Crime & Justice

Former No. 2 at LA Sheriff's Department on trial in jail probe

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
Stuart Palley/ KPCC

Listen to story

00:47
Download this story 0MB

Former L.A. County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, accused of masterminding a plot to thwart a federal investigation into inmate abuse and corruption in L.A.'s county jails, goes on trial Wednesday

The former second-in-command at the sheriff's department has pled not guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

He's the latest in a parade of former sheriff's officials—including former Sheriff Lee Baca—to have their day in court on federal charges stemming from a 2011 probe into the jails.

In some ways, his is the most anticipated prosecution to date.

“Tanaka was viewed by many as one of the precipitating forces behind the lax accountability and the problems that existed within the sheriff’s department,” said former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky.

Krinsky headed the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, a group formed by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to look into allegations of deputy-on-inmate violence in L.A.'s jails. 

“This case, in many ways, will put front and center the conduct and alleged misconduct of someone who very much was at the eye of the hurricane,” she said.

That hurricane was mostly a few-months span in 2011 when a group of deputies discovered that an inmate in Men's Central Jail in Downtown L.A. was working as an FBI informant. The FBI had equipped inmate Anthony Brown with a cell phone to document and report cases of deputy-on-inmate violence in the jail.

When the deputies discovered Brown's connection to federal investigators, they moved him from jail to jail under false names and turned away federal agents who requested to speak with him.

A group of deputies also waited outside the apartment building of a federal agent working the jail probe and threatened her with arrest in an attempt to intimidate her.

Tanaka is accused of knowing about and even ordering some of his underlings' actions. His indictment also claims he was aware of cases of brutality and misconduct within the jails but discouraged further department investigation into the wrongdoing. According to the indictment, Tanaka told supervisors to allow deputies to work within legal “gray areas.”  

Tanaka's attorney declined to comment for this story. 

The trial will begin Wednesday with jury selection.

So far, no one charged in the probe has escaped conviction. 

Former Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators last month. He's scheduled for sentencing in May. 

In addition, seven former sheriff's employees involved in the inmate-hiding plot were convicted of obstruction of justice. Tanaka’s co-defendant, former captain William “Tom” Carey, pleaded guilty in August to lying to investigators.

Tanaka resigned as undersheriff in 2013. He unsuccessfully ran for sheriff in 2014. He is currently the mayor of Gardena.