Crime & Justice

LA Sheriff scandal: Tanaka says he was following former Sheriff Baca’s orders

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka on the campaign trail in 2014 for Sheriff. He now faces federal charges of obstruction of justice.
Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka on the campaign trail in 2014 for Sheriff. He now faces federal charges of obstruction of justice.
Stuart Palley/ KPCC

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Like the seven deputies convicted before him, former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka will assert what’s known as a “public authority defense” when he goes to trial on federal obstruction of justice charges later this year - claiming he was just following orders - according to a motion filed by his attorney.

“The defendant acted on behalf of order(s) issued by Sheriff Leroy Baca, who was Mr. Tanaka’s ranking superior officer,” the motion states. “Tanaka will assert the defense of actual or believed exercise of public authority.”

The move sets up a possible showdown with his former boss, Leroy Baca, who now may end up being forced to testify. Baca has yet to be called to testify in any of the obstruction cases.

Federal prosecutors have accused the once-powerful Tanaka of orchestrating a scheme to block a federal investigation into brutality by Sheriff’s deputies at the jails by hiding an inmate who was acting as an FBI informant. Tanaka and a confidant, former Sheriff's Capt. Tom Carey, go on trial in November.

Federal prosecutors are asking the judge to prohibit Tanaka from using a public authority defense.

The argument “fails as a matter of law because no agent of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, not even then-Sheriff Leroy Baca, may authorize an individual to commit a federal crime,” states a motion signed by Stephanie Yonekura, who is the acting United States Attorney in Los Angeles.

“Only a federal agent may authorize a violation of federal law,” the motion states.

Seven other former Sheriff’s officials already have been convicted of participating in the elaborate effort to erase the inmate’s name from computer records and hide him in a remote jail facility in San Dimas. They have appealed their convictions.

In the past, Baca has said any movement of the inmate was to protect him from deputies who might retaliate against him for being an FBI informant. The former Sheriff, who abruptly resigned in January of 2014, has denied any wrongdoing.

Federal authorities never ruled out charging Baca with a crime.