Crime & Justice

LA jail scandal: Attorneys paint conflicting portraits of former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka

File: Undersherrif Paul Tanaka testifies in front of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence on Friday, July 27, 2012. The commission was formed by the LA County Board of Supervisors to investigate allegations of abuse at county jails.
File: Undersherrif Paul Tanaka testifies in front of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence on Friday, July 27, 2012. The commission was formed by the LA County Board of Supervisors to investigate allegations of abuse at county jails.
Bear Guerra/KPCC

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As prosecutors and defense attorneys took turns describing Paul Tanaka, the former No. 2 at the L.A. County Sheriff's Department in opening statements in the federal case against him Thursday, they sounded like they were talking about different people.

Tanaka is accused of obstruction of justice and conspiracy for allegedly trying to thwart a federal investigation into violence and corruption in L.A.'s county jails. He pleaded not guilty.

While prosecutors described a man blinded by ambition and indifferent to misconduct by his underlings, defense attorneys said the former undersheriff was a "good cop" who "expected excellence" from his deputies. 

The case against him also includes allegations he told deputies to operate in the legal "gray area" when it comes to using force against inmates.  

"He covered up crimes of his deputies and committed his own in the process," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the jury. 

The main allegations center around a 2011 incident in which a group of deputies discovered a jail inmate who was working as an FBI informant. The deputies hid the inmate from the FBI, moving him from jail to jail under assumed names. 

Prosecutors argue they were doing so under Tanaka's orders. 

"He overruled people in the past, he couldn't overrule the FBI, but he could undermine it," Fox told the jury. "He did it by hiding the inmate who had been working as an informant."

Defense Attorney Jerome Haig, however, argued that moving the inmate was for the man's own protection. 

"Nothing uncommon about that," he said. 

So far, seven former members of the sheriff's department have been convicted in the obstruction probe. Two others — former Sheriff Lee Baca and Captain William Kerry — pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of lying to federal investigators. 

Even before his current charges, Tanaka has long been a controversial figure in Los Angeles County. 

“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,”  former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky told KPCC earlier this week. 

Krinsky headed the Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence, a group put together by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to investigate allegations of deputy-on-inmate violence in L.A.'s jails. 

That group's final report found a "culture of violence" in the jails, and a lack of a willingness by department leaders like Baca and Tanaka to hold deputies accountable for misconduct. 

"The troubling role of Undersheriff Tanaka cannot be ignored," the report stated, pointing out that Tanaka "specifically derailed efforts to address excessive force" in Men's Central Jail in downtown L.A. 

Tanaka retired from the department in 2013. He remains the mayor of Gardena.