Rafu Wire and Staff Reports
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Aug. 31 upheld the obstruction-of-justice conviction of former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
Tanaka, 59, who also had to step down as mayor of Gardena after 12 years in office, began serving a five-year prison term in January at a minimum-security camp in Colorado.
Paul Tanaka walks into the U.S. District Courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles in 2016. (ABC 7)
During his trial, prosecutors argued that Tanaka led an operation to derail a 2011 FBI investigation into allegations of excessive deputy-on-inmate violence within the county jail system. Tanaka maintained that he didn’t know what was happening and that his then-boss, former Sheriff Lee Baca, was actually giving the orders.
In a four-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — Stephen Reinhardt, Alex Kozinski and Morgan Christen — upheld Tanaka’s conviction for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Tanaka argued that evidence that he was involved in a “deputy clique” or “deputy gang” called the Vikings while stationed at Lynwood denied him a fair trial. During the trial, Tanaka admitted to having a Vikings tattoo on an ankle but denied that there was a clique of violent deputies and said the Viking was merely the “mascot” of the station’s “intramural sporting team.”
The panel rejected the argument that anything involving the Vikings was inadmissible, saying, “Tanaka testified extensively about his commitment to upholding the law and the core values of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He emphasized that he ‘had no tolerance for deputies who wore a badge and violated the law.’ Evidence of his involvement with the Vikings is relevant to assessing the veracity of these statements.”’
Tanaka further argued that it was prejudicial for the government to mention the Vikings in its closing argument. The panel conceded that he had a point, but concluded that it was not enough to affect their ruling: “On the basis of the record in this case, the questions were clearly asked in good faith. The prosecutor’s reference to the Vikings as a gang in the closing argument, however, was error, although not plain error; nor did it amount to a denial of due process.
“Although we find no plain error, we disapprove of the prosecutor’s use of the term ‘deputy gang’ to introduce its closing argument, given that Tanaka did not admit that he was a member of a sheriff’s gang and the prosecution did not offer admissible evidence that such a gang existed.”
The panel also found that “Tanaka did not contemporaneously object to the introduction at trial of evidence of historic civil rights abuses in Los Angeles County jails. Nor does he explain how admission of this evidence ‘affect[ed his]substantial rights’ or ‘seriously affect[ed]the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” We therefore cannot find plain error.
“Tanaka did not demonstrate that Sheriff Baca’s testimony would have ‘directly contradicted’ that of immunized government witness Deputy Mickey Manzo, nor that the denial of immunity would so distort the fact-finding process as to deprive Tanaka of his right to a fair trial.”
Prosecutors showed that Tanaka oversaw a scheme in which deputies threatened an FBI agent with arrest, concealed a jail inmate, Anthony Brown, who was working as a federal informant, and pressured underlings not to cooperate with the investigation.
Tanaka was among 10 former sheriff’s officials, including Baca, convicted in federal court of criminal conduct. His 60-month prison sentence is the longest stretch of any defendant in the Brown case.
The case stemmed from events six years ago when a cellphone was discovered in the hands of an inmate at the Men’s Central Jail. Sheriff’s deputies tied the phone found in Brown’s cell to the FBI, which had been conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.
At that point, sheriff’s officials closed ranks, at the direction of Tanaka, and began an attempt to halt the formerly covert investigation by concealing inmate-informant Brown from federal prosecutors, who had issued a writ for his grand jury appearance.
Defense attorneys contended that much of the prosecution testimony was motivated by jealousy, delivered by retired sheriff’s officials with grudges against Tanaka.
During two days of testimony last year, Tanaka denied remembering details of his communications with his now-convicted colleagues.
In their trial brief, government prosecutors maintained that Tanaka “fostered a culture that led to the significant problems in the Los Angeles County jails.”
Defense attorney H. Dean Steward countered that his client was actually “a fearless executive in the department who fought to weed out problem deputies, not encourage them. The only culture he fostered was excellence and he made daily efforts to accomplish it.”
Baca, 75, was sentenced in May to three years behind bars for his conviction on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements. During Baca’s two trials, prosecutors described the ex-lawman as having given Tanaka, his former right-hand man, the go-ahead to run the multi-part conspiracy.
A motion filed by Baca’s attorneys with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 8 triggered an automatic stay of the sentence. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson on Sept. 6 determined that Baca had not offered any proof that his request to remain free on bond had any purpose beyond simply delaying his prison time. It will be up to a 9th Circuit panel to decide if Baca’s arguments for bond have any merit.