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NAJEE’S NOTES: Tanaka’s conviction is justice served

On April 6, justice was finally served.

A jury convicted former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. Jurors delivered guilty verdicts on one count each of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice.

Tanaka now faces up to 15 years in federal prison when he is sentenced on June 20 by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Over the years, as Tanaka climbed the ranks of the Sheriff’s Department, he built a reputation for being a tough, overbearing leader who inspired equal parts fear and respect.

By the time he retired in 2013 amid a growing scandal, Tanaka was the second-in-command, running the day-to-day operations of the nation’s largest Sheriff’s Department and holding as much or more sway as his boss, Sheriff Lee Baca.

But for the last two weeks in a downtown federal courtroom, Tanaka denied charges that he impeded an FBI investigation, portraying himself in a very different light: as a supervisor who was unaware of what others around him were doing. Which was downright laughable?

Tanaka’s goose was cooked when retired L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca admitted he lied to the FBI in the jail abuse scandal after being confronted with evidence by the federal government.

Tanaka has insisted that it was Baca who formulated the department’s response to the discovery that the FBI was running a secret investigation of the jails. Far from orchestrating an attempt to thwart FBI agents, Tanaka and his attorneys say, he was left out of the loop as Baca, consumed with anger, worked directly with subordinates.

For Tanaka and his legal team to act as if he knew nothing of the cover up, was utterly ridiculous.

Jurors began deliberating April 5 and returned their guilty verdict the following day.

In his closing statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox accused defense attorneys of presenting “totally inconsistent” versions of Tanaka after they urged jurors to see him as both “a strong leader” with a strict, hands-on style of rule and someone who didn’t know what was unfolding around him.

“This was Paul Tanaka’s operation,” Fox said. “He was in charge.”

The criminal charges against Tanaka center on allegations that he led a group of hand-picked subordinates in a scheme to block the FBI investigation by intimidating the lead agent in the case, pressuring deputies not to cooperate and concealing the whereabouts of an inmate who was working as an FBI informant.

The trial marks the last of a string of high-profile prosecutions stemming from two frantic months in 2011, when sheriff’s officials discovered that an inmate in their main jail facility was working as an informant for the FBI. Agents were investigating allegations that sheriff’s officials had done little to clamp down on lawlessness inside the country’s largest jail system, where deputies beat inmates and visitors without cause or consequence.

In all, 10 members of the department have been convicted or have pleaded guilty for playing parts in the scheme to interfere with the federal inquiry, while several others have been convicted for abusing inmates.

Baca was added to the disgraced group last month when he admitted to lying to federal investigators. Under the terms of the deal he struck with prosecutors, Baca, who left office two years ago, will avoid being indicted on more serious charges and can be sentenced to no more than six months in prison.

Judge Anderson, who has handled the various proceedings stemming from the obstruction allegations, must still approve the agreement. Tanaka, who also has served for years as mayor of Gardena, was a deeply polarizing figure in the Sheriff’s Department.

He developed a fiercely loyal following among a segment of the force as Baca promoted him from a mid-level commander to undersheriff in a matter of a few years. By the time the jail scandal came to light, though, he was viewed as someone who had created a fiefdom under Baca that he ran with impunity.

A blue-ribbon panel that investigated the jails and found widespread problems of abuse faulted Baca for allowing his undersheriff to run the jails without effective oversight. Tanaka, they found, “failed to uphold the department’s goals and values.”

In his last plea to jurors April 5, defense attorney H. Dean Steward reiterated the defense’s contention that Baca, furious over what he saw as the FBI’s secretive encroachment into the sheriff’s domain, devised the department’s response. Tanaka, by contrast, didn’t know the extent of the operation and, in any case, acted only to carry out orders from Baca that were lawful, Steward said.

“The driving force behind everything you’ve seen was Leroy Baca, not Paul Tanaka,” Steward told jurors.

