On Wednesday Paul Tanaka, 57, once the second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was found guilty of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. He is the highest-ranking Sheriff’s Department official to have stood trial after nine other department officials have already pleaded guilty or been convicted of corruption in a scheme to disrupt a 2011 federal investigation into civil rights violations in county jails.
Tanaka serves as the mayor of Gardena, elected in to his third term in 2013. He attempted to run for sheriff in 2014 but was defeated by Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) April 6, 2016
Tanaka will be sentenced June 20 by Judge Percy Anderson. He could serve a maximum of 15 years in federal prison.
Today another jury has spoken,” U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said outside the courthouse. “They’ve spoken loudly, they’ve spoken swiftly and they have sent a very clear message that corruption within law enforcement is something that will not be tolerated, particularly when it comes from the very top of those organizations.”
Tanaka was indicted in May for his involvement in a scheme Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox says was known as Operation Pandora’s Box, because Pandora’s Box would have been opened if the FBI was able to collect evidence of mistreatment of county inmates.
As L.A. County undersheriff, Tanaka was accused of overruling and undermining the sheriff’s department in his effort to stop the FBI from investigating the brutality of county deputies. Five years ago a cell phone was discovered at Men’s Central Jail which was tied to the FBI. This tipped off the department that a federal investigation was underway.
Prosecutors charged Tanaka with doing everything possible to obstruct the investigation, including pressuring deputies not to cooperate, hiding the location of an inmate who worked as a federal informant, and intimidating the lead agent on the case.
Former Sheriff Lee Baca, Tanaka’s old boss pleaded guilty in February to lying to federal investigators. Under the conditions of his plea deal, Baca will serve no more than six months.
In a risky move to take the stand himself, Tanaka tried to blame everything on his former boss. While defending himself on the stand over two full days, Tanaka denied involvement and, under the prosecution’s cross-examination, frequently said he could not remember events surrounding the case and conversations he had with co-conspirators.
His attorneys argued that Tanaka was taking what he thought were lawful orders from Baca and pointed to Baca as the mastermind.
An alternate juror said in an interview Wednesday that he did not believe Tanaka couldn’t recall the events surrounding the case.
“I don’t know how that is possible,” Al Shaheen said. “He did not come across as credible.”
The prosecutions, however, presented phone logs from 2011 on key days in the case where Tanaka spoke to co-conspirators 70 times but only once with Baca.
Fox presented the jury with overwhelming evidence, more than a dozen witnesses including former Sheriff’s Department employees, audio and video recordings of Tanaka asking deputies to lie and to operate in “gray areas,” dozens of e-mails and a surveillance video in which two sergeants threatened FBI special agent Leah Marx at her home.
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.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell released the following statement on his Facebook page Wednesday: