Paul Tanaka

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka leaves the downtown federal courthouse after a jury convicted him on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. (Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times)

Joel Rubin
April 6, 2016

A federal jury on Wednesday convicted former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka of deliberately impeding an FBI investigation, capping a jail abuse and obstruction scandal that reached to the top echelons of the Sheriff’s Department.

Jurors spent less than two hours deliberating before delivering guilty verdicts on one count each of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. Tanaka, who also serves as mayor of Gardena, faces as long as 15 years in federal prison when he is sentenced June 20, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

The conviction marks a dramatic fall that would have seemed impossible not long ago for a man who climbed rapidly through the department’s upper ranks. A tough, overbearing leader who was feared as much as he was respected, Tanaka rose to become Sheriff Lee Baca’s second-in-command, running the department’s day-to-day operations with an iron hand and seeming impunity.

It was also a capstone for the FBI and the U.S. attorneys office, which spent years pursuing obstruction cases against many top sheriff’s officials that arose out of a broader investigation into allegations of brutality and other misconduct by deputies in the department’s jails.

Saying the verdict “closes a chapter” for the Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Atty. Eileen Decker said the jury had sent a clear message that corruption within law enforcement would not be tolerated, “particularly when it comes from the very top of those organizations.”

“In addition, they’ve sent a message that those who are being housed in our jails are entitled to civil rights and it is our job to protect that right,” Decker said. She also credited reformers within the Sheriff’s Department, some of whom, she said, paid a price for speaking out about abuses by jail deputies.

“Today, their work was vindicated,” she said.

The president of the union that represents rank-and-file deputies issued a statement saying that the verdict meant the department could move forward now that the past “failed leadership” had been revealed in the courts.

“With this verdict, the department is rid of the culture that created the corruption,” George Hofstetter said in the statement.

The criminal charges centered on allegations that in 2011 Tanaka orchestrated a scheme to derail the FBI’s jail investigation by intimidating the lead agent in the case, pressuring deputies not to cooperate and concealing the whereabouts of an inmate who was working as a federal informant.

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, right, walks towards his car as members of the press follow. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In all, 10 people have now been convicted or pleaded guilty for their roles in the plan. The group includes Baca, who stepped down two years ago amid the growing scandal and last month admitted to a charge that he lied to federal investigators. Under a deal with prosecutors, Baca will avoid more serious charges and can serve no more than six months in prison.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who has presided over all the obstruction-related cases, must still approve the agreement with Baca. Lower-ranking sheriff’s officials convicted in the obstruction case have been sentenced to years in prison. They remain free while appealing their convictions.

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In the face of what jurors described as overwhelming evidence of his direct involvement, Tanaka made the risky decision to take the stand in his own defense. He tried to convince jurors that it was Baca who, consumed with anger, formulated the department’s response to the FBI and worked directly with subordinates. Tanaka said he was largely unaware of what was unfolding around him.

Jerome Haig, one of Tanaka’s attorneys, reiterated the claim following the verdict, expressing frustration that Anderson had denied repeated requests that Baca be granted immunity in exchange for his testimony. Haig said it was Baca who ordered “all the people below him to do the many, many things that now the jury has stood and convicted Mr. Tanaka of.”

“We think if there is a guilty party, he is the most guilty party,” Haig said.

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