Former L.A. County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka — called the "ringleader" of a plot to thwart a federal investigation into inmate mistreatment in county jails — was sentenced to five years in prison Monday, as well as losing his position as mayor of Gardena.
A jury found Tanaka, 57, guilty of obstruction of justice and conspiracy in April.
“He fostered a culture in the Sheriff’s Department that led to the abuse of untold numbers of prisoners,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker, who oversaw Tanaka’s prosecution. She said her office has closed its investigation into the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department after winning 21 convictions of current or former members of the agency on charges ranging from corruption to inmate abuse.
“We hope this presents a new chapter in the sheriff’s department,” Decker said.
Reporters, civil rights activists, lawmen and women packed Downtown L.A. federal courtroom of District Judge Percy Anderson Monday, interested in seeing would happen to the once powerful Tanaka.
Anderson began his speech gently, recounting how Tanaka grew up in "working class" Gardena, graduated from college with a degree in accounting, and devoted more than three decades to the sheriff's department. But that career turned dark, said Anderson.
As he reached the highest levels of leadership, Tanaka not only failed to reign in bad deputies but "encouraged them to push the legal boundaries" when enforcing the law, the judge said.
That mentality ultimately led to his crimes, Anderson said.
Anderson called the episode, in which Tanaka instructed a group of deputies to hide an inmate working as an FBI informant, a "sorry chapter in the sheriff's department's history."
In sentencing Tanaka, Anderson went above federal guidelines, which call for 41-51 months in prison.
Those guidelines failed to account for the public harm Tanaka did, Anderson said.
Tanaka, who stood rigid, next to his attorneys during Anderson’s statements, did not speak in court nor to reporters clustered outside.
He’s consistently pegged former Sheriff Lee Baca, his former boss, as the true source of any ills in the department.
Baca, who pled guilty to lying to federal investigators, is due for sentencing July 11. Prosecutors have asked for six months in prison.
Tanaka’s attorneys have been livid about Baca potentially receiving such a relatively light sentence.
Dean Steward, Tanaka’s attorney, said the judge “went overboard” in his remarks about the defendant.
“Others have tried to demonize our client and the judge rolled with that,” he said.
Tanaka plans to appeal his conviction and sentence. Steward said the appeal will focus on the fact that Anderson would not grant Baca immunity in order to testify during Tanaka’s trial.
Tanaka is also now out as mayor of Gardena, following his sentencing.
“As of today, he is no longer mayor,” said Gardena City Attorney Peter Wallin.
While Tanaka was previously convicted, under state law, it’s his sentencing that triggers a requirement that he give up any elected office he might hold.
Tanaka was mayor of Gardena for 12 years. The Gardena City Council must appoint a new mayor or call a special election within 60 days.
Many in the audience at the court called Tanaka's sentence just.
Former Sheriff's Commander Ralph Orneles, who retired in January, said Tanaka "poisoned" the organization and "ostracized" good cops.
There are a good number of former sheriff's employees who continue to support Tanaka, but Orneles is not among them.
“I think there is some justice served here today," he said. “I pray and hope that the department moves in the right direction and learns from this."
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the department has improved.
"I do think there's been a tremendous amount of progress, but I still worry that progress is fragile," he said.
Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who directed the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, which issued a scathing report on L.A.’s jails, said a big change has been in personnel.
“Nearly every single individual who was at a high level of management during those years has retired or moved on,” she said.
Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson, who brought her class to watch the spectacle said the judge’s tough penalty and words against Tanaka was an effort to set a precedent.
“He needed to send a message to other people in office — don’t abuse your authority,” Levenson said. “Sentencing this defendant does not cure the problem.”
This story has been updated.