What began more than four years ago as a federal investigation into brutality and corruption by deputies in L.A. County jails reached the highest echelons of the Sheriff's Department on Thursday, with two top officials indicted on charges of orchestrating an elaborate scheme to thwart the FBI.
Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, once the agency's second highest-ranking figure, and a now-retired captain, William “Tom” Carey, are charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for allegedly concealing the whereabouts of an inmate who was working as an FBI informant.
The grand jury indictment, unsealed Thursday, offers a portrait of a department adrift with senior officials responsible for investigating abuses working instead to undermine internal safeguards and ignoring repeated warnings of widespread problems in the nation's largest jail system.
The latest developments left one major question: Will prosecutors bring charges against Tanaka's boss, former Sheriff Lee Baca, who led the department for more than 15 years before stepping down last year?
Acting U.S. Atty. Stephanie Yonekura declined to comment on that possibility. The former sheriff has denied any wrongdoing and previously said federal officials assured him that he is not a target.
In sketching out the case against Tanaka and Carey, prosecutors accused them of directing a group of deputies who were convicted last year of carrying out the plot to impede the FBI investigation.
“This new case illustrates the fact that the leaders who foster and hide the corrupt culture of their organization will be held responsible, just like their subordinates,” Yonekura said
An attorney for Tanaka, H. Dean Steward, called the charges “baseless” and vowed that Tanaka would “aggressively defend” himself in court.
“At all times, Mr. Tanaka dedicated himself to serving the residents of Los Angeles County honorably, ethically and legally,” Steward said. “After all the facts come to light, we are confident he will be exonerated of any wrongdoing.”
Tanaka — who is in his third term as mayor of Gardena and unsuccessfully ran for sheriff last year — and Carey pleaded not guilty at their arraignments Thursday and were released on bail. Carey also faces charges of giving false testimony last year during obstruction trials for some of the deputies. His attorney declined comment.
Tanaka plans to request a leave of absence from his mayoral duties, Gardena's city manager said.
The image of Tanaka standing before a judge marked a decisive new chapter in the sweeping federal investigation into the jail facilities run by the Sheriff's Department. After winning convictions against the lower-ranking deputies, investigators tried to link top officials to the misconduct. Several other deputies are awaiting federal civil rights trials on charges that they beat inmates and visitors to the jails.
The case against Tanaka and Carey centers on events in August and September 2011, when, according to the indictment, the pair instructed several deputies to keep close tabs on Brown, the FBI's inmate informant.
On Aug. 19, Tanaka and Carey met with some of the deputies to hear what information they had extracted from Brown about the scope of the FBI inquiry, the indictment alleges. The indictment does not name Brown, but refers to him by the initials AB.
The following day, prosecutors allege that the same group met again to discuss the fact that a cellphone deputies had confiscated from Brown belonged to the FBI and had been used in a sting operation against a deputy who smuggled it into the jail to Brown.
Days later, Tanaka gathered in a parking lot with deputies who had gone undercover to pose as Brown's cellmates in an attempt to glean information about the FBI's investigation.
Tanaka and Carey also went to great lengths to keep FBI agents from speaking with Brown, the indictment alleges.
In one display of gamesmanship, Tanaka directed underlings to draft a new department policy that required FBI agents to receive approval from him before interviewing any jail inmate, the indictment said. (Tanaka later had his name removed from the draft policy, according to the indictment.)
And, in late August, deputies approached clerks working in the sheriff's records center and said they were acting on orders from Tanaka. They instructed the 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, according to the indictment. The episode 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, the indictment alleges.
Tanaka testified during one of the deputies' corruption trials last year that he did not have a clear memory of many events, but that the inmate was moved under false names for his own safety and to protect the integrity of the Sheriff's Department's investigation into the smuggled phone.
Defense attorneys for the low-ranking sheriff's officials on trial argued that their clients were “worker bees” complying with what they believed were lawful orders. All seven of the defendants brought to trial on obstruction charges last year were convicted and sentenced to prison terms.
At trial, prosecutors probably will have to rely heavily on testimony from those deputies to prove their allegations that Tanaka and Carey played central roles in the attempt to thwart the FBI, said Joseph N. Akrotirianakis, a former member of the U.S. attorney's public corruption unit in Los Angeles.
If the deputies testify in hopes of getting leniency on their prison sentences, it could cause problems for the prosecution as defense attorneys will raise questions about the reliability of the testimony, Akrotirianakis said.
How Baca, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, might factor into the case against Tanaka and Carey remains to be seen.
The former sheriff was not called as a witness in any of the previous trials.
His name is not mentioned among the attendees of the many meetings documented in the indictment. But some defendants in the prior trials testified that Baca led some of those meetings and gave orders.
Tanaka and one of the earlier defendants, Lt. Stephen Leavins, both recalled that Baca convened a meeting in his office on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011, to discuss Brown's smuggled cellphone and where it had come from.
“The sheriff ordered us … to conduct a criminal investigation into the introduction of the cellphone, safeguard Mr. Brown and investigate the matter thoroughly,” Leavins testified at his trial in June. “It was a directive from the sheriff for me to safeguard [Brown], period.”
The indictment against Tanaka and Carey refers to that Saturday meeting. While the indictment does not include Baca's name, the document does refer to “LASD Official A” as being present with the others.
The indictment also alleges that Tanaka and Leavins directed others to search for listening devices in the office and conference rooms belonging to Tanaka and “LASD Official A.” During Leavins' trial last year, a prosecutor asked him about checking for bugs in the offices of Tanaka and Baca.
Leavins testified that Carey, Tanaka and Baca were all involved in the decision to move Brown around. He described a meeting in Tanaka's office with Carey and Baca, at which Baca said to do whatever was needed to safeguard Brown.
“Baca gave the order. He ordered me to relocate Anthony Brown safely and approved that location to be a station jail,” Leavins testified.
And at a Sept. 26 meeting in Tanaka's office, Baca told Leavins and others to approach an FBI agent, Leah Marx, at her home and question her about the cellphone, according to Leavins. Though the indictment accuses Tanaka and Carey of having had a hand in arranging the encounter with Marx, it says nothing about Baca or “LASD Official A.”