Fox countered with a harsh appraisal of the retired undersheriff, calling him a vindictive, morally corrupt manager. Over the course of the trial, Fox told jurors they had seen “the many faces of Paul Tanaka.”

They were the faces, Fox said, of a “man who overruled and undermined the people who sought to reform the Sheriff’s Department,” who had encouraged underlings to work in the murky “gray area” of the law, and who had worked desperately to keep the FBI in the dark.

Fox took jurors through a review of the witnesses and evidence the government used to make its case. He reminded them, for example, of the testimony of Mickey Manzo, a former deputy who was convicted in an earlier trial for his role in obstructing the FBI.

Among other things, Manzo testified about meetings he attended during which Tanaka “was visibly upset” and exploded in profanity-laced rants against the FBI.

“Who do they think they are?” Manzo recounted Tanaka saying of the federal agents.

And Fox reviewed phone records that showed Tanaka was in frequent contact with underlings and Baca as the turf battle with the FBI was unfolding. The prosecutor argued that the records disproved Tanaka’s claim that Baca was handling the details of the plan himself. Fox encouraged jurors to think of the case as a movie and Tanaka as its director.

Steward, he said, was “trying to rewrite the script” with his closing remarks.

How, Fox asked, could Tanaka be the strong, hands-on leader Steward claimed but then ask jurors to believe that he wasn’t aware of what was going on? If Tanaka was the moral leader his attorneys had presented during the trial, the prosecutor argued, he would have stopped underlings from interfering with the FBI and disciplined them.

“The vindictive Paul Tanaka you’ve heard about did none of these things,” Fox said, “because they were doing exactly what he wanted them to do.”

This case has bothered me for a while. Now that it’s over and the corruption that was within the L.A.County jail has been brought to light, I’m hopeful and confident now that we have a new sheriff in charge in Jim McDonnell that law enforcement reform can truly take place.

This year marks the centennial of California’s minimum wage, which at the time assured that workers would be paid at least 16 cents for every hour of labor. It was a landmark guarantee from government to working-class people — wage levels were formally recognized as a concern for state economic growth.

Since 1916 wages have not kept pace with the cost of living, and low-wage workers constitute an ever-increasing share of our workforce. In fact, the purchasing power of low-wage workers peaked in 1968.

The current state minimum wage of $10 per hour means that millions — six million at last count — of Californians are among the working poor, keeping their heads barely above water, financially — despite working longer hours.

Four in 10 Californians live in or near poverty. A mere $400 in weekly gross income makes rent, food, clothing, insurance, medicine and school supplies seem like luxuries.

What makes these realities more challenging is that one-third of low wage earners in California are under 30. Nearly 60 percent are under 40. Many are parents of minor children.

With Gov. Jerry Brown and members of the Legislature taking action to put California on the path to a $15 an hour minimum wage, our elected officials are recognizing their historic obligation to begin building an economy whose foundation is justice. We should all support and foster an economy that rewards hard work with a living wage that works for all Californians.

Congratulations are in order to all of the elected officials who represent our state, city and county, too numerous to mention who voted and advocated for the successful passage of this $15 an hour minimum wage.

Our own homegrown Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas issued the following statement: “My affirmative vote to raise wages for nearly 6 million Californians is decidedly pro-growth and pro-worker. As chair of the California Assembly Committee on Revenue and Taxation, I scrutinize economic policy through the lenses of history, justice and potential for net economic benefit.

“The coming minimum wage increase will give a needed boost to workers in the immediate and has equal importance as an investment in the future purchasing power of consumers.”

Finally, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, who is a rising national star in the Democratic Party and the frontrunner in her race for U.S. Senate, will be the special guest of honor in a campaign fundraiser on her behalf April 10 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Post and Beam, located adjacent to the Crenshaw Mall. It’s featuring an all-star cast of elected officials and community leaders who are all expected to be there in support of Harris.

I’m looking forward to talking politics with Harris and eating the delicious food at Post and Beam. For ticket information, contact Katie Prisco Buxbaum at (516) 557-7135 or Katie@kamalaharris.org.

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