3 days after election, LA sheriff candidate Tanaka is witness in federal misconduct trial

LA sheriff's candidate Paul Tanaka answers questions after testifying in a deputy misconduct trial in federal court.
LA sheriff's candidate Paul Tanaka answers questions after testifying in a deputy misconduct trial in federal court.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Tuesday, Paul Tanaka secured a spot in the November runoff for Los Angeles County sheriff.  Friday, the former undersheriff found himself in a downtown L.A. federal courtroom testifying in the trial of six sheriff's officials accused of criminal misconduct.

Prosecutors accuse the six with obstruction of justice for their role in hiding a federal informant from FBI agents conducting an investigation into inmate abuse inside Men’s Central Jail. Defense attorneys called Tanaka to testify in hopes of showing their clients were merely following orders during the 2011 episode.

During his testimony, Tanaka appeared to walk a fine line between protecting his former colleagues and avoiding self- incrimination. He denied ordering them to hide the informant but also said he agreed with their actions. He said he was afraid other deputies might harm an inmate who was “snitching” for the FBI.

“I had concerns he would be in harm’s way in regard to deputies,” Tanaka said. He said he issued a general order that “nobody better harm a hair on this inmate’s head.”

In a previous trial, Tanaka also has said he was following a general order from then-Sheriff Lee Baca to keep the inmate safe. (A mistrial was declared in that trial, which involved one deputy).

Tanaka also described a tense meeting between Baca and the top federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte. He said Baca told Birotte he was “upset and frustrated” over the FBI’s decision to smuggle a cellular phone to an informant inside the jail.

“He expressed he was not happy with the actions of the FBI and that he intended to conduct an investigation into the actions of the FBI,” Tanaka said.

He said Baca accused the FBI of “committing a crime to investigate a crime.” The judge told the jury to ignore that comment.

Tanaka said Baca did most of the talking during the meeting. He did not describe Birotte’s reaction.

The testimony highlighted the growing tension between the sheriff’s department and federal authorities investigating the action of deputies inside the jails. The investigation led to the indictment of 20 current and former deputies on civil rights and corruption charges, including the six on trial now. All have pleaded not guilty.

Tanaka himself remains a subject of the investigation. Outside court, he said news reporters were unfairly suggesting he would be indicted.

“A ‘subject’ of an investigation is anybody who is at all involved in any part of the process,” Tanaka said. “All the actions I took were lawful.”

He also said the media was paying too much attention to his testimony. “I would rather that you guys look into my qualification and give me a fair shake.”

Tanaka faces Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell in the November runoff election for sheriff. He faces an uphill battle. Tanaka garnered just 15 percent of the vote to McDonnell’s 49 percent.