LOS ANGELES — The former second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was convicted today of obstructing a federal probe of misconduct in the county jails.
Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, 57, was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson scheduled sentencing for June 20.
Tanaka, who is the mayor of Gardena, faces up to 15 years in federal prison. U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker declined to say how much prison time she would push for, but said she hoped it would be “considerable.”
Decker said jurors have “spoken loudly, they’ve spoken swiftly,” adding that Tanaka and other top leadership at the department contributed to a culture of lawlessness.
“It was an issue of leadership,” Decker said. “This could have been stopped at any time.”
The panel deliberated for less than three hours over two days before reaching the verdict.
Tanaka declined to comment as he left the courthouse. Defense attorney Jerome Haig said he will appeal.
“The verdict is only another step in the process,” Haig said. “We plan on appealing the eventual sentence in this case, and we’re hopeful that a court of appeals will view the evidence in a way more favorable to Mr. Tanaka.”
Federal prosecutors said Tanaka directed eight co-conspirators in a scheme to thwart a 2011 investigation into allegations of excessive force within the jail system.
“This was Paul Tanaka’s operation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the jury during his closing argument. “He was the director, he was in charge.”
Painting the defendant as a man of “many faces,” Fox said Tanaka worked to “overrule and undermine” the goals of the Sheriff’s Department, acting as the “authority everyone was operating under to engage in this conspiracy.”
The case stemmed from events five years ago when a cellphone was discovered in the hands of an inmate at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies quickly tied the phone 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 the inmate-informant, Anthony Brown, from federal prosecutors, who had issued a writ for his grand jury appearance, prosecutors said.
The charges included a host of “overt acts” — including witness tampering and threatening an FBI case agent with arrest.
A defense attorney, however, argued that much of the prosecution testimony was motivated by jealousy, delivered by retired sheriff’s deputies with personal grudges against Tanaka.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is not a crime to be a strong leader,” defense attorney H. Dean Steward said in his summation. “Paul Tanaka was a pro-active, strong leader. He ruffled some feathers. He’s had some people that don’t like his leadership style and don’t like him. But that’s not a crime.”
Steward told the jury that ex-Sheriff Lee Baca — Tanaka’s boss at the time — “was in control of this entire situation.”
The attorney said it was Baca who demanded that his underlings “make sure that Anthony Brown stay in the jail system,” rather than transfer to state prison, where he was headed in August 2011.
“Baca was the driving force here, with Paul Tanaka trying to help out with bits and pieces” of information, Steward told the panel.
“Baca is pushing everybody — and I mean everybody,” the attorney said, suggesting that if his client believed that the sheriff’s orders were “reasonable and lawful,” then there was no criminal intent on Tanaka’s part.
Without intent, Steward said, “you’re not guilty.”
But in his rebuttal, Fox countered that Baca’s role “has nothing to do with the guilt of Paul Tanaka.”
Baca, the prosecutor continued, “made Paul Tanaka the director of this sad movie.” The defendant chose the players, “wrote the script” and “made sure his presence was felt,” Fox said.
During two days of testimony, Tanaka repeatedly said he could not recall details of his communications with his co-conspirators — all of whom have been convicted. But he was firm on one point — he was acting at the behest of Baca.
However, phone logs focusing on days in August and September of 2011 that were relevant to the case revealed about 70 calls between Tanaka and the alleged co-conspirators, but only one between Tanaka and his then-boss, Fox said.
Baca pleaded guilty in February to a charge of lying to investigators and is awaiting sentencing in May.
George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents deputies, called Tanaka’s conviction the end of “the era of corruption” in the department’s upper management.
“The department can move forward now that the truth about the failed leadership of disgraced former Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka has been revealed through the judicial process,” Hofstetter said. “The Baca-Tanaka era created leadership failures that left the Sheriff’s Department and ALADS members with real scars from rising assaults on deputies, and emotional scars from diminished morale as deputies struggled to perform a dangerous and difficult job under a cloud they didn’t create.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the verdict signals the end of a troubling period within the department.
“I, along with the hard-working men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, respect the jury’s verdict and fully accept and recognize that the justice system holds all of us in public service accountable for our actions,” McDonnell said.
“We look forward to closing this particularly troubling chapter in the Sheriff’s Department’s otherwise long history of providing essential public services in a professional and caring manner,” he said.
“Upon taking office, I made it clear that I expect every member of the department to be held to the highest ethical and professional standards. As we move forward as an organization, we are committed to earning the public’s trust every day by providing the highest quality of service with integrity, respect, and accountability.”