March 2013. He then ran for the job of sheriff but was defeated decisively by Jim McDonnell, the former police chief in Long Beach.
Brown, a 45-year-old convicted bank robber, recently filed suit against Tanaka, Baca, and the ex-deputies who were convicted of hiding him from federal investigators.
Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said Thursday’s indictment “is a sad, but necessary, reminder of the Sheriff’s Department’s history of condoning violence.”
“While it remains up to a court and a jury to determine Mr. Tanaka’s and Mr. Carey’s innocence or guilt, what is clear is that no one is above the law,” he said. “Both men have done immeasurable harm to the department’s reputation and undermined public trust in the very agents who are supposed to serve and protect the public. The indictments clearly indicate just how much work the Sheriff’s Department has to do to rebuild public’s trust.”