Paul Tanaka

Paul Tanaka, mayor of Gardena, is seen in 2014. The former Los Angeles County undersheriff is facing trial in federal court on charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Joel Rubin
March 24, 2016

The criminal trial of Paul Tanaka, a once powerful figure in Los Angeles policing, is set to open with the former undersheriff facing charges he deliberately thwarted an FBI investigation into jail abuses.

Tanaka, who served as the second in command to former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, is charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for the role prosecutors say he played in a scheme to conceal the whereabouts of an inmate who was working as a federal informant and intimidate an FBI agent.

The trial is the latest, and likely the last, in a series of high-profile prosecutions stemming from 2011, when sheriff’s officials discovered and objected angrily to a secret FBI probe into the jails. In all, nine members of the department have been convicted or pleaded guilty.

Last month, Baca himself joined the disgraced group when he admitted to lying to FBI agents and prosecutors investigating the beatings of inmates and visitors at the nation’s largest jail system. As part of a plea deal he struck, Baca, who left office two years ago, will avoid being indicted on more serious charges and can be sentenced to no more than six months in prison.

Tanaka, who serves as mayor of Gardena, faces far longer behind bars if he is convicted, but he has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

On Wednesday, the two sides entered U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson’s downtown courtroom and began selecting jurors. Always an arduous process, picking the panel was particularly difficult as many prospective jurors said they could not commit to the trial, which is expected to last three or four weeks.

Jury selection was scheduled to continue Thursday.

In the lead up to trial, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section have portrayed Tanaka in court filings as a malicious leader who, for years, “largely ignored” explicit warnings of abusive deputies beating inmates and “rebuffed and rebuked whistleblowers.”

“Given this background, it sadly is not surprising that, after learning of a federal grand jury investigation into excessive use of force and public corruption in the [Sheriff’s Department], Tanaka closed ranks and conspired to obstruct the investigation,” Brandon Fox, the lead prosecutor in the case, wrote in one filing.

An attorney for Tanaka, H. Dean Steward, called the charges “baseless” when the indictment was announced last year. At trial, Steward and his partner, Jerome Haig, are expected to present Tanaka as a convenient scapegoat who was uninvolved in any efforts to interfere with the FBI.

The allegations against Tanaka, 57, center largely on Anthony Brown, a convicted felon who began working as an FBI informant while he was serving time in the county’s main jail facility.

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