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Tanaka Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison for Obstructing Federal Investigation

Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka

Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in 2011.

Paul Tanaka, who was the second-in-command of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, was sentenced on June 27 to 60 months in federal prison for his conviction on obstruction of justice charges stemming from him leading the LASD’s efforts to derail a federal investigation into corruption and civil rights violations by sheriff’s deputies at two downtown jail complexes.

Paul Tanaka being interviewed by Time Warner Cable in 2014.

Paul Tanaka being interviewed by Time Warner Cable in 2014.

Tanaka, 57, a resident of Gardena who left the LASD in 2013 when he was the undersheriff, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson. In addition to the five-year prison term, which Tanaka was ordered to begin serving on Aug. 1, Anderson ordered the defendant to pay a $7,500 fine and serve two years of supervised release after prison.

Anderson recounted Tanaka’s career at the LASD, his role in the scheme to obstruct justice, and “the incalculable harm you have caused this community.”

While he was the assistant sheriff in charge of the jails, Tanaka “perpetrated an environment of excessive deputy conduct,” according to Anderson, who said Tanaka’s actions led directly to an increased number of use-of-force incidents against inmates at the jails. The obstruction of justice scheme was designed “to derail the federal grand jury investigation” and constituted “a gross abuse of the public trust.”

A federal jury on April 6 found Tanaka guilty of two felony offenses – conspiring to obstruct justice and a substantive count of obstructing justice. After a 10-day trial, a federal jury deliberated for only a few hours before convicting Tanaka of being the head of a broad conspiracy to obstruct the federal investigation, a scheme that started when the LASD learned that an inmate at the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) was an FBI informant. Tanaka directed a conspiracy that has resulted in the conviction of other former LASD officials who received sentences of up to 41 months in prison.

“Paul Tanaka supervised a scheme to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into corruption and civil rights violations at the jails,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “Mr. Tanaka was the ringleader and the driving force behind a plot that concealed an FBI informant, tampered with witnesses and led to the threatened arrest of an FBI agent for doing nothing more than her job. In addition to being a top law enforcement officer who was personally involved in the obstruction of justice, Mr. Tanaka was responsible for a culture that unfortunately led to the widespread abuse of inmates at the jails that he personally oversaw.”

Defense attorney H. Dean Steward (ABC7)

Defense attorney H. Dean Steward (ABC7)

Tanaka, who was also mayor of Gardena, was the undersheriff – the number 2 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, he became well aware of problems with deputies at the jails, allegations of rampant abuse of inmates and insufficient internal investigations into deputy misconduct, prosecutors said.

“During his time as an executive, defendant threatened to discipline supervisors who frequently referred deputies to Internal Affairs, transferred captains who tried to reduce deputy abuse and break up cliques, instructed deputies to work in the ‘gray area’ of law enforcement, and expressed his desire to gut Internal Affairs,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed with the court. Tanaka’s “actions caused deputies to believe that they could act with impunity, which, unfortunately, they did much too frequently.”

“Mr. Tanaka swore to serve the County of Los Angeles, but disappointed the people through his corrupt actions, as well as many in the department under his command and influence,” said Deirdre Fike, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “As this investigation comes to a close, the department’s law-abiding deputies who serve honorably can put this behind them under new leadership at the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.”

The scheme to disrupt the federal investigation started in August 2011 when 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 and was recently sentenced to federal prison.

U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker

U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker

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 Tanaka’s 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 an LASD patrol station. 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 ordering fellow deputies not to speak to the federal government and telling them that the FBI would lie, threaten, manipulate and blackmail them to obtain information about the Sheriff’s Department.

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.

A total of 10 members of the department – including former Sheriff Leroy Baca – have been convicted in relation to the scheme to obstruct justice. Baca, who pleaded guilty in February pursuant to a plea agreement, is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Anderson on July 11.

As a result of the FBI investigation into the LASD, 21 current or former members of the LASD have been convicted of federal charges. These include the following former members of the LASD:

– Former Sgt. Eric Gonzalez, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for his conviction on civil rights charges related to the beating of a visitor to the Men’s Central Jail;

– Fernando Luviano, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for beating a jail visitor;

– Sussie Ayala, who was sentenced to six years in prison for the beating of a jail visitor;

– Former Lt. Gregory Thompson, who was ordered to serve 37 months in prison for obstructing justice;

– Former Lt. Stephen Leavins, who received a 41-month prison sentence for obstructing justice;

– Gerard Smith, who was ordered to serve 21 months in prison for obstructing justice;

– Mickey Manzo, who received a two-year prison sentence for obstructing justice;

– Former Sgt. Scott Craig, who was sentenced to 33 months for obstructing justice;

– Former Sgt. Maricela Long, who was sentenced to two years in federal prison for obstructing justice;

– James Sexton, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for obstructing justice;

– Joey Aguiar, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for falsifying reports related to a use-of-force incident;

– Mariano Ramirez, who was convicted with Aguiar and was sentenced to 13 months in prison;

– Gilbert Michel, who was sentenced to six months in prison in the bribery case;

– Richard Piquette, who was sentenced on a firearms charge.

Six other defendants, including Baca, are scheduled for sentencing later this year.

The cases against Tanaka and Baca are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon D. Fox, chief of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section; Assistant U.S. Attorney Lizabeth A. Rhodes, chief of the General Crimes Section; and Assistant U.S. Attorney Eddie A. Jauregui of the General Crimes Section.

Dean Steward, one of Tanaka’s defense attorneys, asked for a probationary sentence and urged the judge to consider the community service Tanaka has performed in his three terms as mayor of Gardena. Steward also argued that the true ringleader was Baca and that Tanaka was “unjustly taking the fall.”

The defense has vowed to appeal.

Despite the conviction, Tanaka was allowed to continue serving as mayor until he was sentenced. The City Council has 60 days to decide whether to hold a special election or to appoint a successor to serve the remainder of Tanaka’s term, which ends in March 2017.

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