U.S. Attorney - Los Angeles

Acting U.S. Atty. Stephanie Yonekura speaks at a news conference Thursday on the indictment of former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

By Cindy Chang, Joel Rubin and Richard Winton
May 14, 2015

What began more than four years ago as a federal investigation into brutality and corruption by deputies in L.A. County jails reached the highest echelons of the Sheriff’s Department on Thursday, with two top officials indicted on charges of orchestrating an elaborate scheme to thwart the FBI.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, once the agency’s second highest-ranking figure, and a now-retired captain, William “Tom” Carey, are charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for allegedly concealing the whereabouts of an inmate who was working as an FBI informant.

The grand jury indictment, unsealed Thursday, offers a portrait of a department adrift with senior officials responsible for investigating abuses working instead to undermine internal safeguards and ignoring repeated warnings of widespread problems in the nation’s largest jail system.

The latest developments left one major question: Will prosecutors bring charges against Tanaka’s boss, former Sheriff Lee Baca, who led the department for more than 15 years before stepping down last year?

Acting U.S. Atty. Stephanie Yonekura declined to comment on that possibility. The former sheriff has denied any wrongdoing and previously said federal officials assured him that he is not a target.

In sketching out the case against Tanaka and Carey, prosecutors accused them of directing a group of deputies who were convicted last year of carrying out the plot to impede the FBI investigation.

“This new case illustrates the fact that the leaders who foster and hide the corrupt culture of their organization will be held responsible, just like their subordinates,” Yonekura said

An attorney for Tanaka, H. Dean Steward, called the charges “baseless” and vowed that Tanaka would “aggressively defend” himself in court.

“At all times, Mr. Tanaka dedicated himself to serving the residents of Los Angeles County honorably, ethically and legally,” Steward said. “After all the facts come to light, we are confident he will be exonerated of any wrongdoing.”

Tanaka — who is in his third term as mayor of Gardena and unsuccessfully ran for sheriff last year — and Carey pleaded not guilty at their arraignments Thursday and were released on bail. Carey also faces charges of giving false testimony last year during obstruction trials for some of the deputies. His attorney declined comment.

Tanaka plans to request a leave of absence from his mayoral duties, Gardena’s city manager said.

The image of Tanaka standing before a judge marked a decisive new chapter in the sweeping federal investigation into the jail facilities run by the Sheriff’s Department. After winning convictions against the lower-ranking deputies, investigators tried to link top officials to the misconduct. Several other deputies are awaiting federal civil rights trials on charges that they beat inmates and visitors to the jails.

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