Ex-LA County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka Convicted in Federal Corruption Trial

The county's ex-undersheriff was accused of directing eight alleged co- conspirators in a scheme to thwart a 2011 investigation into allegations of excessive force within the jail system

The former second-in-command at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was convicted Wednesday of obstruction of justice in his federal corruption trial.

A downtown Los Angeles jury completed about 90 minutes of deliberations Tuesday on its first day of discussions in the Paul Tanaka case. Jurors returned for deliberations Wednesday before court officials said the panel reached guilty verdicts on two counts -- conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice.

The county's ex-undersheriff was accused of directing eight alleged co- conspirators in a scheme to thwart a 2011 investigation into allegations of excessive force within the jail system.

Jurors said the evidence was overwhelming and Tanaka was not believable.

"He was very evasive," said Corinne Zemliak, the jury foreperson. "If you are that big in your department, you know what's going on."

U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said the verdict sends a message.

"Corruption within law enforcement will simply not be tolerated, particularly when it comes from the very top of those organizations," she said.

Tanaka's attorney Jerome Haig said it was former Sheriff Baca who orchestrated the entire episode.

"It was him who ordered the FBI out of the County Jail," Haig said. "We think that he is, if there is a guilty party, the most guilty party."

Sentencing was scheduled for June 20. Tanaka, who also serves at the mayor of Gardena and was handily defeated when he ran for sheriff in the 2014 election, could face up to 15 years in federal prison. He was re-elected to a third four-year term as Gardena's mayor in 2013.

"This was Paul Tanaka's operation," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the panel in his closing argument. "He was the director, he was in charge."

Painting the defendant as a man of "many faces," Fox said Tanaka worked to "overrule and undermine" the goals of the sheriff's department, acting as the "authority everyone was operating under to engage in this conspiracy."

The case stems from events five years ago when a cellphone was discovered in the hands of an inmate at the Men's Central Jail. Sheriff's deputies quickly tied the phone to the FBI, which had been conducting a secret probe of brutality against inmates.

At that point, sheriff's officials "closed ranks" -- allegedly at the direction of Tanaka -- and launched an attempt to halt the formerly covert investigation by concealing the inmate-informant, Anthony Brown, from federal prosecutors, who had issued a writ for his grand jury appearance.

The charges also include a host of "overt acts" -- including allegations of witness tampering and attempting to threaten an FBI case agent with arrest.

The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs called the verdicts an end to an "era of corruption."

"The era of corruption which characterized the upper management in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department has ended with the conviction of former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka," George Hofstetter, President of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said in a statement. "With this verdict, the Department is rid of the culture that created the corruption."

A defense attorney argued that much of the prosecution testimony was motivated by jealousy, delivered by retired sheriff's officials with grudges against Tanaka.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it is not a crime to be a strong leader," defense attorney H. Dean Steward said in his summation. "Paul Tanaka was a pro- active, strong leader. He ruffled some feathers. He's had some people that don't like his leadership style and don't like him. But that's not a crime."

Steward told the jury that ex-sheriff Lee Baca -- Tanaka's boss at the time -- "was in control of this entire situation."

The attorney said it was Baca who demanded that his underlings "make sure that Anthony Brown stay in the jail system," rather than transfer to state prison, where he was headed in August 2011.

"Baca was the driving force here, with Paul Tanaka trying to help out with bits and pieces" of information, Steward told the panel.

"Baca is pushing everybody -- and I mean everybody," the attorney said, suggesting that if his client believed that the sheriff's orders were "reasonable and lawful," then there was no criminal intent on Tanaka's part.

Without intent, Steward said, "you're not guilty."

But in his rebuttal, Fox countered that Baca's role "has nothing to do with the guilt of Paul Tanaka."

Baca, the prosecutor continued, "made Paul Tanaka the director of this sad movie." The defendant chose the players, "wrote the script" and "made sure his presence was felt," Fox said.

In February, Baca pleaded guity to a federal charge of lying to investigators as part of the misconduct probe. The plea deal calls for him to spend no more than six months in prison. 

Sentencing is scheduled for May 16.

During two days of testimony, Tanaka, 57, denied remembering details of his communications with his alleged co-conspirators -- all of whom have been convicted previously in the case.

Phone logs focusing on days in August and September of 2011 that were relevant to the case revealed about 70 calls between Tanaka and the alleged co- conspirators, but only one between Tanaka and his then-boss, Fox said.

NBC4 Wire Services contributed to this report.

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