The former second-in-command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was convicted Wednesday in a corruption probe that brought down his boss and several underlings who tried to thwart a federal investigation into abuses in the nation’s largest jail.
Ex-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka could face up to 15 years in federal prison after being found guilty of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Tanaka, 57, helped orchestrate efforts to hide a jail inmate after deputies discovered he was an FBI informant, prosecutors said. Tanaka, who is also mayor of Gardena, was accused of playing a key role in sending sergeants to intimidate an FBI agent in the case and threaten to have her arrested.
Corruption went all the way to the top of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department. Former Sheriff Lee Baca, who abruptly retired in 2014 after 18 deputies were indicted, pleaded guilty in February to lying to investigators. He faces up to six months in prison when sentenced next month.
The conviction of Tanaka after about two hours of deliberations marks the end of the wide-ranging probe that took agents and prosecutors years to complete, said U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker.
“Today another jury has spoken,” Decker said. “They’ve spoken loudly, they’ve spoken swiftly and they have sent a very clear message that corruption within law enforcement will simply not be tolerated, particularly when it comes from the very top of those organizations.”
Overall, 19 department members have been convicted of federal crimes that include beating inmates, bribery and conspiracy.
What started as an investigation into civil rights abuses of inmates by jail guards grew into a broader corruption probe targeting top brass when deputies found inmate Anthony Brown with a cellphone in 2011. The FBI had the phone smuggled into the jail for Brown to gather evidence of abuse.
Word of the FBI investigation prompted top leaders to launch what they called Operation Pandora’s Box to prevent details of abuses in the department from being revealed. They had Brown shuffled throughout the jail system and had his name changed in computers so the FBI couldn’t find him.
Tanaka testified that Baca was angry at the FBI and choreographed efforts to hamper the federal agents. Tanaka said he was not involved.
Tanaka retired from the department in 2013 and ran unsuccessfully to replace his former boss, losing by a wide margin to Jim McDonnell, who vowed to reform the department.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which tried for years to draw attention to beatings at the jail and was ignored, said the conviction of Tanaka is another step toward reform.
“This conviction is not about one individual or an isolated incident of obstruction of justice by a law enforcement official,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. “Rather, it is about a culture of lawlessness and violence within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that went unchecked if not abetted by the top brass.”