Crime & Justice

US attorney expects 'considerable' jail time for former LA undersheriff found guilty of obstruction, conspiracy

File: Then-Undersherrif Paul Tanaka testifies in front of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence on Friday, July 27, 2012.
File: Then-Undersherrif Paul Tanaka testifies in front of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence on Friday, July 27, 2012.
Bear Guerra/KPCC
File: Then-Undersherrif Paul Tanaka testifies in front of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence on Friday, July 27, 2012.
Paul Tanaka, seen here as he prepared to testify in front of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence in 2012, is a candidate in the race for L.A. County Sheriff.
Bear Guerra/KPCC


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Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka has been found guilty of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice for his involvement in a plot to derail an FBI investigation into the Sheriff's Department, a jury decided Wednesday morning.

Tanaka faces up to 15 years in federal prison when he is sentenced on June 20 by United States District Judge Percy Anderson.

Tanaka was accused of masterminding a plot to derail an FBI investigation into violence and corruption in L.A.’s jails. Prosecutors said he ordered deputies to hide an inmate who was working as an FBI informant so the FBI couldn’t interview him about deputy misconduct or bring him before a Grand Jury investigating jail violence.
 
The verdict brings an end to a long-running federal investigation into corruption and inmate abuse in the country’s largest jail system—and “closes a chapter” for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said during a press conference following the announcement.

That chapter centered on allegations of constitutional violations against inmates and leadership that turned a blind eye.

“We expect that considerable jail time will be involved in this case,”  Decker said.

 

Tanaka, who left the department in 2013, has long been a centerpiece in the scandal. The polarizing figure is considered by some an ambitious, vindictive leader who encouraged violence and prized loyalty over the law.
 
Others say Tanaka was a strong leader who stepped in to guide the department while then-Sheriff Lee Baca became increasingly out-of-touch, more interested in giving speeches than running the jail system.
 
Baca pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators in a plea agreement with prosecutors earlier this year. He faces no more than six months in prison.

Seven lower-ranking Sheriff’s Department officials have also been found guilty of obstruction in the case.

The series of trials served as an illustration of how hard it is to prove allegations of misconduct and excessive force by jailers.
 
In an attempt to establish a lifeline to the world behind bars, the FBI equipped an inmate, Anthony Brown, with a cell phone he could use to gather evidence of inmate beatings and to communicate with federal agents.
 
Ultimately, most of the deputy convictions hinged not on actual instances of inmate abuse, but on the attempted cover-up of misconduct—a two-week period deputies spent shuffling Brown from jail to jail, changing his name, and feeding him McDonald’s to keep him quiet.

“Today another jury has spoken,” Decker said. “They have spent a very clear message that corruption in law enforcement will simply not be tolerated, particularly when it comes from the very top of those organizations.”

Soon after the verdicts became public, George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, issued a statement saying Tanaka's conviction had ended "the era of corruption" which he said characterized the leadership of the Sheriff's Department and led to low morale.

"With this verdict" Hofstetter's statement said, "the department is rid of the culture that created the corruption."

During the ten-day trial, the prosecution and defense painted opposing pictures of Tanaka. In closing arguments on Tuesday, prosecutors called Tanaka "vindictive" and "corrupt," while his defense attorney said he was a strong leader whose many successes made others jealous. He blamed the corruption on then-Sheriff Lee Baca.
 
“Baca was the driving force here," Dean Steward, an attorney for Tanaka said during closing arguments to the jury. "Tanaka was trying to help with a tidbit of information now and then, but Paul Tanaka didn’t want to be involved.”
 
Jerome Haig, another attorney for Tanaka, said Wednesday he was disappointed Baca did not testify in the case.
 
“Certainly Leroy Baca was a glaring presence, but not a presence inside the courtroom,” Haig said. “We would have been happy to have had him come in and testify and I think the jury would have liked to have heard him as well.”
 
Haig said Tanaka plans to appeal the decision.

Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson said she did not expect that Tanaka would get a 15-year sentence. 

“I doubt it will be the maximum, but Judge Percy Anderson is a no-nonsense judge,” Levenson told KPCC's AirTalk. “I think he will look very carefully at these types of charges that involve more than just a conspiracy, but really interfering with an investigation and the justice system.”

During the trial, federal prosecutor Brandon Fox seemed to lay the groundwork for that, saying Tanaka tried to intimidate deputies who accommodated the FBI in its investigation.

“This was Mr. Tanaka’s operation, he was running the show,” Fox said, detailing orders to change Brown’s name in county jail records and to move Brown to a high-security medical ward.

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell issued a statement on Tanaka's conviction:

"Today, the jury rendered its verdict in former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s federal criminal trial.  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.  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.  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."

This story has been updated.