Paul Tanaka walks into the U.S. District Courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday in this screenshot from ABC7.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California released the following statement on April 6.
Paul Tanaka, who was the second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, was found guilty today of two obstruction-of-justice charges for overseeing efforts to derail a federal investigation into corruption and civil rights violations by sheriff’s deputies at two downtown jail complexes.
After only a few hours of deliberations, a federal jury convicted Tanaka of being the leader of a broad conspiracy to obstruct the federal investigation, a scheme that started when the Sheriff’s Department learned that an inmate at the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) was an FBI informant. Tanaka directed a conspiracy that has previously resulted in the conviction of eight other former LASD deputies.
In addition to the conspiracy count, Tanaka was found guilty of one substantive count of obstructing justice.
Tanaka, 57, faces a statutory maximum sentence of 15 years in federal prison when he is sentenced by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson on June 20.
“Another jury has spoken and sent a clear message that the former leaders of the Sheriff’s Department who abused their positions by encouraging, and then concealing, a corrupt culture must be held accountable,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “Mr. Tanaka joins eight of his former subordinates who have been found guilty of actively working to undermine a federal investigation into illegal conduct at the jails.
“Law enforcement agencies that house inmates, even dangerous ones, must remain steadfast in upholding the law and protecting the civil rights of all of the individuals in their custody. This is required by both the higher standard to which law enforcement is held and their sworn oath to uphold the law.”
Tanaka was the undersheriff – the number two in the LASD – until 2013, and he ran an unsuccessful campaign for sheriff in 2014. As he rose through ranks during a 31-year career with the LASD, Tanaka became well aware of “problem deputies” at the jails, allegations of rampant abuse of inmates and insufficient internal investigations into deputy misconduct. Nevertheless, Tanaka encouraged jail deputies to work in a “gray area,” and he transferred a jail supervisor who sought to implement reforms at the jails, according to the testimony presented during a 10-day trial.
The scheme to disrupt the federal investigation started in August 2011 when unknown deputies recovered a mobile phone from an inmate in MCJ, linked the phone to the FBI, and determined that the inmate was an informant in the FBI’s corruption and civil rights investigation. The phone was given to the inmate as part of an undercover investigation by a corrupt deputy, who subsequently pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge.
In response to the federal investigation, members of the Tanaka-led conspiracy took steps to hide the cooperator from the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, which was attempting to bring the inmate to testify before a federal grand jury. The evidence presented during the trial showed that the deputies altered records to make it appear that the cooperator had been released from jail, when in fact he had been re-booked into custody under a fake name and moved to secure locations. Members of the conspiracy prohibited FBI access to the informant, and then told the cooperator that he had been abandoned by the FBI.
Over the course of several weeks, members of the conspiracy sought an order from a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to compel the FBI to turn over information about its investigation to the LASD. After the judge refused to issue the order because he had no jurisdiction over the federal law enforcement agency – and even though it was clear that the FBI was acting legally – two LASD sergeants confronted the lead FBI agent at her residence in an attempt to intimidate her. The sergeants threatened the agent with arrest and later reiterated this threat to her supervisor, stating that the agent’s arrest was imminent.
Tanaka oversaw co-conspirators who told fellow deputies not to cooperate in the federal investigation. Members of the conspiracy engaged in witness tampering by telling fellow deputies that the FBI would lie, threaten, manipulate and blackmail them to obtain information about the Sheriff’s Department.
“Mr. Tanaka created a culture of corruption seen only in the movies, and certainly nothing that anyone would expect from the nation’s largest sheriff’s department,” said David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “My hope is that this conviction is the last chapter in this case so that the dedicated, law-abiding deputies at the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, as well as the citizens they’re sworn to serve and protect, can move on without distraction.”
Tanaka was indicted last year along with William Thomas Carey, a former LASD captain who headed the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau. Carey pleaded guilty last year and is pending sentencing. Now that Tanaka has been convicted, 10 members of the department – including former Sheriff Leroy Baca – have been convicted in relation to the scheme to obstruct justice.
As a result of the federal investigation into the LASD, another nine deputies who held various ranks have been convicted on charges related to the illegal use of force, illegal firearms and bribery. Two additional deputies are scheduled to go on trial May 3 in a case alleging an illegal use of force at the Twin Towers jail.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell issued the following statement: “Today, the jury rendered its verdict in former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s federal criminal trial. I, along with the hard-working men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, respect the jury’s verdict and fully accept and recognize that the justice system holds all of us in public service accountable for our actions.
“We look forward to closing this particularly troubling chapter in the Sheriff’s Department’s otherwise long history of providing essential public services in a professional and caring manner.
“Upon taking office, I made it clear that I expect every member of the department to be held to the highest ethical and professional standards. As we move forward as an organization, we are committed to earning the public’s trust every day by providing the highest quality of service with integrity, respect, and accountability.”
Tanaka, who is the mayor of Gardena, did not speak to the media after the verdict, but his defense team — who placed much of the blame for the corruption on Baca and unsuccessfully tried to have him called as a witness — said they will appeal.
“The verdict is only another step in the process,” said defense attorney Jerome Haig. “We plan on appealing the eventual sentence in this case, and we’re hopeful that a court of appeals will view the evidence in a way more favorable to Mr. Tanaka.”
“He is disappointed and saddened, and also disappointed for all his supporters and his family,” said defense attorney Jerome Haig. “There is a personal consequence to Mr. Tanaka as a human being, to his family, to his children.”
During the trial, Steward suggested that the retired deputies who testified for the prosecution were motivated by personal grudges against Tanaka: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is not a crime to be a strong leader. Paul Tanaka was a pro-active, strong leader. He ruffled some feathers. He’s had some people that don’t like his leadership style and don’t like him. But that’s not a crime.”
Steward also said that Baca was the “driving force” behind the cover-up, that Tanaka had only “bits and pieces” of information and believed Baca’s orders to be “reasonable and lawful,” and that Tanaka therefore had no criminal intent.
Haig said of Baca, “We think if there is a guilty party, he is the most guilty party.”
Several jurors told The Los Angeles Times after the trial that they had difficulty believing Tanaka’s repeated assertions that he did not know, or could not recall, what was going on around him, since he was responsible for the department’s day-to-day operations and appeared to be a detail-oriented manager.
Defense witnesses who attested to Tanaka’s honesty and character included current LASD Captain Chuck Antuna and Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano.