At the opening of Tanaka trial, opposing lawyers paint disparate pictures of the former undersheriff

The criminal trial of Paul Tanaka, a once-powerful figure in Los Angeles County policing, opened Thursday as the former undersheriff faces allegations that 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 to intimidate an FBI agent.

In his opening statement late in the afternoon, Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox described Tanaka to jurors as a conniving leader who for years was well aware that abusive deputies were working in county jails.

Instead of addressing the problem, Fox said, the undersheriff tried to keep federal investigators in the dark about "the culture of the Sheriff's Department that Paul Tanaka fostered and created.... He decided to conceal the crimes of his deputies."

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 inquiry into the jails. In all, nine members of the department have been convicted or have 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 more time behind bars if he is convicted. He has maintained his innocence.

Jerome Haig, one of Tanaka's attorneys, offered jurors an appraisal of Tanaka that contrasted sharply with that given by Fox, presenting the veteran of the Sheriff's Department as a no-nonsense leader who "lived by a creed of integrity."

In his comments, Haig foreshadowed the defense's main goal in the trial: To convince jurors that any efforts to obstruct the FBI were driven by an intense anger Baca felt about the outside investigation and that Tanaka had nothing to hide.

"Lee Baca was mighty upset," Haig said. "The last thing Mr. Tanaka wanted was to put up a big wall so no one could see what was going on."

The dueling portraits came after U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson and the attorneys spent nearly two days in the downtown L.A. courtroom selecting a jury to hear the case. 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.

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.

Prosecutors accuse Tanaka of playing a leading role in orchestrating a plan to keep FBI agents from speaking with Brown after sheriff's officials discovered he was an informant in August 2011.

Fox on Thursday walked jurors through what prosecutors allege were the several steps Tanaka was involved in to keep Brown out of sight. He described an order Tanaka allegedly gave jail staff forbidding agents from talking to Brown and how a furious Tanaka berated several underlings when agents were allowed to see their informant.

And he described how Tanaka allegedly sent deputies to pressure records clerks to falsify entries in the agency's database to show Brown had been released from custody when, in fact, he remained in a jail cell. The episode, prosecutors contend, was part of a broader scheme in which the deputies repeatedly moved Brown among various jail facilities under fake names to conceal his whereabouts from federal authorities.

During testimony at a deputy's earlier obstruction trial, Tanaka said that he did not have a clear memory of many events but that Brown was moved under false names for his own safety and to make sure the Sheriff's Department could properly investigate a cellphone FBI agents had smuggled in to Brown.

Fox also told jurors they would hear evidence of the role Tanaka allegedly played in the decision to send two sheriff's deputies to confront Leah Marx, the lead FBI agent in the case, at her home and question her about the smuggled cellphone.

Marx refused to speak, and one of the deputies threatened her with arrest. When the agent's supervisor called to inquire about the impending arrest, one of the deputies told him, "You're going to have to talk to the undersheriff."

Haig rebuffed the allegations, saying Tanaka was aware only of two broad directives Baca gave his staff: to keep Brown safe and to investigate how the phone had been smuggled into the jail.

Until he retired in 2013, Tanaka was a polarizing figure in the Sheriff's Department. While he enjoyed support from a loyal segment of the force, others saw him as someone who carved out a fiefdom beneath Baca that he ran with impunity.

Twitter: @joelrubin

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 25, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "2 pictures of former sheriff's official at trial - Opposing sides paint him as conniving and as a man of integrity." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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