Crime & Justice

Legal experts: Case against high-ranking LA jail officials could be 'slugfest'

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was indicted on federal conspiracy charges.
Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was indicted on federal conspiracy charges.
Stuart Palley/ KPCC

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Months after seven lower-ranking deputies were convicted of obstructing an FBI investigation into abuse in Los Angeles Jails, the U.S. Attorneys Office in Los Angeles Thursday announced long-awaited charges against top tier officials in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Legal experts said it'll be a tough case.

A grand jury indictment unsealed Thursday shows the evidence against former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and Captain Tom Carey so far is based primarily on testimony of the convicted deputies, corroborated by an email and some phone records, according to Joe Akrotirianakis, a former federal prosecutor who worked in the public corruption unit in L.A. and is now in private practice.

"That is a difficult case for a prosecutor to prove," he said. "Because these people are going to be made to look like they have a real incentive to tell the truth the way the government wants to hear it."

The seven deputies were found guilty by a jury last year of participating in a conspiracy to thwart the federal investigation. They face 21 to 41 months in prison. Tanaka and Carey were both called to testify in their trials.

Akrotirianakis said the delay in charging higher ups is often strategic.

"It's federal prosecutor 101," he said. "Prosecute a lower level person, they don't want to cooperate. Once they're convicted, what are their options? Seek leniency by cooperating against someone else."

Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and current Loyola Law professor, said the pure quantity of witnesses saying the same thing might win over a jury.

"There's safety in numbers," Levenson said. "There's enough corroboration among them and among their communications."

Tanaka's attorney, H. Dean Steward, has a strong track record in federal court, Akrotirianakis said. And so do the prosecutors on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brandon Fox, Elizabeth Rhodes, and Margaret Carter. Carey is represented by former U.S. Atty Tom O'Brien.

"It could be a real slugfest," Akrotirianakis said. 

The next question will be how high up the chain the alleged conspiracy went and whether prosecutors will build a case against former Sheriff Lee Baca, who retired last year under a cloud after the initial indictments.

Akrotirianakis said the U.S. Attorney's Office has shown a willingness to be bold with its indictments against these higher ranking officials. Baca, he said, might be next.

"It wouldn't surprise me if that's the way this goes," he said.

But the public documents so far don't indicate what kind of evidence - if any - would point to his involvement.

"They would need conversations, preferably taped, they would need emails, they would need lies and coverups by Baca," Levenson said. "And they would need some credible witnesses pointing their finger at Baca."