Los Angeles County Sheriff

Victoria Kim and Cindy Chang
July 2, 2014

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was testifying in the case of a deputy charged with obstruction of justice earlier this year when the prosecutor asked if he was familiar with a common investigative tactic: Start with low-level criminals, then go after their bosses.

The judge barred the question, but the implication was clear. While the FBI’s sweeping probe into alleged corruption and brutality at the L.A. County jails had so far only resulted in charges against lower-level officials, investigators were continuing to examine the actions of top sheriff’s brass.

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors won guilty verdicts against six sheriff’s deputies for their roles in a scheme to stymie the investigation and hide an FBI informant to prevent him from talking to agents. The question now is whether prosecutors can leverage those convictions to build cases against Sheriff’s Department leaders.

The defendants insisted they were merely following orders.

With the prospect of spending up to 15 years in prison, legal experts said, some defendants may now want to cooperate with authorities and implicate their superiors in exchange for reduced sentences.

“Now is the prime time for producing … incriminating evidence on higher-ups,” said Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola Law School in New Orleans, where the former mayor was indicted for public corruption three years after the first of his underlings was charged. “That’s the most valuable thing [the defendants] can provide any prosecutor now.”

In order to bring cases against the higher-ups, Ciolino said, prosecutors will need to prove that the top officials had criminal intent rather than simply being present at various meetings.

“The issue boils down to what did they intend, did they intend to be complicit in the conspiracy or did they not?” he said.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors declined to say whether any deals were currently in the works.

Prosecutors have revealed that Tanaka and a captain, William “Tom” Carey, remain under scrutiny in the FBI’s ongoing grand jury investigation. Tanaka, Carey and former Sheriff Lee Baca have all denied any wrongdoing.

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