Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka surrendered Monday to federal authorities in Colorado to begin serving a five-year prison sentence for conspiracy and obstructing an FBI investigation into deputy jail abuses.
Tanaka, who as the second-in-command ran day-to-day operations of the largest sheriff’s department in the nation, began serving his term at a minimum-security camp in Englewood, Colo., said his lawyer, H. Dean Steward.
“Paul is a very stoic guy, and he continues in that vein throughout all of this,” Steward said. “We’re all deeply saddened by it on the defense team, but … he showed up on time as promised.”
Steward said Tanaka’s petition before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is pending and probably won’t be heard until the fall.
“We continue to be really hopeful on that,” the lawyer said.
If Tanaka loses his appeal, he will probably serve about three years and 10 months after good behavior and a stint in a halfway house are considered, Steward said.
A jury last year found that Tanaka played a leading role in a 2011 scheme by sheriff’s officials to interfere with an FBI investigation into inmate abuse and other misconduct by deputies in the county’s jails.
The conviction and sentence completed a remarkable fall for Tanaka — a tough, overbearing leader who ran the department's day-to-day operations and was mayor of Gardena. A deeply polarizing figure in local law enforcement circles, Tanaka earned fierce loyalty from some followers but to many others was the unsettling face of a police agency run amok.
Once seen as then-Sheriff Lee Baca’s heir apparent, Tanaka never recovered from the hit his standing suffered in 2011, when news of an FBI investigation into abuse and corruption in the county jails became public. Despite calls to push him out, Baca initially stood by Tanaka, portraying him as a skilled and valuable bureaucrat.
Baca did end up sidelining Tanaka after a blue-ribbon panel investigated the jails and found a persistent pattern of abuse and faulted the sheriff for allowing his undersheriff to operate without effective oversight. Tanaka, it found, “engaged in conduct that undermined supervision of aggressive deputies and promoted an environment of lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct.”
The undersheriff ultimately stepped down in 2013 and then mounted an unsuccessful campaign to replace Baca as sheriff, losing in a runoff to Jim McDonnell.