Crime & Justice

Former LA County Undersheriff Tanaka testifies in jail obstruction trial

File: Paul Tanaka, seen here as he prepared to testify in front of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence in 2012.
File: Paul Tanaka, seen here as he prepared to testify in front of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence in 2012.
Bear Guerra/KPCC

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Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, now on trial in federal court in downtown L.A., took the witness stand Friday to deny accusations that he obstructed an FBI investigation into deputy misconduct in the jails.

Tanaka, the former second-in-command, is charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy in a sweeping federal investigation into abuses and corruption in L.A.'s jail system. Federal prosecutors have accused Tanaka of masterminding a plot to thwart the FBI's investigation into the jails — largely by moving a jail information from jail to jail to keep him away from investigators.

They've also accused Tanaka of creating a culture of violence in jails and turning a blind eye to deputy misconduct. Eight former department employees have already been convicted for their roles in the case. Tanaka's ex-boss, former Sheriff Lee Baca, pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and will be sentenced next month.

Tanaka testified for nearly three hours in what was the main event of the day, according to Celeste Fremon of Witness L.A., who's been following the trial. The prosecution rested Friday morning after a week and a half of testimony on Tanaka's alleged crimes.

Tanaka answered questions trying to dismantle the structure of the prosecution's arguments Friday, Fremon said. The judge began to allow cross-examination, but when prosecutor Brandon Fox started to ask about Tanaka's involvement with the deputy gang known as the Vikings, the defense objected. The judge ultimately told everyone to come back Sunday with briefs on why that line of questioning should be allowed.

While the Vikings aren't directly related to this case, Tanaka has allegedly been a member for many years of the deputy gang that made news in the 1990s and was part of a class-action lawsuit, Fremon said. The reason for the question, Fremon said, was that it speaks to what the government is calling the context of Tanaka's alleged style of supervision as undersheriff.

Fremon said that if the line of questioning about the Vikings is allowed into the trial, "[We'll] certainly have a more theatrical trial, and it's been pretty theatrical as it is."

Many say that Tanaka functioned behind the scenes as a "shadow sheriff," Fremon said, with the suggestion that he was in control and willing to push deputies to be aggressive in enforcement. That includes both in the jails and on patrol, as well as potentially even pushing deputies to step over the legal line, Fremon said. The defense appears to have opened up the door for this line of questioning in the way that they defended Tanaka's character, according to Fremon.

This isn't Tanaka's first time on the witness stand. He testified in the trial of a former deputy accused of interfering with the FBI's investigation into deputy misconduct in the jails. However, before he was running for sheriff before and had what seemed to be a bright future, while now he faces up to 15 years in prison, Fremon said. He appeared bright and quick on his feet, but you could see the stress in his face, according to Fremon.

Tanaka said that he wasn't the one who came up with the idea of hiding the witness and that the sheriff was the one obsessed with the operation, but that it was also allegedly for the witness's own safety according to the defense, Fremon said, rather than keeping the witness from federal handlers.